For the last five years I have taken part in Clinical Research Trials – pharmaceutical drug studies where people test medicines being developed in exchange for money. Here I explore the rather strange idea of what it is to be a human guinea-pig.
It’s day ten in the guinea-pig house and my eyes are slowly becoming squared as I incessantly watch old repeats of The Chase while eating my designated lunch: two bread rolls filled with salad and tuna accompanied with a bag of crisps, a banana and a decaffeinated coffee. My eyes move to the large digital clock on the wall which continues to taunt me as it ticks by slowly. The time is 12.45pm and in five minutes I will report back to my bed to undergo this afternoon’s health examination – a regimented procedure that involves my blood being sucked out through a cannula, my urine being collected, an ECG test, and a general discussion with the resident doctor to ensure that I haven’t grown a third hand, contracted the plague or developed elephantiasis.
You know when I first signed up as a volunteer to test the latest pharmaceutical medicines, I thought it would just be a one or two-time thing during university – a quick fix to get some much-needed beer money at the expense of taking a few harmless, unknown drugs. But that was over five years ago now. With this latest clinical trial (an eighteen day stay involving me being one of the first human-beings to take some pills designed to treat ‘non-alcoholic fatty liver disease’), I am now on trial number ten and well and truly climbing the career ladder of the human guinea-pig industry – a competitive sector where anyone can succeed as long as they don’t smoke, aren’t morbidly obese, and don’t mind being stabbed with a needle four times a day by an unqualified nurse.
Just in case you aren’t too familiar with what a ‘medical trial’ actually is, it’s essentially an experiment which involves regular, healthy people taking a new drug that is being developed by a pharmaceutical company to ensure that it doesn’t kill or paralyse you before it can be judged safe for legal consumption. Usually volunteers are enclosed in a private clinic for the duration of the study where they consume the drug and hand over their bodies on the pursuit of the most ubiquitous medicine out there: money. Think of it as a more vivid realisation of the modern-day corporate workplace – a place where people go to have their blood sucked dry while selling their time, mind, body and soul to a multi-million-pound company for the payment of a financial fee. Not such a foreign concept now, right?
Speaking of money, on this particular trial I will be ‘reimbursed’ £2580 for seventeen nights of hard labour – a solid amount, but not quite as much the last one I did testing a treatment for a white blood cell disease called ‘Neutropenia’ which paid a grand total of £2980. Yes, you heard right; that’s three grand to take some pills and spend the working day lying in a bed, playing pool, watching old movies, having food brought to you and writing this introspective article while I question my sanity and wonder whether I – ‘subject number 001’ – am still a normal, civilised member of society.
Of course I am, right? This is just a normal job like any other I convince myself while staring at my fellow guinea-pigs wired up to an ECG device while having their blood sucked into a container. Take the middle-aged firefighter snoring on the bed beside mine – he has regularly been doing three trials a year to gather some extra holiday funds. Or take the scary-looking guy staring at me from across the ward – a long-haired elderly man who curses and shouts to himself at night while on his computer. Yep, normal people in a normal
profession just making an honest buck to try and get by in this world.
“But what about your health? Isn’t it dangerous? What if you die?”
Naturally there are always the questions and concerns from family and friends when you tell them you’re off to go test the latest drug being developed to try and cure Crohn’s disease or something, but this is expected from those who are uninitiated with the technical ways of the human guinea-pig industry.
Like I assure my parents, I aim to partake in trials where the drug being trialled has at least been taken by other humans before. However, like most people, my eyes are more fixated on the fee involved – a tax-less exchange of money which has now, for the tenth time, helped contribute and fund a hedonistic lifestyle of world-wide travel and partying (my last trial paid for a two month adventure in Central America). They do mention something about an ‘ethics council’ being involved which – along with meeting seasoned guinea-pigs who have tested drugs for twenty years – is good enough to give me professional peace of mind while I sleep and laze around.
It’s not all lying around and getting paid to watch daytime television though
– there are downsides too. For example: the lack of natural daylight; having to eat at designated times; sharing a room with other ‘subjects’; and, of course, potentially dying. I guess it’s also a bit awkward when people ask you “what you are doing now” and they stand there expecting a generic answer about some 9-5 office job, but you instead have to inform them that you are pimping yourself out for money in a brothel of medicinal research. The usual return look is either one of terror or bewitched curiosity. Either way, you are immediately placed on the back-foot trying to justify your way of life to the other person and, perhaps subconsciously, yourself.
But the madness of being a human guinea-pig is a necessary madness I tell myself. For if it wasn’t for heroic test subjects like myself and my colleagues, then how would these pharmaceutical companies commission a new antibiotic? How would we work closer to curing Crohn’s disease and Neutropenia? How would people like me actually contribute toward society? If you excuse the conspiracy theorists for a second and pretend all drugs being developed are to cure illnesses and make the world a better place, then I guess you can sort of see guinea-pigs like me as real-life superheroes – shadowy figures selflessly laying ourselves down and bearing the brunt of unknown drugs and their side effects in the quest to make the world a healthier place.
Yes, as the nurse comes around and hooks me up to the blood pressure machine while sucking blood out through my cannula like water from a tap, this is the philosophy I am gonna delude myself with I decide. Whether in a farm of an office, we all have our place in the world; and for me this is where I fit into the capitalist machine of society – lying in a hospital bed in a private clinic as I step forward into the light and engage in battle against the evil villains of fatty liver disease and the common cold. Sure, some people punch numbers in a computer, some teach, some stack shelves, some fix cars – but me? I am a Guinea-Pig Man – the hero the world needs, but perhaps not the one it deserves.
Anyway, time for me to go piss into container and watch The Chase for the third time today..