A compelling, insightful look at the hard and often stagnating process of scientific research and clinical experiments, Lisa Hepner and Guy Mossman’s “The Human Trial” follows two type-1 diabetes patients over the course of several years as they undergo an experimental stem-cell treatment. Informed by Hepner’s personal experience with diabetes — and the hope that San Diego-based biotech ViaCyte may have finally figured out a way to implant insulin-making cells into the body — “The Human Trial” showcases the highs and lows of clinical research with a clear and focused eye towards how progress, when it happens, is often incremental.
Narrowing the film’s scope down to two patients being treated at the University of Minnesota, Maren and Gregory, Hepner and Mossman provide a brief overview of ViaCyte. The company believes that they may have finally figured out a way to create insulin within the bodies of diabetic patients through the implementation of stem cells that, hopefully, may grow into self-sustaining insulin-producing cells. Both Maren and Gregory sign up for this clinical trial in the hopes that they might finally alleviate the constant financial and physical burden of living with diabetes. Hepner, who occasionally inserts herself into the narrative but mainly hovers in the periphery, hopes that this new technology might signal a cure for type-1 diabetes.
Contextualizing the trial’s progress, the film also features interviews with various ViaCyte employees, who both explain how the implementation works and offer updates about the trial’s progress. What might begin as an infomercial for ViaCyte quickly transforms into a larger meditation on how clinical trials work, and the ways that scientists measure progress compared to, say, patients or investors. A decent amount of the film tracks the need for research funding as ViaCyte travels the globe pitching their (possibly) revolutionary treatment to investors. We see them constantly struggling to get money while also trying to balance expectations with the trial.
Hepner and Mosson juxtapose this dive into the granular details of the biotech company against Gregory and Maren, two affable leads who are struggling to balance their lives, and who see the trial as a way to return to some type of normalcy, even as they try to manage their own expectations. When one of the patients starts seeing their blood-sugar levels lowering, we feel both the hope and concern that comes with such news.
While Hepner and Mossman follow their day-to-day lives, sometimes Maren and Gregory feel as if they get a bit lost in the machinery of ViaCyte. Some are quick to remind the filmmakers that these two patients are only a small sample size compared to the whole trial and the film occasionally gets lost in the minutia of explaining how clinical trials work compared to, say, emphasizing the humans at the center of them.
Even with that, “The Human Trial” works well at avoiding any hyperbole when the film with the ramifications of ViaCyte’s experiments. The film dwells in drab offices, exam rooms, or travels with employees as they hit the road to woo investors. However, this bland aesthetic is precisely the point, as huge shifts in research often happen slowly and gradually, in the midst of those spaces. Everyone on both sides of the trial tries to temper expectations while also, occasionally, allowing themselves to imagine the possibilities of a cure for diabetes.
This push-pull between wide-eyed optimism and scientific skepticism creates tension within the film as we see Maren and Gregory constantly trying to maintain their composure and not get too ahead of themselves, even when the treatments appear to be working. How this ends isn’t entirely unexpected, but “The Human Trial” still finds hope in the small steps towards a cure. While not exactly revolutionary in its construction, Hepner and Mossman have nevertheless crafted a grounded and realistic look into how biotech companies, and human trials, operate. [B]