Confessions Of A Human Guinea-Pig

Originally published in Cityscape Magazine, 1992

Almost everyone is aware of the controversial issue of vivisection and drugs testing on animals. However, little is known about the many research studies done on people in this country [UK], by some of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies. Every year thousands of people, in particular students and the the unemployed 'volunteer' to take part in human experiments ranging from psychology to microsurgery.

Pete, a twenty-four year old student at a London polytechnic, is one such person... It is 7pm and Pete walks into the pub for our interview; after buying him a drink we sit down and get to it. Without any encouragement, Pete produces a wad of documents, given toh im by the Glaxo Clinical Pharmacology Unit, which he eagerly thrusts into my hand. The first page is a newsletter called "Volunteers", which warmly welcomes Pete to their 'volunteer panel'. He laughs when I mention this and shows me the Glaxo Unit Word Search on the other side. "It's quite funny" he says, "officially we're all just volunteering to do this, almost like a favour. The £435 I get at the end is supposed to be a reimbursement of expenses, payment for my time and co-operation. We get shown loads of tacky videos on the wonders of modern science and this stupid newletter too; it's totally ridiculous."

Pete lights up his third cigarette and begins to tell me about how he got involved. "A friend of mine was doing it so I found out all about it through him, I just wnet through the phone book and called every research institute there was." He goes on to explain about getting on their study. "First of all they put you on their database and then they write to you when a new study starts. You then get a full medical which they pay you £20 expenses for attending."

When asked about drugs he shrugs his shoulders and smiles: "I was doing some smack and coke before Christmas, but it will all be gone by now. I'm pretty sure that they don't test for dope, only opiates and narcotics, so I'll be alright there. I won't be having another medical for about two weeks, so hopefully the E will be gone by then."

Every time that Pete goes to the clinic blood and urine samples are taken and he is given a full medical; if his drug taking is discovered he will immediately be thrown off the study without payment, although he didn't appear particularly concerned. "They tell you not to drink or smoke the day before you have a test, though a lot of people get really slaughtered and it mucks everything up. I don't really drink so I should be OK."

Pete shows little concern when asked about the side-effects that he might suffer from the treatment and fails to remember the name of the drug that he is being injected with. "They tell you how dangerous the tests are likely to be and what the possible side-effects are." This study is pretty easy but the staff get to do all the really easy stuff. The worst thing for me is having to sit there for ages with tubes stuck up one arm and a drip in the other. You don't have to work for your money, but it's not exactly a pleasant experience. If anything goes wrong they have a compensation scheme, so I'll get something, but there's nothing to go wrong really with this one."

Over the next four weeks Pete will be visiting the Pharmacology Unit once a week. On each visit he will have three sampling tubes inserted into veins in his arm, these three tubes will be used to influse lipids, heparin and a solution of glucose and insulin. His hand will be placed in a warmed box to increase blood flow, blood samples will then be taken to monitor his sensitivity to insulin. During test days he will also be required to fast.

For this particular study the possible side-effects, detailed by the Pharmacology Unit, are minor: shivering, high temperature and dizziness during treatment, there may also be irritation of the veins due to the tubes and glucose infusions. In the highly unlikley case that he should become ill, as a result of the study, Pete will be given free medical treatment at the Pharmacology Unit. If there is any serious deterioration in health Glaxo Group Research Ltd will pay what they regard to be appropriate compensation, although they are not legally obliged to do so. If the compensation is insufficient, he can have his case referred to an arbitrator appointed by the Royal College of Physicians, who has the power to consult experienced barristers.

A volunteer cannot prosecute over adverse effects due to studies, unless they have undergone treatment without giving their full consent. Volunteers are required to sign documents stating that they are fully aware of the procedures that will be followed and the risks involved. Pete flicks through his papers and pulls out a consent form to show me. "I've effectively signed away my rights to my own body" he says. "I had to sign over all of my medical records too. Hopefully I won't get ill, if I do I'll just have to hope that the compensation is enough; I can't sue then or anything like that, I've signed an agreement."

After another drink we walk to the house of one of Pete's polytechnic friends, which takes quite a while, meanwhile he expalins that he's too poor to take a cab or bus. "I should get the money during the Easter holidays" he says, "I'll pay off my overdraft and buy a load of coke. It will help me revise, I like working when I'm off my head."

Pete's final comments before we parted demonstrated perfectly his casual lack of concern about his involvement in drugs testing."I'm an employed guinea pig if you like. If you get into it, you could do this instead of a job. It's a bit like prostitution; I'm selling my body, it's just not as severe."

Like most drug testing volunteers, Pete's motives for his involvement are purely financial, in his case to supplement his grant and to buy drugs. However, in many other cases, for instance those caught in the poverty trap, people volunteer as they feel that they have no other way of earning money. There have been cases of volunteers on some studies becoming extremely ill, and even (rarely) dying as a result of drug testing.

One wonders how many people like Pete are being allowed to take part in these research studies, some of which will affect future medical treatments. Regardless of the ethics of testing on humans, there may well be cause for concern over the effects that illegal drug takers will have on the validity of results. Although many of the studies are performed on staff and other perfectly healthy individuals, if Pete managed to slip through the net, how many more are there like him? This begs the question - should people be so blatantly bribed into taking part, when so many put themselves and ultimately the general public at risk?