Volunteers for clinical trials are essential -- when they enroll for the right reasons

Stories about clinical drug trials pop up regularly in the news. Sometimes, that news is good because a novel drug proves itself to be a promising improvement over existing treatments, or even better when it represents a breakthrough against a previously untreatable disease. Of course, drug trials also make news when their results are disappointing, or worse, when the drug turns out to be harmful or potentially harmful to patients.

The latter happened again most recently on Oct. 9, when Pfizer Inc. (PFE) said it halted patient enrollments in a late-stage lung- cancer trial for safety reasons, as the accompanying news story recounts.

But what exactly are clinical trials, and how do they work? Bascially, they're studies in which people volunteer to have new drugs or procedures tested on them. Researchers then closely monitor the trials to learn whether a new treatment works and is safe for people. Sounds scary? It shouldn't be. There are definite risks, but the benefits to society are immeasurable.