Roberto Abadie has just published The Professional Guinea Pig: Big Pharma and the Risky World of Human Subjects. It is a startling look into a dark American underworld where people risk their health and their lives by participating in clinical drug trials for easy cash. We interviewed him about his findings.
BioEdge: Not long ago I was in Boston and I noticed gigantic advertisements in the subway stations for human guinea pigs. How many are there in the US? Can you actually support yourself by enrolling in clinical trials?
Abadie: We don't know exactly how many professional healthy paid subjects there are in the US because there is no centralized registry. But every year hundreds of new investigational drugs are tested involving thousands of paid subjects.
There are basically two groups of subjects. One is the group I focused on my study -- healthy research subjects who make a living by testing drug safety in Phase I trials. Phases II and III test both drug safety and efficacy. They usually involve patients who have the condition the drug is supposed to address. If it's a cancer drug, it would be cancer patients, for HIV, HIV positive patients and so on.
For comparative purposes, I also studied a group of HIV patients testing different drugs or drug regimes in Philadelphia. While money was important for them, they volunteered to gain knowledge about disease, track the virus load and take and active participation in their treatment. These trials can last for years and they involve visits every month or so. For every visit patients would receive a bus token or two and around $30. I recently learned that at other research sites poor patients seem to do more than one at a time or one after the other to maximize financial gain.
This is a disturbing fact because these patients are very sick and vulnerable and serial participation in trials might expose them to serious, life-threatening risk.
Read it all here.