Harvard Men's Health Watch

Looking for a few good men

There are many opportunities to join a clinical trial, and you may be surprised at what you can learn about your health.

You no doubt have seen advertisements asking people to join a clinical trial and thought they don’t apply to you. But perhaps you should reconsider.

“People have a vested interest in the outcome of research trials, since these studies address many issues they want to avoid or better manage, such as cancer, diabetes, blood pressure, and dementia,” says Dr. Howard Sesso, an epidemiologist with the division of preventive medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Older men especially are more likely to suffer from these conditions, and participating in a study offers them an opportunity to try the latest medications, supplements, or procedures.”

How clinical trials work

Researchers find candidates from many sources. Magazine subscriber lists are common, as well as advertisements on websites and in magazines and newspapers. Depending on where the trial takes place—for instance, a university in a highly populated area—and the type of participants they need, researchers also might focus on candidates in a certain locality or state.

If you want to join a clinical trial on your own, ask your doctor or specialist about trials that may be appropriate for your age or health condition. (For example, he or she may be aware of trials looking for cancer subjects or people with high blood pressure.) Another option is the National Library of Medicine, which maintains a current list of public and privately supported clinical trials at www.clinicaltrials.gov. You can search by condition, location, and other criteria. If you’re chosen, you must undergo a screening process for eligibility and complete an informed consent agreement, which is designed to help you understand what to expect as well as the potential risks and benefits.

The study’s structure and your expected level of participation can vary. For example, larger-scale trials of nutritional supplements are often done by mail. You receive the pills, instructions on when to take them—for example, daily for three or six months—and a calendar to record your dosages. “You are only given enough for a specific period of time, so it minimizes the chance of noncompliance that could skew the results,” says Dr. Sesso.

Follow-up questionnaires ask about side effects and other reactions. Blood samples are collected either from your health care provider or a research organization working with the trial to verify you took the interventions as required.

What’s in it for you?

Besides helping with the greater good, participation offers the chance to explore a treatment or therapy before it is widely available or affordable. However, whether you get that intervention is out of your control.

“You typically have a 50% chance of actually getting an intervention, since you may be placed in the control group,” says Dr. Sesso.

Even if you end up as part of the treatment group and don’t experience any improvements, the outcome still provides important information. Plus, the extra medical attention you receive during the trial may be beneficial, since any changes in your health are more likely to be noticed.

Participation requires commitment. Depending on the study’s length, you may have to stick with it for a long time—several months or even years—and there can be unforeseen side effects that can range from unpleasant to serious.

A study also may require clinic visits and invasive diagnostic procedures. (Although most studies don’t pay, you may receive compensation like money or gift cards if visits or procedures are needed.)

Who are clinical trial researchers looking for? People just like you.

“Most participants are healthy and want to stay that way, so they are interested in anything that may enhance their overall well-being,” says Dr. Sesso. “They are motivated to be a part of something bigger that may help themselves and also their peers now and down the road.”

Participate in COSMOS

Researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle are conducting the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) to test whether taking a cocoa extract supplement and a multivitamin daily can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cancer.

If you’re 60 or older, have not previously had a heart attack or stroke, and have not been diagnosed with cancer (other than skin cancer) within the past two years, you may be eligible to participate in COSMOS.

If you participate, you will take three pills each day for four years—two capsules containing cocoa extract or placebo, and one tablet containing a multivitamin or placebo. To enter, visit www.cosmostrial.org, call 800-633-6913, or email cosmostrial@partners.org.

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