As a second-year gastroenterology fellow, I designed a prospective, double-blind randomized, controlled trial for vitamin D repletion in patients with Crohn’s disease at a referral inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) center. I had the support of a dedicated research team, several mentors, and a 2-year time frame in which to complete this study. Intellectually curious and academically eager, I labored over a grant application that I did not receive. Under generous financial support from my department, I forged on and opened the trial for enrollment at the start of my advanced IBD fellowship year. However, we experienced recruitment challenges that ultimately led to the study’s premature termination. Through this journey, I gained invaluable experience that will continue to serve me – and, I hope, the reader – as I progress in my career. Below are some important insights gleaned from this experience that may benefit others interested in clinical trial design.
Know your “why” (personally and clinically)
Asked to reflect on their career path, experts tend to recount their “being in the right place at the right time” and having “good mentors.” While luck and good mentorship are necessary, I propose that doing your homework is equally as important. Before ambling down the path of an investigator-led trial, I urge a hard pause to reflect on your “why.” The personal “why” of “getting into fellowship,” “advancement in the department,” or “learning more about the principles of research,” are all valid. But I suggest a deeper dive is in order. Successful clinical trials require resources, a substantial time commitment, lots of sweat and maybe a few tears. In the ideal setting, your trial experience will serve as the foundation for a compelling personal narrative and might help launch a productive clinical research career. With stakes that high, asking the tough questions is critical.
The clinical “why” is just as critical. We press our attendings on why they used this drug or that clip, so don’t be afraid to ask whether this is a space in which others have succeeded. Or conversely, why is there such a large gap in the literature? I remember emailing the world’s expert about my topic because the published data were so murky. He had more questions than answers which, in retrospect, should have raised red flags about the ability to design a sound study. It is equally important to determine if patients are vested in the research question. A successful clinical trial hinges on subject participation, often outside their clinic visit. Patients with complex chronic diseases spend a lot of time navigating the health care system. Participating in a clinical trial needs to be meaningful to them if you want your patients to fully engage. Thoughtfully answering these questions on the front end – for yourself and the study in question – will improve both your experience and the ultimate outcome exponentially.