Generally thought of as a last resort for desperate uni students, clinical trials are increasingly becoming just another ‘side hustle’ for young people with enough time on their hands. Ads can be found all over campus (and inside the pages of Craccum), offering up to $9000 for those willing to become human guinea pigs for a few weeks. But what do these trials even involve? Are they safe, or will you come out looking like the elephant man? We did some snooping and talked to some students who have done clinical trials to find out more.
$9000? How do I Sign Up?
If you’re sick of waiting tables or selling feet pics to pay the bills while at uni, clinical trials can be an easy way to make a large amount of money in a short amount of time. I have heard, anecdotally, that some students forgo part time work completely during the uni year, instead making a ton of money from clinical trials over the summer break. Others use the funds for travel, or to save towards a first home. From Dusk till Dawn director Robert Rodriguiez funded his first film, El Mariachi, almost entirely through participating in clinical trials.
The requirements aren’t overly strict – applicants for most studies need to be between the age of 18 – 45, a healthy BMI, a non-smoker, and not on any medications. The ‘no medication’ rule can include birth control, but often exceptions can be made. Once accepted into the study, however, the rules get a little tighter. This is particularly true for studies involving overnight stays – some require participants to stay inside the clinic for three weeks straight with no drinking, drugs, smoking or ‘outside food’ allowed. Similar restrictions are in place during the follow-up period, where participants must attend regular check-ups. “I think you weren’t allowed to drink alcohol while you still had appointments, because technically you’re still doing the trial afterwards,” says Jess*, one UoA student who took part in a 4-night stay. “You might have been allowed to have two drinks or something, but to be honest I was still getting blackout every weekend.” What they don’t know can’t hurt them, I guess?
Jeffrey*, another human guinea pig and UoA student, describes the experience as ‘a very regimented holiday.’ However, there are plenty of perks to make up for the inevitable boredom that comes with being stuck in a hospital ward for weeks on end. “I got lots of work done, read books, played lots of video games,” says Jeffrey. “There’s a pool table, Playstation, Netflix, Sky TV, board games, and they hire entertainers like drumming teachers and yoga instructors. But you need to be in your bed at certain times for tests to be done.”
“We would all get given meals by the nurses at certain times according to when we were dosed,” says Jess. “You had to eat the whole meal in between two times – like start your first bite at 12.35 and have your last bite at 1.05. They would always write the time down for you when you grabbed it… [which] meant you ended up eating with only certain people the whole time. Apparently people were kicked off the trial for not eating all their food.” All participants are required to eat the same food in order to reduce the number of variables in each experiment. “For me, it was a bit too much food,” Jess says. “But the guys on the trial said they were always hungry – we all got the same amount.”
A Dark Past
The term ‘human experimentation’ still evokes, in many, an uncomfortable association with the gruesome experiments carried out on prisoners during World War II. Even after the Nuremberg Code and the Helsinki Declaration were drafted to put in place a set of clearly articulated regulations regarding the treatment of clinical trial participants, the 20th century is littered with examples of poor research ethics. The United States has a particularly bad track record in this regard. Many of these experiments were performed on subjects who had a limited capacity to consent – children, the sick, mentally disabled individuals, and prisoners. Among them was the infamous project MKUltra, which was not halted until 1973. Subjects were given LSD without consent, often completely unaware that they were involved in an experiment at all. In one case, a mental patient in Kentucky was administered LSD for 174 days straight. CIA agents at the time had the drug slipped into their morning coffee, allegedly to test the effects of LSD in ‘normal settings.’
The history of human experimentation is strange and frequently upsetting. But in recent decades, the focus on informed consent and ethical testing has been paramount. These days, clinical trials are a way to support potentially life-saving treatments for people living with chronic illnesses. Strict regulations mean that the vast majority of clinical trials offered nowadays are safe. ‘Phase one’ drugs (i.e drugs that have not yet been tested on human subjects) pose the highest risk, but are only given in very small doses. Prior to phase one, the drug is generally tested in Petri dishes, and then on rats, mice and monkeys.
Despite these precautions, there are occasionally people who react badly. One man died in 2016 while taking part in an experimental drug trial for a painkiller in France, while five other participants were hospitalised. Perhaps the most notable modern example of clinical trials gone wrong is the infamous ‘Elephant Man’ trial in 2006. Despite being given a dosage 1/500th the size of the highest dose used on animals, participants experienced organ failure, severe swelling, and gangrene – causing one volunteer to lose his fingers and toes. Among them was New Zealander David Oakley, whose head swelled so much it ‘looked like a balloon with slits’ – giving rise to the Elephant Man tag.
Don’t be too put off, though. These horror stories represent outliers in what is otherwise a safe and heavily regulated system.
Our UoA students didn’t report much in the way of side effects. “I did get a headache on the day I received the first dose and vomited later in the night,” says Jess, “but at the time it was unclear whether that was anything to do with the drug or not, because everyone else seemed completely fine.” Seems like a fair price to pay in exchange for thousands of dollars, right?
The Bottom Line
When I asked what they found surprising about the experience, both students noted that they didn’t expect to have such a good time. “I actually hung out with the people I met on the trial afterwards,” says Jess – “ we did a BYO and still chat on social media now and again. The nurses on the trial were also really nice – all very friendly and amicable.” Jeffrey enjoyed the experience enough to go back multiple times. The first study, he was paid $7500 for a 19-day inpatient stay, which he used to go on holiday for seven weeks. The second study was 26 nights long and earned him a whopping $9000, which went towards a mortgage deposit. Overall, clinical trials seem to be a pretty good gig for broke students to earn money quickly. Whether altruism is a motivating factor or not, it’s a good feeling to know that you’re helping a pharmaceutical company develop treatments that will ultimately help people. While putting yourself at risk of bodily harm for cash may sound a little degrading on paper, I ask you this; is it any more degrading than working retail and being yelled at by members of the public for eight hours a day?