Despite an overarching goal to save lives through medicine, the clinical trial industry leaves behind a crushing carbon footprint.
Despite an overarching goal to save lives through medicine, the clinical trial industry leaves behind a crushing carbon footprint. Recent findings reveal a devastating reality of the price the planet is paying for drug creation, including the latest discovery that 40% of the world's rivers are polluted with drugs. Painkillers, antibiotics, and antidepressants have entered waterways at an unnerving rate, reportedly exceeding safe limits. These newsworthy effects aren’t breaking in 2022, however. A study in 2019 found that an additional 23,000 to 105,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted due to systemic medications related to the treatment of cataracts alone. Take into account the variety of new medications entering the market and their associated materials, it’s no surprise that the manufacturing of these types of products contribute heavily to carbon emissions. Antiquated processes like batch manufacturing are beginning to be phased out in hopes of salvaging the earth, replaced with updated technologies like continuous production lines, designed to minimize the environmental impact.
Recognizing this, sponsors are taking steps to improve sustainability in drug manufacturing. Amgen opened a sustainable manufacturing facility in 2014 that consumes 73% less energy and produces 90% less carbon compared to similar manufacturers. Similarly, in 2019 Sanofi adopted a new manufacturing plant said to generate 80% less carbon emissions than their first manufacturer. Novo Nordisk is changing their approach to work towards a future of "zero environmental impact", including the utilization of up-cycled materials in their production of insulin pens. GSK is taking major steps by revamping their manufacturing strategy, using new technologies projected to vastly minimize water consumption and an overall 52% reduction in their carbon footprint. These moves from top pharma sponsors are key to minimizing the devastating impact the trial industry may be having on the planet.
Zooming in on the effects more closely related to day to day clinical trials, the current standard pushes unsustainability, not only in its impact on the earth, but at a patient level as well. More often than not, trials are conducted far from the patient’s home. Research finds that 70% of potential trial participants live at least two hours from a research center. Of the patients willing and able to travel that far, committing to a trial calls for hours of driving, at times even plane rides, in order to access medical innovation. In 2018, the NIH published findings that a quarter of trial participants travel over 100 miles to access treatment, a burden with sizable consequences.
Requiring patients to travel such vast distances for treatment is not only arduous on the participant and their families, but leads to preventable repercussions on the planet. The average car emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. Add hours of driving to and from a research center over one hundred miles away, harmful contaminants are, unnecessarily, released due to the impracticability of the current clinical trial model. Carbon dioxide can significantly impact climate change given that it contributes to the warming of the earth, an outcome that is entirely avoidable with the right solution.
One solution to boosting the sustainability of clinical trials and accommodating the needs of patients is to reverse the standard approach and bring trials to the patient in their community. The community-site model allows patients to receive care nearby, removing the travel requirements altogether. Improving the travel around trials would not only cut down on carbon emissions, but increase local treatment opportunities for that 70% of the population hours away from larger academic centers. Many research centers based right in their community have the resources, staff, and demand to recruit and execute effective clinical trials but fall off the sponsors’ radar due to perceived complications around partnering with community sites.
With platforms like Inato’s that work directly with the sites to confirm their capabilities, sponsors and sites alike can work together to minimize the tolls trials are taking on the environment. Whether it’s massive deals dedicating large companies to efforts of renewable energy, or local sites gaining the opportunities to bring trials right to the community, these changes aren't just good for the patients, they’re good for the environment.