When you google clinical trials today it brings up images of clinical settings, white coats and test tubes. But the first clinical trial was a very different experience.
In the 18th century, scurvy was a common occurrence for sailors. Scurvy is a disease that causes gum disease, bleeding from the skin, weakness and fatigue. Its impact on the sailors out at sea for long periods of time was often more dangerous, and fatal, than combat. We know now that it is caused by a lack of vitamin C, but this discovery was a result of the very first clinical trial.
James Lind, born 4 October 1716
James Lind was a Scottish physician, born 300 years ago this week, who became a surgeon's mate in the Royal Navy. While at sea, on the HMS Salisbury, Lind observed 12 men with scurvy and provided them with different remedies and treatments. These varied from sea-water to vinegar, from cider to oranges and lemons. He observed that those taking the latter were the ones who recovered. This first controlled clinical trial began a wave of developments and almost three centuries later we are still benefiting from the curious mind of James Lind.
Clinical trials have naturally become more complex in how they are developed and conducted. Regulations are much more stringent to ensure that they run in an ethical manner and protect the interests and safety of the patients and volunteers taking part. The types of clinical trials are also getting more complicated – we're now discovering medicines that not only target a disease but a certain group of patients with that disease.
Although these studies today look very different, researchers and scientists continue to question and assess what treatments work. As it was with James Lind, we focus on what medicines and care provide the best benefits to patients to help them recover and return to healthy, active lives. Thanks to his innovative thinking, we all now benefit from using scientific methods to investigate new medicines to treat diseases and make a difference to the lives of patients throughout the world.