Can't afford tuition? Consider being a human guinea pig

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Written by Scott Gilbert

Some consider it pimping your body out to big pharma, some see it as a rather relaxed full-time job with good benefits and no tax, while others consider it a viable alternative to racking up massive student debt. But regardless of varying personal opinions, clinical trials are becoming increasingly popular - particularly among students.

From 1990 to 2000 the average undergraduate tuition in Canada increased 135.4% - more than six times faster than the rate of inflation over the same time period. These fees continue to rise with no end in sight as both Conservative and Liberal governments have slashed or withheld urgently needed funding for post-secondary education. Average student debt for an undergrad is now approximately $25,000 – but some are saddled with debt loads of up to $60,000 before even considering graduate work. All of this is debt with interest of course, so unless you score an executive-salary job immediately upon graduation, many will end up paying twice what they initially owed by the time the repayment plan is complete. If this sounds like you, then drop your hopes of being approved for a mortgage anytime soon.

Clinical trials are scientific research studies carried out on human subjects in hospitals, universities or private clinics. The trend over the last 2 decades has been a steady shift away from academic or government facilities and toward the private sector to what are called Contract Research Organizations (CROs).

While there are no large-scale CROs in Guelph, there are several in the Toronto area. These for-profit businesses work under contract to pharmaceutical companies, wings of government, or even private individuals willing to pay the tab for the scientific analysis on human subjects that is required for experimental drug research.

The attraction to students is the tax-free compensation they offer. Payment for most trials ranges from $200 - $500 per day (depending the nature of the study, the risk, the amount of sampling, etc). You don't need to claim this money on your income tax, and you are paid shortly after the trial is complete. For many students faced with summer work prospects of $8 per hour, a 35-hour work week, with taxes, EI, and other deductions on top of transportation costs, many can expect to make 3 – 10 times as much per day in a clinical trial than they can working a “normal” job – a figure that can be very tempting.

But is it worth it? Run a google search and you will undoubtedly uncover reference to many Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs) in clinical trials. This can be scary, and it's something people need to consider seriously – is risking your health, or even your life, really worth it for a few extra bucks? Probably not, but then again, not all trials are the same.

There is of course a gradient of risk, and one must look at the available information and make an informed, evidence-based decision. This gradient can range from something as benign as a questionnaire (or focus group) about ones habits, to an intense month-long 24/7 study where you are injected daily with a drug never tested on humans before. The relative risk of the two is obviously very different.

But consider something mid-range, such as an alcohol study. One study currently being conducted involves 2 visits to a clinic, each for 4 days straight (staying in-house overnight between the days). In this trial you are asked to drink a single shot of straight vodka first thing in the morning each day, and provide a urine and blood sample in the evening. Throughout the day your blood pressure and heart rate are monitored and recorded. Once you are released (total study is 8 days, spread out over 2 visits), you are compensated $2200 in tax-free cash. This almost covers tuition for a semester, and is more than many students would earn in an entire month of work, let alone save after rent, transportation, food and other living costs. In trials like the one described above you are fed 4 meals per day while in the clinic (for which you don't pay), get your own bed, have a TV, DVD player, computer and wireless internet for your amusement (these can also be used to study, of course). Plus, you are being constantly monitored by a team of physicians, nurses and paramedics for any adverse events. Considering the amount of vodka many students might consume in a bar on a Friday night without being within arms reach of medical care, the risk is arguably considerably less than just going out with your friends to a downtown bar on the weekend and the payoff is comparable to what most are likely to save after a summer of work if they live on their own.

Some studies carry more risk than others. One that was recently being advertised in Canadians newspapers (and carried out in Seattle) paid $8000 for only 4 days. The catch? You had to get malaria. The clinic promised you would be fine, but the deal was they would intentionally have you contract malaria, briefly study the impact it had on you, and immediately begin treatment which they ensure will cure you. After 4 days you are released and compensated handsomely. Malaria is no fun, but nether is trying to bank $8000 for your next year of full-time tuition plus textbooks. Some argue short term pain for long-term gain, and others say why take the risk.

The gradient of risk is the most important thing to consider with these trials, and this is up to the patient to asses. Such research studies have to pass reviews by Independent Review Boards (IRBs) that consist of health care professionals and local community members who review and approve all clinical research studies before they begin. Furthermore, all clinical trials in Canada must be authorized by the Health Products and Food Branch (HPFB) of Health Canada before they can proceed. Lastly, every patient who attends an initial screening session to see if they qualify for the study must undergo a process called informed consent. The details of the study are presented in writing for you to read. Once you have read them, a physician goes through each page in detail describing the risks and encouraging you to ask as many questions as possible so you fully understand the nature of the study. Patients can always voluntarily withdraw from a study at any time and will be compensated proportionally for the time they have committed. If you ever experience an adverse reaction during the study that threatens your health, the sponsor will pull you from the study and compensate you for the time you have invested.

While most studies are restricted to non-smokers, there is one CRO in Toronto that specializes in recreational drug use that accepts smokers for many of their trials. They also admit (for some studies) patients with traces of other drugs in their system such as THC – the active ingredient in marijuana (although they ensure you don't use other drugs while actually in the clinic). They regularly accept recreational users of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine, ketamine, cocaine and other substances.

Many of these trials are called “Phase I” research studies, generally meaning the drug is tested on “healthy” individuals. For these you have to be in overall good health and be free of major diseases, mental disorders and be able to pass a basic physical for things like blood pressure, heart rate, and the presence of certain toxins in your blood. Other trials are called “bioequivalence” studies which are usually where one drug that is already on the market is tested against another new drug for the same condition. Other studies are more specific and require patients with certain conditions such as diabetes, psoriasis, asthma, or being overweight.

If you poke around, there are usually one or two studies that most people would quality for regardless of their health or mental state. Whether or not you decide to participate in one depends on what you are willing to do, the risk you want to expose yourself to, and how much compensation you will receive. The major benefits are that the studies are confidential, the drugs are standardized, clean and have passed basic screening processes, and the compensation is tax-free while also being substantial for the time invested. Your participation is not logged on your medical record, the sponsor never gets to know your name and your personal information is never published anywhere. Lastly, for studies involving otherwise illegal drugs, you will never face criminal charges or problems at the border for participating (as long as you don't bring outside drugs in with you and use them on site against the policies of the CRO).

A sample of Toronto-area research clinics that offer such studies are:

DecisionLine Clinical Research (smokers accepted for some trials)
Pharma Medica Research Inc.
Allied Research International
Biovail Contract Research
S.T.A.R.T. Clinic
Centre for Addition and Mental Health
NOW Magazine listings for trials and focus groups

What do YOU think? Are clinical trials worth it? Is the compensation outstandingly good, or incredibly insufficient? Are the risks too high? Should more students in financial need consider this as a viable option or stay away at all cost? Please feel free to comment below.

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  1. Posted by: kelly on Sep 16, 2008 @ 10:30pm


  2. Posted by: Nick on Sep 17, 2008 @ 5:12pm

    I totally would contract malaria for $8000 haha

  3. Posted by: Katherine on Oct 10, 2008 @ 12:56am

    Thanks very much for this info... I stumbled across this method of making money some time ago, but had completely forgotten.

  4. Posted by: dumbest article ever on Oct 28, 2008 @ 8:26pm

    Yes, lets encourage people surrendering to Big Pharma in return for a small pay off. Never mind the fact that they (Big Pharma) cannot be held accountable if long term effects occur. If shame at stupid this article would be the feces.

  5. Posted by: Vanessa on Nov 30, 2008 @ 12:53am

    to 'dumbest article ever' - don't forget - even if YOU don't feel it's worth it to participate in a study like this, we need volunteers in order for medicine to move forward. Someone had to test the life-saving drugs that we have access too.

    To Scott - I think this is a great article. I think you've really shown both sides of the issue.

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