The Importance of Clinical Research

This month, I decided to write about the power of clinical research because it has the potential to change patients’ lives. I recently experienced this in a powerful way myself.

In November, I received an invitation from Drs. Christine Holland and Jennifer Rai to attend Internal Medicine Morning Report and participate in a discussion of a patient who had anaphylaxis (severe allergic reactions) to her own progesterone production. The literature review for this case turned up an article published 28 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which the authors detailed the first reported case of progesterone induced anaphylaxis and its treatment with a new class of drugs called long-acting GnRH analogs. I was one of the authors on that first case report. Since then, numerous other cases have been reported, and I learned that the patient that was being treated here at Michigan was the beneficiary of research that was started so very long ago.

A few weeks later, on Dec. 18, I received a touching note from my daughter, Naomi. Naomi is a television news reporter in Minneapolis, which is where I completed my pediatrics residency and held my first faculty position. She received the note from a viewer. It said:


For several months we have been watching and admiring your reporting. … But, it was not until just recently that we satisfied our curiosity and investigated the possibility of your relationship to Ora.

Twenty-five years ago when our daughter was just four, she entered a precocious puberty experimental drug trial that your mother conducted at the University of Minnesota.  [We saw your mother] for 7 to 8 years, and were always impressed with the understanding and care she expressed.  But, outside of a couple of follow-up calls, we have lost touch.  Today, our daughter is pastor for a congregation in Iowa. We are so thankful that we found your mother and that she was able to help us.

[We] will always be thankful for the impact that your mother’s care had on our family.  

I remember this patient and her family very well. The patient was a 4-year old girl with precocious puberty who was enrolled in a clinical trial for which I was the principal investigator. Were it not for this clinical research and the new drug that this little girl was able to access as a result of this trial, she would not have gone on to live a normal adult life. Even now, 25 years later, her family remains indebted to biomedical innovation and clinical research.

This is why clinical research is so incredibly important – because it is how we test, improve and advance new drugs, devices and methods of treatment that save and improve lives. It is how we help to build healthier and more productive communities. And it is how we create the future of health care through discovery.

This type of research and discovery is happening every day across our Health System. Currently, 800 active clinical trials are in progress at UMHS, and we have more than 12,000 people on our clinical research volunteer registry. Additionally, medical school researchers begin 90 new industry-sponsored clinical trials each year, and the results of the work are impressive! For example:

  • Dr. Charles Burant, professor of Metabolism and Internal Medicine, and his colleagues conducted phase 2 clinical trials which found that a new treatment for type 2 diabetes improves blood sugar control without increasing the risk of a dangerous drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia). More on this study
  • Researchers from UMHS and the Veterans Administration Ann Arbor Healthcare, led by Drs. Fernando Martinez and Jeffrey Curtis, both professors of Internal Medicine, participated in a large-scale national clinical trial that found adding a common antibiotic to the usual treatment regimen for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can reduce acute symptoms and improve quality of life. COPD impacts more than 12 million Americans and is a leading cause of death in the United States. More on this study
  • Research conducted by the U-M Department of Aerospace Engineering and supported by MICHR showed that the beating heart may generate enough electricity to power a heart-regulating pacemaker, thus negating the need for battery-replacement surgeries. More on this study

I was thrilled to be directly involved in clinical research myself, and I am so very proud now to be part of an institution that is on the cutting-edge of some of the most exciting clinical discoveries today. And yet, this work is threatened by sequestration which presents significant reductions in research funding. As our government grapples with the federal budget, we must commit ourselves more than ever to advocate for increased research funding, and we must find new and creative ways to support discovery. Because when research is compromised, society bears the burden of a decrease in new therapies and treatments that improve and save lives. Medical research means hope, and America needs to invest more, not less, in medical research.