Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ethics and the global registry of clinical trials

We do not really know how many clinical trials are taking place in Africa. In fact, we don't know -- and have not known ever -- how many clinical trials are taking place around the globe. And, a fortiori, we don't have much of a grip on what kinds of research questions are being tackled in such trials, and when such trials are concluded, there is often (at best) only piecemeal and partial reporting of their outcomes. The spread of clinical trials around the world has not made information about them much more available.

Why does this information matter? Knowing about what trials are already ongoing would prevent duplication and waste, and would let patients and doctors know what is in the pipeline. It would help Ministries of Health and scientific institutions define research priorities, and would assist in focusing the efforts of regulators, including those charged with the protection of human participants in trials. Those thinking of participating in trials would also be better informed about 'what is out there'. It would also allow us to learn about negative results, which tend to be underreported or selectively reported. And it would be interesting to know how much (or how little) of the global research endeavor is devoted to diseases and conditions that disproportionally affect developing countries. However, the pharmaceutical industry for their part has traditionally been reluctant to share information about their activities, not necessarily because they have skeletons in their closets (though they might), but because they feel that greater transparency might reveal too much to their competitors, and result in the sacrifice of their competitive edge.

The World Health Organization, back in 2004, launched an initiative to create a global database of clinical trials, called the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform, ICTRP. The moral philosophy behind the initiative is that information generated by clinical trials conducted worldwide constitutes a 'public good' that must be shared to improve health. But if the carrot of 'doing good' is not enough to motivate agencies to register their trials, there is always the stick: the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has a policy that if there is an intention to publish trial results in any of its 11 member journals, the trial (including Phase 1 trials) must be registered with the ICTRP. And these are real journals like the Lancet or the New England Journal of Medicine, the kind that get you tenure or help you market your drug.

This week the global registry grew an African wing. The Pan-African Clinical Trials Registry (or PACTR) has been accepted as the first World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed trials registry in Africa. This registry will channel data into the ICTRP, and therefore we will come to know more about Africa-based clinical trial activities. It will be interesting to see what's cooking once the lid is taken off and we are allowed to peer in.

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