Background: Clinical research exposes patient participants to unproved methods and research procedures in order to gather generalizable knowledge to benefit others. While some commentators argue that this process inappropriately exploits patient participants, there are few data available to evaluate this claim.
Methods: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected individuals from Argentina, Brazil, and Thailand who had been participating in the Evaluation of Subcutaneous Proleukin (Interleukin-2) in a Randomized International Trial (ESPRIT) study for at least 6 months were invited to complete a self-administered survey on their experience and were asked why they continued to participate. The ESPRIT study is a phase 3, multinational, randomized trial comparing antiretroviral therapy plus interleukin 2 (IL-2) with antiretroviral therapy alone in individuals with HIV disease.
Results: From a list of 12 possible reasons regarding why patient participants continue to participate, 8 options were selected as "very important" by 75% or more of 582 respondents, including the possibility of benefiting personally and the potential to help others. When asked to indicate the most important reason from this list, respondents in the IL-2 arm (n = 292) selected (1) increasing their CD4 lymphocyte count (26%); (2) finding better treatments for patients with HIV in their home country (22%); and (3) getting IL-2 (12%). Respondents in the no-IL-2 arm (n = 290) selected (1) finding better treatments for patients with HIV in their home country (32%); (2) finding better treatments for HIV-infected patients in other countries (12%); and (3) increasing their CD4 lymphocyte count (11%). Also, 90% of the respondents indicated that participation in ESPRIT involved making a "major" or "moderate" contribution to society, and 84% felt "very" or "somewhat" proud to be making this contribution.
Conclusions: Most respondents continue to participate in the ESPRIT study in hopes of benefiting personally. The majority also recognized that by participating in ESPRIT they were contributing to helping others; they experienced pride regarding this contribution and considered it an important reason to continue to participate. These results indicate that it is possible for patient participants, even those seeking treatment for a life-threatening illness, to recognize and embrace the goals of the research in which they participate. Future studies will be needed to determine to what extent these findings generalize to other studies and other countries and what steps can help patient participants recognize and embrace the goals of clinical research.