Could Virtual Clinical Trials Become a Reality for MS?

If you’re one of the millions of people addicted to Pokémon Go, then may already be familiar with virtual reality. But capturing monsters in your local park is only one application of this incredible technology which is also revolutionizing drug research and development. Here’s how.

Once a pharmaceutical compound has shown itself to be promising in the lab, the next step is to test it out on people who have the condition it’s been designed to treat. Clinical trials are usually conducted in three phases before regulatory agencies consider a drug safe and effective . Phase I trials tend to be carried out on just a handful of people to test safety. Phase II trials are larger and designed to shed light on the drug’s safety and efficacy. All being well, a phase III trial is carried out on a much bigger scale, often comparing the new drug with a standard treatment, as well as helping to determine the optimum dosing . All of which makes sense – doctors need to be 100% sure that a drug is safe and effective before they can prescribe it.

The High Cost of Drug Research and Development

The problem is this process can take a long time ¬– up to 12 years in some cases ! Trials can also cost millions to set up. Recruiting suitable subjects is expensive and time consuming. Then there’s the various overheads of the clinics involved, the time of the medical staff required to supervise the trial, analyse the data and write up the findings…

All that and the drug might not even prove to be effective enough! In America, it’s estimated that just 1 out of every 10 drugs that undergo clinical trials are granted approval . In fact, the number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on research and development has roughly halved every 9 years since 1950 .

Shortening the drug pipeline

In a bid to streamline the process, scientists are increasingly looking at high-tech ways to conduct research remotely . Using software packages that allow patients to record and upload their own data would in theory cut out the costs of travel, clinics, and staff required to monitor patients and capture data throughout the study .

Patient participation

But the benefits extend beyond time and money. Patients who might otherwise be unable to take part in trials because they’d struggle to get to a hospital, could happily participate in research conducted remotely . This makes it easier to recruit larger numbers of people, and ensure those who do take part characterize a more realistic representation of the patient group the drug is designed to treat. There’s also the fact that involving patients in the research process early on means they get the opportunity to report back on the parameters that matter to them most.

And guess what, it’s already happening! The first ever virtual clinical trial began in 2011, with the “Research On Electronic Monitoring of Overactive Bladder Treatment Experience” (REMOTE) study . More recently, another company announced a virtual trial of a wireless glucose meter for diabetes patients .

With the advent of wearable tech, it’s likely there’ll be even more uptake by researchers. Google is in the process of developing a wearable health sensor specifically for use in clinical trials that measures pulse, activity level, and skin temperature, alongside environmental information like light exposure and noise levels. Apple, meanwhile, recently launched The Research Kit , an open-source framework that allows scientists and doctors to develop clinical apps which in turn can be downloaded by users to opt in to trials using data already collected through their smartwatches and smartphones.

A virtual clinical trial in MS has already been given the go ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration – so hopefully it’s only a matter of time before others follow suit. In short, this exciting technology is already paving the way for new and even more effective drugs to make their way into your medicine cabinet.

What’s that? You’ve seen a monster? OK, OK, we’ll let you get back to your Pokémon Go now…

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