Human Trials

In Human Trials: Scientists, Investors, and Patients in the Quest for a Cure, Susan Quinn addresses how drug trials are conducted and financed, as well as the trials imposed on the participating patients. She relates the story of Howard Wiener, a professor of neurology at Harvard University, who is conducting research on debilitating autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). She uses Wiener’s diaries, lab books, and notes to tell the story. The approach taken by Wiener is to develop a procedure that induces immunologic tolerance by oral administration of antigens instead of using injections. Forming a pharmaceutical company called AutoImmune, Inc., he proceeds with two clinical trials. One trial uses a myelin-based protein to treat MS, while the other uses a collagen to treat RA. In both trials, the experimental antigen produces little to no better results than the sugar placebo. As a result, Wiener’s company folds. Quinn argues that failures are an essential part of finding breakthroughs in the development of successful drugs.

Quinn does an admirable job of describing the intricate relationships between the medical investigators, the clinical trial patients, the drug company entrepreneurs, and the capital investors. Hoping for ultimate cures, the patients and their families struggle and suffer as tested drugs come and go. Quinn’s talents as a biographer produce depth of character for the doctors and the patients in the book.

Although Quinn’s work provides insights into the development of drugs from the basic biological theory to the fund-raising efforts and the clinical trials, it glosses over some very important issues, particularly that some patients are misguided into trials by clinical researchers who place financial benefits above the best interests of a patient. Regardless, Quinn’s book is a descriptive account of modern clinical research in language that is understandable for general audiences. In the world of experimental drug trials, scientists put their reputations on the line, venture capitalists wager their fortunes, and patients risk their lives.