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Clinical trials aim to advance medical research, help Utah patients

Published: Friday, May 11 2012 7:57 p.m. MDT

Lily Frey, 3, has her oxygen adjusted by her father, Martin, as she is treated for a virus at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City Thursday, May 10, 2012. Lily is involved in a clinical trial.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It used to be that patients with cystic fibrosis couldn't expect to live very long, yet they are now living into their 40s.

Children with leukemia were in the same boat, essentially issued a death sentence with diagnosis. However, the survival rate for a child with leukemia today is greater than 95 percent.

Mental illness is now classified as a disease that can be treated and dealt with, instead of what once was believed by some to be a result of demonic possession. The consequences of smoking tobacco, poor self-esteem and eating too much salt are also more understood, thanks to years and years of research.

Clinical trials have the potential to make a difference in the world of medicine, as they have over time, and Utah is seemingly a hotbed of activity. Since 1999, nearly 1,500 trials have been conducted at research institutions in Salt Lake City alone.

"I don't know how we'd exist without research," said Dr. Michael Spigarelli, director of clinical trials at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "Our modern world wouldn't be here. We'd be stuck in a world of common sayings and have no true data telling us how to do things."

While Spigarelli, a researcher, physician and pharmacologist, may be biased, much of clinical care in general is built upon comprehensive research. And after detailed study and sometimes animal testing, much of that research relies on volunteer participation by humankind.

In addition to traditional procedures, John Bennett has tried multiple interventions in his ongoing treatment of Stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer. He is hoping any one of them will help to slow down the "runaway train" he said is threatening his life.

"I'm still trying to be as active as I can, to fight it, to slow it down and hopefully allow me to enjoy many more months," he said.

Most recently, Bennett, 59, and his wife began participating in a Qigong course offered to prostate cancer survivors at Huntsman. It is an attempt to research how the calming exercise can improve prognosis of the disease.

"If it weren't for all of these extra things I am doing, doctors said that by August or September this year, I wouldn't be here," Bennett said. The Liberty Park tennis instructor said he'd doesn't have all the answers, but he wants to be involved in cutting-edge research to help with all the hard things he and others have to face every day.

In Salt Lake City alone, thousands of clinical trials and studies are being conducted, to improve how medications and procedures are handed down. Each requires specific numbers of local participants to fulfill testing requirements set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In addition to earlier access to promising, new medications, patients who choose to enroll in clinical trials often receive expert medical care through the duration of the study, and "have the satisfaction of knowing that they are playing a role in guiding their health care," said Jeff Trewhitt, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "Patients in clinical trials are making a definite contribution to research."

But companies are routinely having a hard time getting the necessary number of patient participants to further legitimize their studies.

"When biopharmaceutical companies have trouble securing an adequate number of participants for a clinical trial, it slows down drug development and it can even bring it to a temporary halt," Trewhitt said. "That means that patients have to wait longer for treatments they might need."

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