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NIDA. (2011, May 26). What is a Clinical Trial?. Retrieved from

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Sarah, NIDA Intern
May 26 2011
Sarah, a NIDA Summer Intern

My name is Sarah and before my high school senior year, I spent a summer at NIDA as an intern with the Center for Clinical Trials Network (CCTN). Never heard of it? Neither had I. I discovered that the goal of the CCTN is to improve the quality of drug abuse treatment throughout the whole country by doing safe and interesting scientific studies with humans. By the way, human studies are called “Clinical Trials.” These are trials or tests done to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of different medications or approaches by monitoring their effects on large groups of people, like a big “clinic” full of patients, but in a research setting.

As the name implies, the CCTN works as a network that includes scientific investigators all over the country. These investigators work together to develop and carry out clinical trials to evaluate behavioral and medical treatments for drug addiction, and to discover new ways to make existing treatments more effective.

So what did I learn about clinical trials? Clinical trials provide the best standard for demonstrating that a certain behavioral treatment or medicine really works and is also safe for humans. In the area of drug addiction, there is a great need for safe and effective treatments that are tailored to the specific addiction, such as heroin, cocaine, or marijuana.

I also learned that drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition. It may be easy to break one cycle of addiction, but it is very difficult to keep the patient from falling into another. One analogy is to think about the obese patient who can lose weight in the short run, but over time experiences many cycles of weight loss and gain, without really achieving an ideal body weight.

In a similar way, the addicted patient will receive successful treatment to break the addiction, but will continue to have cycles of relapse, requiring further treatments. The addicted patient might have a relapse towards the initial drug, but it can also be for a new substance or a combination of substances (e.g. initial addiction to marijuana, then addiction to opiates, then addiction to opiates and prescription drugs). Thus I discovered the true goal of the CCTN is to promote the development of treatments, or a combination of treatments, that will not only treat the addiction, but will also prevent future relapses.

More on clinical trials

While clinical trials are a way to develop new treatments and advance the scientific and clinical knowledge base from humans who volunteer to participate, I also learned that the volunteers themselves can benefit from their participation in clinical trials. For example, patients with difficult diseases like cancer can participate in a clinical trial in hopes of finding a cure, or at least a more effective treatment.

For more information on clinical trials, NIH maintains a clinical trials registry known as, which contains information on trials supported by federal funds. There you can find information about a trial's purpose, who may participate, locations, and more.