International Clinical Trials Day is celebrated around the world on or near May 20th each year in order to commemorate the day that a Scottish naval surgeon, James Lind, conducted what is often considered the first randomized clinical trial aboard a ship on May 20th, 1747. In 1747, surgeon mate James Lind administered six different methods to attempt to heal sailors that were diagnosed with scurvy, with one of the methods involving oranges and lemons. This method healed the sailors, becoming a breakthrough for an intervention of scurvy, but more importantly demonstrating the potential power of a clinical trial.

Clinical trials are research studies involving patients, which compare a new or different type of treatment with the best treatment currently available (if there is one). Some clinical trials look at possible ways to prevent illnesses, for example by testing new vaccines. No matter how promising a new drug or treatment may appear during tests in a laboratory, it must go through clinical trials before its benefits and risks can really be known. Trials aim to find out if treatments are safe (what side effects they have), and if they work better than the treatment used currently.

The objective of International Clinical Trials Day is not only to celebrate James Lind’s study but also to improve public health awareness on the various challenges confronted by scientists and other professionals when conducting clinical trials, as well as celebrate the patients and professionals that make clinical research possible.

Of course, clinical trials are needed in all forms of medicine – but they have been an essential part of getting HIV treatment to where it is today. As well as developing new drugs, carefully designed and well-executed trials in HIV have, for example, shown that triple therapy was needed; that it is important to start ART as soon as possible after diagnosis, not wait until the CD4 count falls; that having a non-detectable viral load means the risk of onward transmission is effectively zero; that PrEP works…

There is good information about what clinical trials are and how they are done on the MRC CTU website, including some short films (about 4 or 5 minutes each) that are quite watchable and informative:

http://www.ctu.mrc.ac.uk