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It's a very common trope in the Star Trek universe for treatments to the disease du jour to be developed and rolled out very rapidly. Many, if not most, of the main characters or even most of an entire planet's population become ill as the ship's doctor races against time to find "the cure" or "the vaccine", after which pills or injections are beamed out to everyone just in time to save the day and warp out in a flourish.

In the real world, medical research doesn't work anything like that. Newly created treatments, vaccines, cures, etc. go through months, if not years, of clinical trials before they can be rolled out to large populations.

So, have we ever seen any modern-style clinical trials in the Star Trek universe or is there any evidence that such trials are done anymore? I recognize that this would make for lousy storytelling:

Captain! I think I have a cure for the new mutant Rigellian Plague that is rapidly killing off the population of Deneb V, but I need at least two years to run enough clinical trials to convince Starfleet Medical that it is safe and effective. Could I borrow a Runabout for a few years? I'm setting up a lab out on a remote moon in Sector 443 with a specially selected population of test subjects. It would also be great if Wesley could come along to help wash test tubes and make sure nobody confuses warp plasma with saline solution. Thanks! Tell the Denebians we're going as fast as we can!

Do we not see these trials because they are simply too boring for TV or are clinical trials something that is truly obsolete in the Star Trek model of medicine?

I am aware that the length of clinical trials in our own world can and does scale based on how crucial the desired treatment is (e.g. trials can be expedited in an emergency and/or can be intentionally underfunded if they are seen as not likely to be useful). What I'm asking is if all Star Trek medicine, or at least all Federation medicine, operates on the "Aha! I found the cure! Ship it!" model or if there are clinical trial centers out there in the backwaters of the galaxy where doctors run months or years-long trials of incrementally better cancer drugs or carefully test Andorian headache pills on Klingons to confirm that they are still safe and effective across species.

If a clinical trial is mentioned or alluded to in dialogue, that can count. For example,

Captain's log, stardate.... We are en route to Starbase 43 to pick up Dr. Jones, who has spent the last year testing out a new Borg nanoprobe vaccine on Cardassian prisoners of war. Our task is to take him to Begelgeuse IX where he is urgently needed to take part in a Starfleet Medical Emergency Use Authorization panel to decide whether to authorize administration of the new anti-Deneb brain parasite injection for Romulans under 15. Let us hope that Breen pirates don't disrupt our trip....

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    startrek.com/news/… - check out the bit re: Miri. Also, I would assume the computer can handle doing a ton of calculations that would suffice for sci-fi purposes
    – NKCampbell
    Aug 13, 2021 at 15:04
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    Probably the most "om point" episode here would be DS9's "The Quickening". Aug 13, 2021 at 17:25
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    "In the real world, medical research doesn't work anything like that. Newly created treatments, vaccines, cures, etc. go through months, if not years, of clinical trials before they can be rolled out to large populations." - presumably, that is because we have comparably little understanding of how our bodies work, and therefore need those large-scale trials to find out the actual effects anything administered to a body will cause. In the 23rd/24th century as presented on ST, the knowledge base appears to have progressed quite a bit, possibly to a point where the full spectrum of ... Aug 13, 2021 at 21:03
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    ... effects of any medication can be much more reliably predicted purely based on theoretical considerations. Note how this would be consistent with the way how diagnostics appear to be quite definitive, as well. An infection is not just "an infection with symptoms X, Y, Z", but typically, the concrete cause (e.g. virus/bacterium/poisoning) can be observed with relatively little effort by Starfleet doctors. Aug 13, 2021 at 21:05
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    @o.r.mapper certainly computational simulation even now is speeding things up. I recall where wesley wanted to see what that brain control video game would do so he just plugged it into a sickbay computer that simulated a brain. Real world progress Google's protein folding simulator AI just did predicted structures on all known human protein sequences. And that program was considered 30 years ahead of its time. Aug 13, 2021 at 22:54

3 Answers 3

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Yes there are clinical trials (implicitly research Crusher refers to) "Ethics" Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 5, Episode 16

"I am delighted that Worf is going to recover. You gambled. He won. Not all of your patients are so lucky. You scare me, Doctor. You risk your patients' lives, and justify it in the name of research. Genuine research takes time. Sometimes a lifetime of painstaking, detailed work in order to get any results. Not for you. You take shortcuts, right through living tissue. You put your research ahead of your patients' lives. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a violation of our most sacred trust. I'm sure your work will be hailed as a stunning breakthrough. Enjoy your laurels, Doctor. I'm not sure I could."

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 5, Episode 16 - Dr. Crusher, confronting Dr. Russell

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    good catch. I had forgotten that episode and context. I was thinking purely serums and the like
    – NKCampbell
    Aug 13, 2021 at 18:48
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    As a tag-along, I would also like to mention the TOS episode where Spock was temporarily blinded because Dr. McCoy had not done enough testing to know that it was not the visible light spectrum that would eradicate the alien organism that killed Sam Kirk and family, along with many in the Deneb colony.
    – RobJarvis
    Aug 13, 2021 at 19:36
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Obviously they don't do months long or years long clinical trials during episodes where a new disease is identified and a cure found and administered within hours or days. You can't fit months or years of clinical trials within hours or days of time. Not without time travel which is not mentioned in those particular episodes.

If calculations show that everyone on a starship or a planet will die within days or hours unless cured, nobody will insist on clinical trials lasting for months or years before administering a newly developed treatment or cure.

There are several episodes where the Enterprise is carrying medicines to a planet suffering from a plague. And in those episodes it is possible that the disease in question has been known for decades or centuries, and a cure developed and given properly long clinical trials and approved long before the episode.

So it is possible that contemporary style clinical trials are performed off screen in Star Trek.

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Certainly. A good portion of the Voyager's crew (unwillingly) participates in clinical trials executed by the Srivani in Scientific Method.
Another researcher named Dr. Moset is known to have conducted similar non-ethical experiments in Nothing Human.
Federation star-fleet has a distinct opinion towards the procedures:

EMH: This is the twenty fourth century, Crell. Your kind of barbarism ended a long time ago.

The rest of the discussion may imply that clinical trials are outdated per-se. Or clinical trials still do exist, but all participants are volunteers. It is up to interpretation.

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    I think you have a misconception of what clinical trials are. In modern usage, clinical trials don't encompass any sort of scientific experiment on people, instead refer to a very specific sort of investigation into the workings of a new therapeutic agent. There is nothing in "Scientific Method" which indicates any sort of clinical trial. Instead, all of the experiments seem to be of the "poke the alien with a stick and see how it reacts" variety, which is most assuredly not a clinical trial.
    – R.M.
    Aug 14, 2021 at 1:39
  • I just looked up "clinical trial" in a dictionary – just in case I was missing something obvious. I can see that many trials do not involve experiments on people. But there still are drugs, devices and procedures being tested on the actual patients or volunteers. In "Scientific Method", alien researcher Alzen openly states they use the Voyager crew for tests causing more "discomfort". This makes the Srivani people the control group. The more interesting question is how Srivani researchers can transfer the results to their people after conducting experiments on humans.
    – Hermann
    Aug 14, 2021 at 10:11

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