The First Step for Any Medical Breakthrough

Preliminary studies determine whether an idea is feasible

A scientist works in a lab.
A scientist works in a lab. Cultura RM Exclusive/Matt Lincoln/Getty Images

Pilot studies are scientific equivalents of dipping a toe into the water. A pilot study can involve pretesting a research tool, like a new data collection method. It can also be used to test an idea or hypothesis.

Pilot studies are a smaller version of a larger study that is conducted to prepare for that study. By smaller, this means that the amount of subjects or the duration of time is less. Pilot studies can also be used in clinical trials in order to test different doses, routes of administration, dosing schedules and possible barriers to adherence before a large-scale multicenter drug study is launched.

Pilot studies are used as feasibility studies, to ensure that the ideas or methods behind a research idea are sound, as well as to “work out the kinks” in a study protocol before launching a larger study.

Who Funds Pilot Studies?

These smaller studies can be paid for from a variety of sources. Grants awarded by the government, industry, and associations pay for these initial studies. For instance, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society awards grants specifically for pilot studies. Unlike the government, associations want to fund the next big idea. Take the MS Society's statement about their grants:

"The Society funds high-risk pilot grants to quickly test novel ideas. Funding is provided for one year to test innovative, cutting-edge ideas or untested methods, and to gather sufficient preliminary data to apply for longer-term funding. We welcome applications for studies related to multiple sclerosis that may serve to advance our mission of stopping MS progression, restoring function and improving quality of life, and preventing MS. The Society supports fundamental as well as applied studies, non-clinical or clinical in nature, including projects in patient management, care and rehabilitation."

Even though associations are the most common funder of pilot studies, a new trend is emerging.

The New Trend in Funding

Two significant medical breakthroughs have been funded with the help of regular people: the breast cancer vaccine and a paint that identifies brain tumors so that surgeons can remove them without harming other brain cells (a big deal since much of the brain damage comes from healthy cells being extracted).

Regular people who had found out about these research projects decided to raise money for them. Without these angels, these discoveries wouldn’t have been possible because these ideas were too crazy for the government, National Institutes of Medicine, to take a risk with taxpayer monies.

Getting an NIH grant is difficult and time-consuming; so much so that it can take a principal investigator away from what they really want to do — research. With more people taking their health into their own hands, it was just a matter of time that individuals would start to invest in the science that could make our lives better.

How Can I Fund Research?

There are a few ways you can discover research that you want to fund. There are quite a few Kickstarter-type sites for research; one of the better ones,, allows you to search by topic. If you want to fund a local project, many universities are starting to create sites where their scientists can post their projects for contribution.

Also, in some cases and depending on the person, you can reach out to researchers that you've heard about in the news or may have come in contact with while dealing with a sick friend or relative. This last way is how the breast cancer vaccine was partially funded and the discovery of painting brain cancer cells with scorpion poison for easier visibility.


Palca J. Why Painting Tumors Could Make Brain Surgeons Better. National Public Radio. September 13, 2013. Accessed March 6, 2016.

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