Clinical Trial Ethics

Many people are reluctant to participate in clinical trials because they feel a sense of distaste for the idea of being experimented on, for being treated as if they were human guinea pigs. You’ve probably heard about the horrific medical experiments that were conducted on unwilling participants in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.1 You may also have heard about the shameful Tuskegee experiment, in which 400 African-American men with syphilis were left untreated for decades–even after a cure for syphilis became available–so that scientists could study the natural course of the disease.2 Those historical incidents along with several others–not to mention uncounted numbers of mad-scientist movies–have made many people wary of participating in clinical trials.

Fortunately it’s extremely rare these days for research subjects to be treated badly. Those past abuses have led to the development of strict ethical codes for the conduct of clinical trials. Since the mid-1960s participants in clinical trials have been the beneficiaries of strong ethical, legal, and procedural protections.