The National Institutes of Health (NIH) keep statistics on diseases in the United States. NIH reported that heart disease is the leading cause of death. Cancer ranks second. Sitting in 14th place is death caused by complications due to Parkinson’s disease (PD).

My rather morbid fascination with these numbers is due in part to the fact that I am a person with Parkinson’s. In addition, my cholesterol has been on a roller coaster ride for decades, thanks to my other fascination with fried food and the subsequent guilt of consuming this fat-filled fare.

Researchers estimate that more than a million people are diagnosed with cancer every year. About 565,000 lose their lives to that dread disease annually. In comparison, heart disease is responsible for 600,000 deaths annually while PD accounts for 14,500 deaths yearly. I am not cavalier about these numbers. A family member, friend or acquaintance is behind each case.

Put in perspective, these three diseases take more lives each year than died in battle in the Civil War and World Wars I and II combined. The cost in terms of productivity lost each year for these three maladies approaches $1 trillion (that’s with a “t”).

The battle against these diseases is waged on two fronts. First, organizations searching for cures compete for public and private funds. NIH is “the largest source of funding for medical research in the world.” Funds from the NIH distributed last year were as follows: $5 billion dollars for cancer, $3 billion for heart disease and $1.2 billion for PD.

The irony of this funding is that the No. 1 killer (heart disease) receives less than that apportioned for cancer.

The second front is clinical trials. The primary factor for people dealing with these maladies is hope — hope that a cure, or at least an improved quality of life, will occur. Clinical trials provide the best opportunity to find effective medications and treatments. Although many clinical trials are underway in the U.S., some of them end before they begin because not enough people volunteer for these studies. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation reports that about 1 percent of people with Parkinson's take part in clinical trials.

The purpose of a clinical research trial is to find better ways to prevent, detect or treat a disease or to improve care. Volunteers answer specific health questions, or take a medication that is being tested, or try a new therapy. In some trials — blind studies — a placebo is given to some of the participants. Tests with a placebo can be the fastest and surest way to show the effectiveness of a medication or therapy.

Clinical trials are conducted according to a plan called a protocol. The requirements of participants, schedules, safety procedures, the drug or therapy being tested, the dosage of medication and length of study are all identified in the protocol.

It takes thousands of volunteers, 10 to 15 years and an extraordinary amount of capital to bring a new drug or treatment to market. The process begins with clinical trials.

There are four phases to most clinical trials. The first phase involves 15 to 30 people and evaluates the safety of a new drug, determines the dosage and identifies side effects. The second phase involves up to 100 people and its purpose is to determine effectiveness and to further evaluate safety. The third phase involves from 100 to thousands of people. At this point researchers confirm effectiveness, compare the treatment to others on the market and collect more information on the safety of the drug. The fourth phase involves several hundred to several thousand people. At this point scientists develop risk/benefit information and optimal use.

My purpose in writing this article is to get people involved, either in clinical trials or by financially supporting research. Many primary care physicians are familiar with clinical trials in the area. Most hospitals have a clinical research director. Many organizations (Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, among others) provide information on clinical trials.

April is National Parkinson’s Awareness month. Whether you have Parkinson’s or not, please get involved.

G. Gordon Guist is a resident of Camden.