Sarah Tremethick, Research Manager, Human Neurotransmitters Laboratory, Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute

Working in clinical trials means that every day brings a new set of challenges and a sense of achievement. It is highly rewarding to see ideas transition into study designs, industry standards, results and benefits for patients.

The World Health Organization predicts that depression and cardiovascular disease will be the top two leading causes of disease burden by 2030. Furthermore, patients with major depressive disorder are at an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease. This elevated risk is independent of classical risk factors such as smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. The work that I’m currently involved with focuses on understanding the link between these two diseases with the goal of improving treatment and ultimately driving prevention.

Through clinical trials, patients have the chance to trial innovative interventions. They experience quality care because of strict protocol guidelines, and may have extensive review with clinicians who are experts in their field that patients would not normally be able to access due to extensive waiting lists or prohibitive fees. These can be highly attractive options to patients, particularly since they’re provided at no cost.

Clinical trials can also provide a sense of altruism for participants who are motivated to advance discoveries and help others. This can be especially attractive to patients at end of life who have exhausted all approved treatment options. Clinical trials can provide hope for these patients, their family and friends.

Many participants in our clinical trials report mood and quality of life improvements — it’s always wonderful to hear their personal success stories about relationships, career, general health and wellbeing. For some, the experience has been so overwhelmingly positive that they’ve shared their stories with media and patient support groups. Their comments remind us of the importance of clinical trials: ‘It’s been the most fantastic experience. I’ve never before had six steady, reasonable, happy months. I can really appreciate things around me — my kids, my grandkids.’

Clinical trials form the basis of evidence-based medicine, and also offer a boost to the health system by providing treatment to patients without impacting the public health budget. Clinical trials create a culture of innovation, learning and development, and have the potential to mitigate the brain-drain of Australian scientists overseas. Additionally, they serve as a mechanism to boost the overall economy by attracting international companies and investors. A report by Access Economics, Exceptional returns: the value of investing in health R&D in Australia, predicted that health research and development provides returns to Australia of 117%, exceeded only by the mining and wholesale/retail sectors.

My advice to a potential clinical trial participant would mimic what I recently told my mum: ‘A clinical trial is a great way to take a more active role in your own healthcare. Get clear on what’s involved, keep communication channels open and remember that there’s never a stupid question.’ Clinical trials are about teamwork and patients are an integral part of the team working together to improve scientific knowledge, treatment options and clinical outcomes.