Kate Nicholas: As guinea pigs line up, trial firms look on

News that coverage of the catastrophic ‘elephant man' drugs trials has led to a surge in enquiries from people wanting to become human guinea pigs says something uncomfortable about contemporary society.

The chief executive of the Medical Research Council, the government-funded body that runs around 350 drugs trials in the UK, was not alone in being surprised at the response. Most rational people might presume the prospect of multiple organ failure would put sane volunteers off renting their bodies for clinical trials. But the rush to make a quick buck goes to show how mercenary and unpredictable the human psyche can be, and just what challenges are faced by PR professionals.

Not that a great deal of strategic PR was in evidence during this particular crisis; which in itself is hardly surprising. Communication around clinical trials recruitment is a small but growth area for PR consultants, with an increasing number being asked to drum up support for trials, usually as part of an ongoing campaign. However, to date a majority of these cases relate to Phase II or III trials - where a product is already on the market and the company is looking to conduct research with a view to a new licence or indication. 

When it comes to Phase I trials - such as that undertaken by Parexel, the US-based contract company running the unit at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow - activity seems far less co-ordinated. Few agencies are employed in this area and it is rare for in-house pharma PROs to be involved in communications because the trials are inevitably outsourced to companies such as Parexel. All this, of course, has became glaringly obvious over the past week or so.

In communication terms, the stark truth was that no one took control of the situation. If the company concerned had been the size of GlaxoSmithKline or AstraZeneca, no doubt the corporate spokesperson would have swung into view. However, neither the drug's sponsor, TeGenero, or Parexel seemed to know how to respond, apart from a statement from the latter that it had followed protocol and from the former that it was shocked by the outcome.

The very rarity of the victims' reaction is exactly what made this such a huge news story, but it has exposed an area of potential crisis many firms would not have anticipated. I suspect the big pharmas will be quickly assessing their own crisis strategies for Phase I trials - even if it is only to actively manage the expectations of the new raft of drug trial volunteers.

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