Kids help scientists by taking part in medical trials


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Like most kids, Sam Baker and his younger brother, Jay, did not like having to stay home during the coronavirus lockdown. Sam, who is 14, missed playing soccer with his friends and Jay, 11, missed swimming. And the boys, who live in Anderson Township, Ohio, worried about catching the coronavirus and giving it to others. So when their mother told them about a scientific study to see whether a new coronavirus vaccine would protect them, the brothers were eager to sign up.

Participating meant that they would be getting a vaccine before other kids their age and that researchers would collect samples of their blood and nasal fluid to see if the vaccine was working. Their mom, a nurse who had volunteered for a coronavirus study for adults, warned that giving a blood sample would pinch a little. And it would feel strange when a nurse stuck a cotton swab up their nose to collect nasal fluid. But both boys said they still wanted to participate.

“I was not hesitant about the vaccine,” says Sam. “I was more hesitant about the process leading up to getting the vaccine. But I realized I probably should do it because it is going to help a lot of people and end this pandemic.”

Sam and Jay are among tens of thousands of kids who are helping doctors, nurses and other researchers learn more about ways to help people stay healthy. Some kids also are participating in studies of new methods to help sick people get better.

Scientists need to study how drugs work on kids to make sure they give the right amount, says Robert Frenck, a doctor who heads up vaccine research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio, where Sam and Jay got their shots.

Kids also are helping scientists learn whether some medications work better for certain groups. To answer this important question, researchers make a special effort to include kids from many backgrounds, says Fernanda Young, a doctor at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland.

Chauncey, a sixth-grader in Denver, recently joined a study at Children’s Hospital Colorado to find out whether a particular drug will help Black and Hispanic kids with asthma breathe more easily. “I feel good about the study,” says Chauncey, who likes to play football but has to sit on the sidelines when his asthma flares up.

It takes a lot of courage for a child to agree to sign up for a medical trial. Anthony Cross, a fourth-grader from Raleigh, North Carolina, says he is glad to have helped researchers at the University of North Carolina Medical School test a medicine aimed at weakening his body’s crazy reaction to many common foods, including eggs, wheat and peanuts.

Before he started getting the injections three years ago, just a small bite of the wrong thing could send him to the hospital. The study was a little scary because, to see if the injections were working, Anthony had to eat some of the foods that made him sick, but members of his research team stayed close to help in case he had a dangerous reaction. The good news is that the shots seem to have helped. Now he can enjoy foods such as doughnuts and pizza. He ate his first piece of birthday cake when he turned 10 last year.

Kids do not always have to take a drug or get a shot to help with medical research. More than 8,600 children in the United States and Europe are participating in a National Institutes of Health study to learn more about Type 1 diabetes, a serious disease where the body cannot process sugar properly. In addition to blood and nasal fluid, these kids also give researchers samples of their pee, poop, saliva (a fancy name for spit) and toenail clippings.

Tilly Gershbein, a high school sophomore in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to the diabetes study from the time she was born until she turned 16 last year. She admits that when she was younger, she was not always happy about giving blood and answering questions from nosy researchers. But as Tilly grew older and became aware that she has an aunt with diabetes, she recognized the importance of the research. “I think it is pretty cool,” she said.

Placebo (pronounced pluh-SEE-bo): A fake pill or injection that scientists sometimes give to a group of participants in a clinical trial. Researchers compare how the placebo group responded with those who got a real drug. When both groups react the same, it tells the researchers that the real drug may not be working.

Fun fact: Participants in a trial often are not told whether they were given the real medication or the placebo because knowing could affect the study results. Sometimes even the researchers do not know who got the placebo and who got the real thing.

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