Today, nearly 4,000 experimental drugs and interventions are in active clinical trials. Powered by a productive medical innovation engine that is fueled by improvements in detecting disease and by new understanding about the root cause of acute and chronic illnesses and how to treat them, the number of promising new drugs and therapies continues to grow.

But the success of these innovations — ultimately measured by improvements in the quality of patients’ lives and by the availability of new treatments and cures for unmet medical needs — is also fueled by the millions of people who participate in clinical trials each year. We call these brave individuals medical heroes and they can be found everywhere.

The brave volunteers

Medical heroes are mothers and fathers, siblings, children, friends, colleagues and ordinary people who have chosen to give the extraordinary gift of participation in clinical research. Their decision to participate is a selfless act, an altruistic gift. For while this act always carries risk it is likely that it will bring no direct personal benefit.

It is true that participation may bring hope to patients and their loved ones. But ultimately future generations are the direct recipients of the gift of participation. Medical heroes — through their participation and partnership with the clinical research enterprise — profoundly contribute to society’s collective knowledge about the nature of disease, its progression and how and how not to treat it.

“This rush to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of clinical trials invariably feels like an overwhelming and confusing undertaking.”

What are clinical trials?

For the vast majority of people, the idea of clinical trials is an unfamiliar concept. Most people stumble upon clinical trials when faced with the sudden and often unexpected prospect of a serious and debilitating illness for which no medication is available or adequate.

Typically patients, their families, friends and their health care providers must gather information quickly to make decisions about whether to participate. This rush to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of clinical trials invariably feels like an overwhelming and confusing undertaking.

Spreading the word

Organizations have been founded to provide outreach and education to those individuals and their support network considering participation in clinical trials. Nonprofits are focusing energy and resources on raising general awareness, on educating patients and the public and on enhancing study volunteer experiences during and after clinical trial participation.

This is part of an ongoing effort to raise public awareness about the importance of clinical research and to increase public recognition of the millions of study volunteers and clinical research professionals who, together, help advance medical knowledge.

At the very heart of a robust and exciting period of promising, life-saving and life-altering research activity are medical heroes to whom we owe our deepest appreciation for the profound gift of their participation.