Your Body is Your ATM
Defecating into a basket, having blood withdrawn from your body several times a day, tossing back an experimental drug and waiting to see what happens. For many, these may sound like unpleasant or undesirable events, grudgingly endured if deemed medically necessary. For others, these are a way to keep food in the cupboards, the lights switched on and the rent paid. In short, a paycheck, a way to earn a living.
We’re talking about healthy volunteers enrolling in Phase 1 clinical trials, which pharmaceutical companies largely outsource to the private sector these days. Volunteers typically earn $200 to $400 a day, and if it beats flipping burgers or schlepping around in an office for eight hours a day, then it isn’t too hard to see why some people out there are guinea piggin’ full-time.
People putting their bodies on the line in medical science is not a novel phenomenon. There is a noble tradition of self-experimentation in science; whether it’s Barry Marshall swigging down some Helicobacter pylori to prove that it causes stomach ulcers, or Friedrich Sertürner self-administering morphine in the 19th century, there have always been scientists willing to throw themselves into their own experiments for posterity and recognition. But when members of the public sign up to volunteer in Phase 1 clinical trials, there’s a very different motivation at play. Phase 1 trials are a way of establishing dosage limits and side effect profiles in humans, and as such they are generally performed using healthy volunteers. These are not sick people hoping to benefit from a last-ditch experimental therapy or help others like them in the future (that’s where Phases 2 and 3 come in): with Phase 1 it’s all about something else.
“[T]he money is my main priority,” says Mike, a 43 year-old guinea pig from California, who estimates that he’s participated in about 50 trials over the last 5 years. “I started when I was living in Texas about 5 years ago…I saw an ad for a local clinic in the Austin Chronicle. For a couple years where I was seriously doing studies, I made $16 000 – 18,000 a year. I could have upped my intensity a bit and maybe with difficulty gotten closer to $30,000. . . . The studies can pay out large sums, but you will not get rich doing this.”