Research updates
Phase III clinical trials   page 1
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1. Introduction Link to the Medical Research Council web site
The Medical Research Council (MRC) aims to improve health by promoting research into all areas of medical and related science. It has pioneered research ranging from the elucidation of the structure of DNA to the link between smoking and cancer. Clinical trials are an important step in translating such discoveries into improvements in healthcare. They are planned investigations involving people, which are usually designed to test new treatments.



Clinical trials follow the principles you meet in school or college when you carry out a scientific investigation. This Research Update will give an overview of the elements of a well-designed clinical trial. It will describe some of the work going on at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit (CTU) in London. The CTU, under the direction of Professor Janet Darbyshire (Figure 1), conducts trials in cancer, HIV and other diseases. It also carries out research on the design and practice of trials.

A clinical trial is a form of investigation involving people who take part after giving their informed consent. This description may make people uneasy. They can however be reassured because, to be included in a trial, a treatment must have a good chance of being equal to, or better than, the standard treatment if there is one. The purpose of the trial is to evaluate as accurately as possible the real benefits and risks of a potentially valuable new treatment.

When they are invited to take part in a trial people have a chance to contribute to medical progress. However, sometimes it can still be difficult to recruit people. One problem is that people are often faced with making a decision about whether to join a trial when they are also trying to come to terms with a serious illness. Better public education can help make this easier for people.

Photo of janet Darbyshire Figure 1. Professor Janet Darbyshire, who directs the MRC Clinical Trials Unit in London says:

‘When people are asked to take part in a trial they often find it difficult to decide, in part because the concept of trials is not well understood. Better public education can help make the decision easier.’

This update was written by Janet Taylor (science teacher) and Matthew Sydes (Medical Statistician in the Cancer Division of the MRC Clinical Trials Unit). The authors would like to thank Sarah Walker of the HIV division for her advice and Professor Janet Darbyshire, Director of the MRC Clinical Trials Unit, for her guidance and support.

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