The 5 Scariest Things About Life as a Human Test Subject
Human medical test subject is in that category of jobs, along with sperm donor and medicinal pot grower, that kind of seem like free money. Sure, you can't get rich doing it, but it's there if you should ever need it. Take some pills, fill out some forms, maybe accidentally gain X-ray vision or something.
But, as with all things, this job is a way bigger deal than you thought. For instance ...
Get in Line, Because Everybody Wants to Do It
So you see an ad in the paper offering to pay a couple of hundred bucks to let yourself be injected with some experimental drug. You'd have to assume there isn't exactly going to be a line around the block to get in. This stuff is for the desperate and almost homeless, right?
"Just one more shot, sir, and you can get back to sleeping in storm drains."
Nope. Getting into a clinical trial can be just as hard as getting a real job, partly because you are going up against people who actually do clinical trials as their real job. In the business, they're called guinea piggers (except at Christmas dinner, when they presumably say they're waiters or something), and their numbers are in the thousands. This means that more often than not, applying for a trial forces you to compete against a gaggle of people whose resumes list their special skills as "metabolizing drugs and disregarding personal health for money."
These are the sort of folks who travel around the country doing the clinical trial circuit, calmly signing up for all kinds of research -- including tests that require them to spend weeks in a lab. They also follow a strict dietary regimen and abstain from alcohol and any drugs that could create a reaction with whatever mystery chemical they're ingesting next. Though even then, these uber-subjects might not qualify for reasons as obscure as, say, being the wrong size.
"Sadly, our shrinking potion has rendered you ineligible to test the antidote."
That's the other thing. To qualify for a certain study, you have to fit within the standards that they set for age and weight. Many require you to be a non-smoker, and alcohol is naturally a major no-no. Most studies also force you to abstain from over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol for up to 30 days before the study even begins. Basically, to sign up for a study, you have to hope that they have one with parameters you fit into, and that it's not already full of pros. And that's kind of amazing, considering ...
If Their Drug Poisons You, You're on Your Own
Let's say you make your way through the hordes of guinea piggers and actually manage to sign up as a test subject proper. You have filled out all the paperwork, sat through half a dozen interviews with various doctors and administrators and are on your way to earning that quick buck, drug testin' style. They inject you with their experimental substance. Then you wake from a weeklong coma, only to find out you now sport an exciting new disease that causes green dicks to sprout from the sides of your neck.
Or something far worse.
After you've stopped screaming, you realize you're going to be facing some pretty impressive medical bills and have no way of covering them, especially as your brand new Viridis dongneckium probably doesn't play well with your day job as a dental hygienist. Luckily, you can rely on the testing company to cover for their mistakes and pay your medical bills.
Saying that out loud guarantees you a dose of the "best medicine."
Ha, of course not! Hope you like turtlenecks, because there's almost no way you're getting a dime from them. Although the vast majority of human guinea pigs walk away more or less unharmed, sometimes things just go wrong. And you were informed of that when you signed the papers. Unfortunately, although both the government and the medical community have given countless recommendations, there are no laws whatsoever forcing the companies to provide compensation or medical care for their more ... unfortunate human guinea pigs.
So we find ourselves in a situation where the representatives of the testing facility are forced to look deep within their hearts and decide whether they want to help a person whose life they've effectively ruined. This goes about as well as you'd expect: A whopping 84 percent of medical centers tell the injured subject to piss off empty-handed, and the rest are willing to pay for medical care only. None are willing to compensate one red cent for lost wages or pain.
"Sorry, but it's not in our policy to give a damn. Enjoy your remaining toes!"
But you still have the government to protect you, right?
The Government Won't Protect You
Nope! Although the government does take a keen and intimate interest in the overall process of drug approval trials, they're not very inclined to give a shit about what happens to some of the smaller cogs in the machinery. Namely, you. Only a fraction of clinical trials actually end up in any federal government files. It's not entirely their fault -- there are countless tests taking place at any given moment. It's damn near impossible to keep track of them all, even if they're appropriately handled.
"At this point, we're just throwing stuff into syringes and seeing what happens."
What's more, the vast majority of commercial drug testing is in the hands of privately owned testing companies. They operate like any business; they make their research centers cozy and nice to keep their "customers" comfortable, but the courtesy often ends the moment the customer has an expensive problem. Because, like any business, they're ultimately in it for the money. When test subjects start changing color after sampling their new wonder drug, the companies can occasionally be tempted to cut corners when it comes to petty stuff like, say, reporting the incident.
Oversight of the system is largely left to the doctors who oversee the experiments, but the problem is if something bad happens, those same doctors are the ones responsible. Researchers have been known to abuse the shit out of the situation. "Safety protocol failures" happen, paperwork is left deliberately vague and violations are hand-waved away. As a direct result of these practices, nearly 5,000 test subjects suffer side effects or downright injuries that the doctors do not bother to report. Each year.
"Uh, she already looked like that."
But at least you risked your non-deformed hide in the name of scientific advancement. Whatever they tested on you will surely wind up helping some unlucky soul down the line. You're helping to save lives here! Well, the only thing is ...
Most Testing Is Futile
While some variation of what you're about to ingest might at some point make it to the drugstore shelf, chances are that you have just signed up for yet another medical pissing-in-the-wind project. Drug testing involves a whole lot of trial and error. Only one in 10,000 drugs makes it from early concept stage to legal status as medicine. Of the ones that make it to human clinical trial stage -- by which time most of the glitches should've been weeded out -- a staggering 80 percent never gain the FDA stamp of approval. In other words, four chances in five say your participation means precisely jack squat in the grand scheme of things.
"Turns out infecting people with syphilis doesn't control head lice."
What's more, drug trials on humans are wildly inaccurate. Clinical trials typically use a three-stage system that involves up to a few thousand willing participants. However, adverse reactions may only show up when the drug is taken by millions of people -- too many to get into a trial. In other words, they won't find out until the drug is already in distribution.
So even if your particular prototype drug happened to be among the precious 20 percent that eventually hit the shelves, there's no telling what it will do in the long term. Maybe it turns out to be the next Viagra, or maybe it proves to be another thalidomide. It happens all the time -- hell, Valium was on the market for 20 years before someone figured out that it's addictive.
"A drug that lets people forget all of their problems? It'll never catch on."
But let's face it, at the end of the day, you're doing this for the money. So, about that ...
The Money Sucks
Look, risk or no risk, the point is that drug testing is a lot of money for not much time or effort. It's the risk that you're getting paid for, so if you don't wind up with neck dongs, then you've beaten the system. Right?
Oh, quit whining. They can probably just lance it.
Well, a $500 check for popping some pills for a couple of days sounds like good money ... that is, before you factor in exactly how much of your time the study is going to take. A good chunk of better-paying clinical trials involve staying in -- or at least visiting -- the lab for several days, for blood sampling and monitoring of the effects. So after you get that $500 check, more often than not you realize you're in minimum wage territory.
Take this seemingly sweet-ass deal:
Holy shit, $1,900 for a four-weekend thing! Who wouldn't want to take part in this, even knowing the risks? That's great money, even after you notice that the "four-weekend study" spreads those four weekends over nearly three months.
Or is it? If you get out a pad of paper and add up all of the hours they've asked for up there, you'll get 220 hours across the three months. Factor in, say, five hours for return-visit commuting, and you'll get a grand total of $8.44 per hour. That's a McJob wage right there, and at least they don't require you to inject the secret sauce and see what happens.
And if something horrible happens, you might get workman's comp.
One study found that the average hourly wage of guinea pigs was actually slightly more than that: some $9.50 per hour. Sure, it's more than minimum wage, but we can't help but feel that your health and safety are worth at least $10.
Don't get us wrong; human guinea pigs are needed, and most of the tests are pretty routine fare. Just don't be so surprised when you find yourself scratching that suspicious itch as you fill in your hard-earned petty cash in its very own "human experiment subject" tax form.