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Debt-ridden students turn to drug trial money

Doctor injecting drug

Phil and Pam Gradwell under a Creative Commons Licence

Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit, aka Sh!t Theatre, have created a theatre piece addressing the growing numbers of students acting as human guinea pigs in drugs trials to pay off their debts.

This year’s university graduates will be moving on from their education with debts of £30,000 ($48,000) or more. Meanwhile, in student unions and campuses around the country, students read adverts about Phase 1 medical trials, which pay their ‘volunteers’ around £3,000 ($4,800) for just under a month’s work, and pharmaceutical trials such as Flu Camp. Such adverts are also to be found alongside work listings at the job centre, and at the back of free newspapers. In short, Phase 1 medical trials (trials on healthy volunteers) are specifically being marketed at people with the least amount of money and who are the most fearful about job prospects.

But is selling your body to medical science as creepy as it sounds?

Our investigation for our show Guinea Pigs on Trial, which was nominated for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, led us to speak to former ‘guinea pigs’, interview health professionals such as Doctor Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Pharma and Bad Science) and apply to medical trials ourselves.

Our research revealed that Phase 1 trial risks are actually relatively low, considering you are being pumped with experimental new drugs. Guinea pigs are surrounded, and closely monitored, by doctors – and only the healthiest volunteers are accepted. One guinea pig we interviewed participated in three trials throughout his degree. He used the time and money to finish his dissertation, fund six months’ travelling and as a starting fund for his now successful juicing business. The worst side-effect he experienced was boredom from the bland hospital food.

The risks are, however, more insidious. There is a real problem with trial transparency. Pharmaceutical companies are not legally obligated to publish negative trial results and have been known to hold back findings, not just preventing them from being published in journals, but hiding them from doctors conducting research. This has led to some incredibly dangerous trials where lives are put at risk. The most infamous recent example of this was the ‘Elephant Man Trial’, which we probe in our show.

The official name for guinea pigs is ‘paid volunteers’. The £3,000 they receive may seem generous for less than a month’s work, but once overnight stays are taken into account, the per-hour rate does not work out as much as one would expect. Medical regulations stipulate that fees must be kept purposefully low so as not to act as an inducement to participate in ‘risky, unpleasant or degrading trials’. Naturally, the less money you have, the larger that small sum will seem, almost guaranteeing that it is overwhelmingly poor people who volunteer their bodies. How ‘voluntary’ is this really? In Britain, there is also a direct correlation between poverty and lack of access to medical advancements: ironically, it is likely that guinea pigs will have less access to the very drugs they are helping to develop.

This is nothing compared to the US, where there is no national health service and guinea pigs are not protected by medical insurance once the trials are over. There is a movement towards unionizing and fighting for more basic employment rights for guinea pigs in the States (exemplified by online communities such as Guinea Pig Zero), but so far the situation remains the unchanged.

Guinea Pigs on TrialThere is nothing intrinsically wrong with medical trials themselves; they are essential for the advancement of medicine. In this economic climate, students can earn some relatively quick money to help with their debts and perhaps use some quiet time in the hospital to focus on their studies. However, when it is still overwhelmingly the poorest in society who are risking their bodies (small though that risk is) there is still something about the financial grey area of medical trials that is, as Dr Ben Goldacre told us, ‘a bit icky’.

Written by Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit.

Guinea Pigs On Trial (right) opens SACRED, the annual season of live art and contemporary performance at Chelsea Theatre on 21 and 22 November. www.chelseatheatre.org.uk

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