The World of Human Drug Testing: Good Cash for Potential Health Risk

Need a bit extra cash? $1000 or more? No need to quit your day job, or do anything illegal. You can even earn the money while sitting on a couch watching TV. Sounds good? Maybe too good? Perhaps you have already been tempted.

Posters in the metro and ads in local newspapers offer you the chance to earn good money while making the world a better place. Behind these ads are pharmaceutical companies like Algorithme Pharma and GCP Trials, recruiting ‘volunteer’ subjects for their clinical drug studies.

Drugs must be tested on humans somewhere between being tested on animals and getting prescribed to real patients, as part of a process that is worryingly called a Stage 1 clinical trial.

The financial compensation for ‘volunteering’ is generous enough to help you think a bit less about any risks. But even if the thought of becoming a human guinea pig makes a lot of people nervous, that has only created a larger demand for volunteers who are either a little more adventurous or in greater need of money.

It’s fair to say that the drug companies who are promoting this paid volunteering for the benefit of humanity and medical advancement are also targeting people’s need for cash in a tight economy. The compensation ranges from $1000 to $2000, which is paid tax-free. The absolute anonymity given to the volunteers means that they could be forgetful about declaring it to any government agencies.

“I try to think about all the sick people waiting for new advancements in drugs. Someone has to do it, it might as well be me.”

As a veteran of over ten or so of these clinical trials, Peter (not his real name) has taken his chances and earned a substantial amount of cash. Still, he feels like he’s filled an important need by participating in biological research.

“I try to think about all the sick people waiting for new advancements in drugs. Someone has to do it, it might as well be me. But I guess it’s not exactly the sort of thing that everyone wants to do, and I wouldn’t even tell my own mother that I did it,” Peter said.

Brave potential subjects would need to be in perfect health before being selected. That is tested during a “screening appointment.”

E-Magine Art/Flickr CC
E-Magine Art/Flickr CC

“That’s an exhaustive medical exam sold to volunteers as a ‘free check up,'” Peter explained. “If there’s anything wrong with you they’ll find it. And that includes checking for the presence of recreational drugs you’ve been using, which will disqualify you automatically.”

Once subjects are cleared and placed on a study they will be confined to the clinic for about 48 hours and closely monitored. But Peter insists that is hardly a hardship.

“It’s for your own safety and it’s actually relaxing. You can do […] basically nothing. […] Watch TV, videos, or bring your laptop and surf the net. […] Lots of volunteers are students who just catch on their studies.”

“One time, they messed up so badly there was blood everywhere because they kept stabbing my arm and missing my vein with the needle.”

But what might seem like a relaxing holiday has a few inconveniences. For example, there are strict restrictions on anything from bedtimes, access to toilets, and control over what you eat. Also the requirement to stay indoors during the study could be a pain for smokers.

But the possibility of getting a little stir crazy is not the biggest inconvenience, especially to those who don’t like needles or the sight of their own blood.

“You’re being tested mainly on the ability of your body to absorb, and eliminate a drug. So you’ll be stuck about 20-30 times with a needle during the stay extracting a total of about a quarter litre of blood,” Peter said.

“They do it with varying degrees of skill. One time, they messed up so badly there was blood everywhere because they kept stabbing my arm and missing my vein with the needle. I screamed until they stopped and so they taped up the arm. Then they started on the other arm.”

If that makes potential volunteers skittish it’s worth noting that accidents, which involve much more than a little extra blood loss, have been documented. In 2006, a group of six volunteers in London, UK took part in a study contracted to pharmaceutical testing firm Parexel International. Shortly after the dosing, the nurses heard the six subjects screaming that heads were “exploding.” Minutes later after falling victim to fainting and severe bloating, all six were carried away to emergency wards with multiple organ failure.

Ethicists concluded afterwards that the subjects in that trial were not fully informed of the risks and that their need for quick cash had been exploited.

“You can be choosy and avoid the more experimental ones. I always stay away from stuff that affects the heart or the brain.”

Peter says he has witnessed volunteers have bad reactions to drugs in a clinic here in Montreal, but he shrugs off such cases as “rare and part of the risk you take.”

“You get all the available information about the drug you are testing before you sign the papers. So you can be choosy and avoid the more experimental ones. I always stay away from stuff that affects the heart or the brain.”

In the end Peter admits that he has stopped doing trials, which he had been doing at the maximum allowable: two or three trials each year. He developed an infection in the arm that was frequently used for drawing blood during trials. “I asked the study doctor if it is dangerous to do a lot of studies. Of course he said no – but he’s working for them.”

So did Peter really think he was doing something meaningful beyond improving his savings by nearly $10,000 in three years?

“Yes,” he says firmly. “But you also have to realise that the drug companies are in business to make big money […]and part of the reason drugs are so expensive is because that they have to pay people like me.”

Featured image by Micah Taylor/Flickr CC.

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