Clinical drug trials: The strange world of human guinea pigs

Before pharmaceuticals find their way to your medicine chest, they are subjected to batteries of tests for safety and efficacy. Those tests begin with animals, but eventually scientists need to try out the drugs on people.

Sometimes things go awry.

A volunteer receives a trial Ebola vaccine at the Centre for Clinical Vaccinology and Tropical Medicine in Oxford, southern England on January 16, 2015. (Eddie Keogh/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode53:28

These days, the work of clinical testing is normally handled by private outfits called contract research organizations, or CROs. This is meant to keep the testing at arm's-length from the pharma companies that actually create the drugs. It also lets drug companies off the hook from the messy business of working with human test subjects.

When things so sideways in these trails, it can turn out really badly. - Host Geoff Turner 

In most cases, phase 1 drugs have already been tested on animals. The animal phase helps scientists calculate appropriate doses for people.

The testing usually happens in a controlled setting — a clinic or hospital where the volunteers can be carefully monitored. The term for this work is pharmacovigilance, which basically means being on guard for adverse drug reactions or unintended effects.

For the vast majority of people who take part in trials, everything turns out fine in the end. But sometimes things go awry. 

In this episode of On Drugs, we'll find out just how wrong testing new drugs can go. 

  • Host Geoff Turner tells about his own experience in a clinical trial