Advance with MUSC Health

This is Only the Beginning: Increasing Access to Clinical Trials in Communities, Like Florence, That Need It the Most

August 21, 2023
Patrick Flume, M.D.

By Dr. Patrick Flume

Regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity, it’s safe to assume that each person has taken medicine at some point in their life. From common cold tablets to antibiotics or maintenance medications for chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, medications are a part of our lives.

However, many don’t realize the painstaking and lengthy research and development process or the crucial role everyday people play in making medications like over-the-counter cough syrups and lifesaving cancer drugs accessible to patients and clinicians.

A vital step in this process is the conduct of clinical trials. During these trials, a treatment, such as medications, therapies, and vaccines, are administered to volunteers, many of whom are patients seeking better outcomes for their own conditions or illnesses, while others may be participating for the benefit of others.

By participating in these trials, these individuals contribute to advancing medical knowledge, leading to safer, more effective, and well-tolerated treatments.

At MUSC Health, hundreds of clinical trials for a wide number of medical conditions are underway. Not everyone, however, can travel to Charleston to participate in a clinical trial. Distance can be a potential barrier.

Although some parts of a clinical trial must take place in Charleston, moving trial sites closer to the community can increase the opportunities for the people of South Carolina to have access to cutting-edge research and advanced care.

Thanks to a Duke Endowment grant, MUSC Health’s regional health network, including Florence, offers clinical trials locally. The endowment funds have facilitated the establishment of research centers with a dedicated lab and equipment, clinical space, and staff for participants and clinicians at MUSC Health Florence Medical Center.

By fostering collaboration between Charleston and the regional hospitals, our goal is to increase community access to specific clinical trials and studies, particularly in the areas where residents need them and where the community might benefit the most.

Some studies that originate in Charleston are being expanded to additional sites, while others will originate at the regional sites. Although certain aspects of some trials may have to be completed in Charleston to ensure we adhere strictly to protocols, methodology, and the highest ethical standards, our aim is to minimize the hurdles, such as travel, for participants as much as possible.

The best care is local, and the presence of an MUSC-owned hospital in the Florence region has made this possible. Under the leadership of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rami Zebian, impressive expansions have been made in the clinical and education arms, as well as the research component.

An early, successful example of collaboration between Florence and Charleston involved the use of convalescent plasma for COVID patients early in the pandemic.

MUSC Health doctors and researchers, including Dr. Zebian, established the groundwork for remote trials. The Charleston team used telehealth to communicate in real-time with patients and doctors in Florence to assess the safety and efficacy of the plasma treatment. This collaboration with Florence helped refine the methodology for conducting trials remotely and allows us to expand research into new areas.

Today, MUSC Health Florence Medical Center is actively involved in numerous trials and studies covering a wide range of treatments. These include patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, identifying new therapies for lung cancer patients, and studying smoking cessation, lung cancer screening, radiation oncology, and the role of cardiac enzymes in the diagnosis of a heart attack.

This is only the beginning. Under Dr. Zebian’s leadership, MUSC Health Florence is committed to providing the very best patient care while also expanding clinical trials and research.

We encourage Florence area residents to participate in MUSC's In Our DNA SC, a community health research project. The project aims to enroll 100,000 participants in genetic testing at no cost to participants. Participants will receive confidential results about their genetic risks for certain cancers and heart disease.

To participate in the In Our DNA SC research project, you will provide a saliva sample (no blood is needed). Participants can sign up through their MUSC MyChart.

Some people may believe that participating in research turns individuals into guinea pigs and that research is conducted solely for the sake of it. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our ultimate goal is to improve the lives of patients who are suffering or facing life-threatening conditions. Clinical trials are an essential step in the journey.

As a researcher with a focus on cystic fibrosis (CF), I have seen first-hand the incredible benefits of clinical trial participation. When I began my career, the median age of survival for someone with CF was only in their mid-20s. Thanks to the effectiveness of therapies developed through clinical trials, however, the outlook is now much brighter for children born with CF. Parents have every reason to believe that their child can lead a long and normal life, something that would have been impossible without the progress made in drug development through clinical trials.

Clinical trials are not just about research; they are about transforming lives. Each participant plays a crucial role in shaping a better future for patients and their families.

As noted at the start, it is likely that everyone has taken a medicine at some time. All those medicines have gone through the clinical trials process, and we must remember that somebody volunteered for those trials, and we owe them a great debt.

To all the individuals who have ever participated in a clinical trial, I want to say a heartfelt "thank you." Your courage and commitment have contributed to advancements that are saving lives and bringing hope to countless families.

Dr. Flume is on the faculty of the pulmonary and critical care division at MUSC Health and is the director of the Cystic Fibrosis Center. He is also the Associate Vice President for Clinical Research at MUSC and heads the MUSC Research Nexus. To learn more about clinical trials and studies at MUSC Health, click here. Find out more about In Our DNA SC here.