That time I was a pharmaceutical guinea pig


You might have heard the whispers that speak of clinical trials – those fearful ordeals unleashed upon the financially destitute by ‘BIGPHARMA.’

Lulled in by the promise of a large sum of money from these pharmaceutical companies, it is said you will be subject to period of solitary confinement where you will be strapped to your bed whilst you scream for your mother and pumped full of drugs – the names of which could be mistaken for anagrams of the alphabet.

It is there you are kept for a number of days, comforted only by the company of trainee nurses who are practicing how to do blood tests on you by trial-and-error, and the prospect of a convenience meal that looks like it hatched in a lab.

In front of you will be a clock that ticks by the second, making you aware of every moment you are missing out on in the outside world – which you might all but forget about were it not for the distant hum of traffic beyond the closed blinds. Yeah it pays well, but good luck explaining that third nipple to your lover.

And it was here I found myself out of desperation, after blowing everything I had previously on aimless travel. After almost a year of gallivanting around the world convincing myself I was Jesus, I was sent tumbling back to earth in a cacophony of mind-numbing jobs and existential crises as soon as my bank balance started to run low.

With England’s bleak realities bringing me to the edge of my sanity, I had no option but to set my sights on the horizon once more, and no other way of making money fast enough, it became clear what I had to do.

You can stop talking about yourself now – what is a clinical trial?

Clinical trials for healthy volunteers are conducted by a number of drug research companies in the UK, including Parexel, Quintiles and Hammersmith Medicines Research (HMR). When pharmaceutical companies produce a new drug that they think may provide a new or improved cure for an illness, they pay these companies to conduct human trials, so they can establish how suitable it is for the market.

These research companies then pay a substantial ‘compensation’ for the inconvenience caused to the people who take part. Of course, they use the word compensation to make it seem as if money isn’t the only thing everyone here cares about.

Although many trials have been taking place every week for years in the UK without any notable complications, when mentioned, most people will invariably harp back to the case in 2006 dubbed “Elephant Man.” Call me harsh, but people do get struck by lightning. This was a very unfortunate accident and if anything, it has made the process all the more regulated.

Far from the horrific ordeal I described in the introduction to trick you into reading this, I actually spent the majority of my time cozied up in bed reading, sleeping and scrolling, interspersed with the occasional snack on a banana. But you can keep reading if you like.

The screening

After ringing around and deciding which trial provided the most money for the least effort, I rooted for a study being conducted by Quintiles, based in London Bridge. Following a phonecall, I was asked to attend a screening visit in their London Bridge hospital unit, where they would perform some simple tests to check I was eligible for the trial.

After accidentally wandering in to a narcolepsy ward and asking a patient who I mistook for a member of staff if I was in the right place, I was eventually sent in the right direction, or more accurately, an entirely different building. Thanks Google Maps.

In this study they were testing three different drugs that were for the treatment of arthritis. We were told we would be receiving just a single dose of one of these. Two were already on the market in the EU and the US and would be given in pill form, whilst the third was a new drug and would be given via an injection in to the abdomen. In an exciting twist of Russian roulette, we were told that who receives what would be completely randomised.

Interestingly, it was essential that we read all of the information about the trial in the provided 30 page booklet, including a two page list of ‘extremely rare’ side effects including cancer, heart attack and death. After being told over 200 people had already completed this study without as much as a snivel, I decided that this section would cause unnecessary worry and turned a blind eye.

But what I didn’t know was the doctor was going to quiz me on what I had read, and after my cheeky dismissal became obvious, I was sent back to the waiting room to thoroughly rehearse the ways I might die, before eventually satisfying the doctor that I was fully aware. Naughty me.

After providing urine and blood samples, and having my blood pressure and heart rate checked, I was sent on my way to tensely await my results.

Day 1 – Day 5 – A slumber blur

When I started writing this on Day 2, I was going to break each day down and tell you in detail all about my enthralling adventures in the ward. But as time progressed it became clear that my time would be spent doing mainly what hungover people do on Sundays, so in a bid to keep any of the readers I have retained at this point, I will try to summarise things.

The first day was taken up by waiting to find out which bed we were going to be allocated once they confirmed that nothing had changed in the two weeks that had passed since screening. Namely, they wanted to check we hadn’t been on an almighty cocaine binge during the previous weekend.

During the wait I began to read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, a story of a young shepherd who travels from the fields of Spain to Egypt in search of treasure he foresaw in a dream. On the way he encounters kings, gypsies, crystal merchants, desert nomads and a sarcastic Englishman.

I related the fable to my own situation – a man on a quest to fund his great journey into the unknown where he will come to know love, adventure and prosperity, and that he is the sarcastic Englishman. It certainly feels better than imagining myself to be an unemployed vagrant who treads the thin ice between himself and failiure – this study being the only thing preventing the ice from cracking.

Whilst I revelled in this fantasy, more serious things were being done with my bodily fluids in a laboratory somewhere, and I was finally confirmed for dosing and allocated a bed. It was then that I changed into the pyjamas I would stay in for the following four days.

The second day brought the kind of atmosphere I can only compare to that of a Tuesday during a 9-5 working week. You dragged yourself through Monday only to realise there are still four more days of drudgery to come.

So the moment had come for that Russian roulette I mentioned earlier. As I glanced at the other nine subjects in their beds around the ward, I could sense the tension. Who’s abdomen was going to be getting on the right side of a needle this morning?
I was approached in my bed by an elderly doctor, whose presence of comforting wisdom seemed to have been adopted only to comfort the unfortunate.

Indeed I was right – one other lucky member of the group and I were going to be receiving an injection of the study drug into our abdomen. The doctor assured me I’d feel no more than a little discomfort, but he also mentioned I would have to wear blacked out glasses so I couldn’t see the procedure. A little contradictory, I thought.

After a vocal countdown to the precise time of 10:50am by a nurse, the glasses went on and the needle went in… and what an anti-climax it was. All the tests, the waiting and the rehearsing of ways this might kill me – all condensed down into a feeble poke in the stomach. Then they left me there.

For the following four days, I was left to wallow in my own isolated boredom, broken up only by a blood test each morning. I would have talked with the other people there had they not have been permanently fixated on a screen, newspaper or any other object that provided escape from their present clinical reality.

A Terry Pratchett book provided some solace for a while, as did a few episodes of Game of Thrones. I even drew some pictures and wrote some poems. Once these methods of entertainment ran dry, I came up with the idea to play pool against myself in the abandoned ‘Recreation Room.’ There was a TV with Sky, but nothing turns boredom into suicidal tendencies more than daytime TV. Eventually, I decided to start writing this.

As for debilitating side effects and third nipples, there really isn’t much to report. One man who spent his entire time in bed staring at the ceiling vomited in the hallway before he had even been dosed, later being sent home. Some people just can’t handle the boredom. Everyone else who actually received the medicines were, strangely enough, fine.

Well there was one guy who complained about being constipated, later realising that it was just the plastic meat he had been provided with at meal times. Luckily for me I don’t eat animals, which although got me some funny looks, saved my bowels any distress.

When day five eventually arrived, I was up, showered and fed two hours prior to my departure. Don’t think I have ever been that early for anything. I guess it just shows what you can achieve when you really want something, and a completing a clinical trial just shows what you can achieve when you’re desperate.

Well, was it worth the risk?

You probably wanted to know how much I got paid at the start. But I’m not going to give something like that away so early on. You have to work for that kind information.

When all the check ups are done in December, I will be paid £2500. But remember, money doesn’t make you happy and there is a 0.0000001% you might die, so don’t even think about it.

Jokes aside, I generally think it is a reliable money-maker for the needy, an interesting experience for the writer and possibly informative for people interested in medicine.

I’m personally interested in natural medicine and overthrowing the Government, so Test Drug X99Y275TBH didn’t really pique my interest, but we’ll talk about how I’m selling my soul later.

You might even sign up on the moral high ground that you are playing a part in the release of a new, life-changing medicine for the masses. What you would be missing is that the majority of these drugs don’t make it past testing and even when they do, they probably do more harm than good. But give yourself a pat on the back anyway.

Obviously I have failed to be completely serious to anyone who might be reading this and considering signing up. There are risks, although minor here in the UK, where the previously mentioned case is the only one of its kind.

At screening the doctors will make it very clear that however ridiculously unlikely, you might die. You won’t, but you might, if you understand that logic. So go in with a  clear mind, and remember, people do get struck by lightning.

The risks are kept low by the dosage which is kept to a minimum, usually a single dose, and the constant monitoring and tests that will detect any reactions. These companies care more about you dying than you, trust me, they get paid too much to be making mistakes.

If you’re a unemployed, saving for travel, a student, a freelance worker or anything else that gives you time to play with, I say it’s worth looking in to a clinical trial. Do your reading about what is being tested, see what kinds of tests they will be performing on you and generally get in the know.

In a world where you never know what’s around the corner, or when you’re going to catch Ebola, I would say if you’re considering it and you feel OK supporting the financial incentives of the pharmaceutical industry – who care more about money than cures – then by all means go for it. What’s the worst that could happen?


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