Clinical trials really pay off

A new study finds that large-scale human trials of new treatments in medicine have the potential to pay rich dividends-huge economic benefits from improved quality of life.

S. Claiborne Johnston and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco evaluated all 28 trials that the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Md. had ever funded to test the efficacy of new drugs or procedures. They focused on the eight trials for which there were data on a therapy’s use and impact. Adding the ensuing years’ cost of the therapies in this group boosted their cumulative total cost to $3.6 billion.

The estimated return on that investment was an additional 470,000 years of improved quality of life for people receiving these treatments, the neurologists report in the April 22 Lancet. At $40,000 per year of improved quality of life—a low figure for such estimates by economists—net benefits from just eight trials yielded dividends worth more than $15 billion. The researchers note that the cost of all 28 NINDS trials totaled only $335 million.

“I had assumed there would be some benefit, but I was shocked at how great it was,” Johnston says. Indeed, his team found that NINDS’ average investment in a trial “was returned through health benefits within 1.2 years” of its completion.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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