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Sept. 29, 2005

 

One-stop shopping: New University of Michigan Web site connects the public to U-M studies that need volunteers

engage logoANN ARBOR, Mich.—From cancer and heart disease to rare disorders, the University of Michigan is one of the world's largest centers for studies of new medical treatments and ideas. Each year, thousands of people take part in University of Michigan studies, helping researchers test new drugs and devices or learn about the body and brain.

But U-M researchers need many more volunteers—and it's often hard for them to find the right people for their studies, or for patients to find a study that needs them.

Not any more. The U-M Health System has launched a new Web site that provides one-stop public access to studies taking place around the University.

Called Engage, www.umengage.org, the site currently includes studies from the Health System, including the U-M Medical School. Soon, it will expand to include studies from other areas of U-M, including the schools of Public Health, Nursing, Dentistry and others that conduct research studies that need human participants.

With a few clicks of the mouse, patients with any medical condition—and healthy people who want to volunteer—can search the Engage database for studies that need people like them. They can get details on what each study involves, what kinds of people are needed, and a phone number or e-mail address to learn more.

The site should make it much easier for the public and doctors to find studies, and for U-M researchers to perform their research, says Dr. Dan Clauw, the director of the U-M Center for the Advancement of Clinical Research, which led the Engage project.

"Individuals can type in a key word that can either be a disease or something like 'pain', and Engage will allow them to search for clinical research studies at the U-M that are actively enrolling participants," says Clauw, whose own research involves people with painful conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia.

"Research involving people, which is also called clinical research, makes it possible for new therapies and new ideas to be tested in a controlled way so that we know what works, and what doesn't," Clauw says. "It's also the best way for humans to learn more about ourselves. Tomorrow's medicine and knowledge will be based on the studies we do today, and those studies need people to volunteer to take part."

The Engage site also includes general information on how clinical research studies work, and how U-M ensures that study participants are protected from harm.

Clinical research, Clauw notes, can do many things. It can test how well new drugs or medical devices work. It can study how health care is delivered, or how patients live with certain diseases. It can explore how people, or systems in the body, function.

"Some clinical research studies are extremely simple, and may take just 15 minutes to fill out a survey online or on paper," Clauw explains. "Others may require that people stay overnight in the hospital for a day or two, or take a pill every day, or have a brain scan or blood drawn."

The Engage site contains U-M studies of all kinds, and new ones will be added as they open up, says Dorene Markel, program director for CACR. The listing for each study gives information on what participants will be asked to do if they volunteer and on risks or potential benefits involved.

Besides having one of the largest assortments of research studies in the world, with more than 1,000 studies taking place at any one time, U-M has strict controls in place to make sure that participants' safety is protected.

Before a study can start, an independent panel called the Institutional Review Board closely examines the research plan, called a protocol, and asks for changes or precautions as needed. The board also reviews studies while they're taking place. Participants also play a key safety role: before they can take part, they must read a detailed description of the study, sign a document called an "informed consent form," and agree to tell researchers if they experience any problems.

Why would someone want to take part in a research study at U-M, especially if they don't have a medical condition? Clauw points to several reasons.

"Some people participate out of altruism—the desire to advance science and help researchers figure out why something happens the way it happens," he says. Some are inspired to volunteer in memory, or in honor, of someone they love who died from, or has, a certain medical condition.

"Others take part because they have a condition that hasn't been effectively treated yet, and they want to see if a new experimental therapy works better than the therapies that are already approved and on the market," Clauw continues.

No matter what their motivation, Clauw hopes that the new Engage site will make it easier for more people to find out about, and sign up for, clinical studies at U-M. He says that lack of awareness, and lack of familiarity with clinical research, is what keeps many people from taking part in studies that might benefit them or that they might find interesting.

He also hopes that physicians across Michigan and northern Ohio and Indiana will use Engage to find out if U-M offers clinical trials that might help their patients who have certain conditions. "For especially complex problems, or conditions that haven't responded to treatment, clinical research at U-M often offers a new opportunity that isn't available yet in the community," he says.

As Engage grows and includes more studies, and brings in more and more diverse participants, Clauw hopes it will ultimately help U-M researchers produce even more useful results. And those results, he says, are what will drive medical care and health policy in the future.

"These days, all of our advances in medicine come from clinical research," he explains. "We can make discoveries in test tubes or in mice or in laboratories, but until you test them in a clinical trial and really see if they work or not, you have no way of knowing if something new is better than existing therapies."

To search Engage, or learn more about clinical research at the University of Michigan, visit www.umengage.org.