By Natalie Russell
It’s early, and Shannon Richards* just woke up for her first dose of medicine.
Over the course of the day, the Athabasca University student will give about 20 blood tests. The rest of the time, she’ll lounge on one of the many chairs — the clinic’s scientists advised her to relax. Walking around could cause her to faint, or something much worse.
Richards watches some fellow volunteers opt for catheters over needles. And she watches people pass out from seeing the catheters inserted. “People just can’t stand having their blood taken,” she says. But for some, the blood tests were just the beginning.
Richards is working as study participant — a lab rat — for Pharma Medica, a Canadian pharmaceutical-research company. Today, she’s testing a nasal spray. As the day wore on, the side effects started to kick in. All around her, volunteers started to complain about headaches and nausea — the two most common reactions within the facilities.
And as the day dragged forwards, the side effects got worse. “People would drop out of the study because they felt their side effects were too much. I didn’t really talk it over with them. They would just take off.”
Richards took part in this particular study earlier this year, adding to the ranks of students who are resorting to human testing as an alternative route to make money. The practice of working as a research subject is rampant across the country, with tests offered in most major Canadian cities. In fact, clinical trial powerhouse Biovail International has more than 80,000 healthy volunteers in their database for Toronto alone.
But there’s a valid question about where the companies go to harvest their volunteers. Several research facilities advertise on campuses across the country. And while targeting students as a financially vulnerable demographic makes sense, the line blurs between whether the testing is employing or exploiting students.
Medical testing on human subjects has a stain-ridden past, with many of the early experiments being completely involuntary. In the Auschwitz concentration camp, under the reign of Dr. Josef Mengele, Nazis performed gruesome human experimentation, focusing on twins or captives with physical disabilities.
But in the 1960s, the World Medical Association developed the Declaration of Helsinki, a code of research ethics dealing specifically with human experimentation. Although it is not internationally binding, many see the declaration as a cornerstone of ethical research. It also paved the way for the Institutional Review Board (IRB), an independent ethics review board that aims to protect the rights of the individual.
But even with guidelines protecting the participant, informed consent doesn’t prevent the chance of side effects. FDA-approved pharmaceuticals kill at least 100,000 Americans each year. Last year, American drug company Parexel ran a clinical trial in England on an anti-inflammatory drug, TGN1412, designed to treat arthritis and leukemia. Within hours, six participants suffered multiple organ failures. After recovering, one man told reporters he took the test to pay for a new laptop.
Former test participant Katrina Georgaras can relate to the appealing pay. In fact, she made it a weekly routine for two years.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the fourth-year Ryerson student made her way from campus to Richmond and Church streets. There, she visited a seemingly mundane building, climbed the single flight of stairs and entered her part-time job: the Glycemic Index (GI) Laboratory.
After making small talk with the on-duty supervisor, Georgaras collected a handful of vials and diabetic-like needles, and got to work. She inserted the first vial into the end of the needle and pulled a string: it was now cocked and loaded. She pressed the prick-end against her finger; an automatic spring triggered the syringe, and a few drops of blood fall into the container. She dismantled the contraption, removed the vial and numbered it, “No.00.”
It was the first of eight.
But blood was just a minor inconvenience on the path to her reward: money. “They pay $15 an hour, plus the cost of subway,” she says, adding that she only had to work four hours a week performing a relatively simple task.
But there’s major concern with money being the incentive for volunteering. A study performed by the department of Bioethics at the National Institute of Health suggests “concern remains about money unduly inducing participation and as such obscuring risks, impairing judgment or encouraging misrepresentation.” In other words, the attraction of money can skew the authenticity of any informed consent.
Jen Hassum, the chairperson at the Canadian Federation of Students, puts it a little more bluntly.
“It’s a form of exploitation. They’re targeting people who need money because of the financial strains put on them by rising tuition fees.”
But the GI Labs disagrees. Although the facility advertises on the campuses of Ryerson, University of Toronto and George Brown College, the company’s spokesperson Atarah Grysman suggests that students aren’t targeted because of their financial vulnerability. Instead, she says that the structure of the testing facilities fits well with a student’s hectic schedule. “You just come to us, you can read your textbook, you can write an essay, you can do whatever you want,” says Grysman.
“As long as you come and sit in our lab, we’re happy,” she says.
“It’s easy money.”
The testing at GI Lab is less intensive compared to other recognized corporations that perform paid medical research. (Most notable companies include Apotex, Biovail, Allied Research International and Pharma Medica.) These corporations test for a range of ailments — from ragweed allergies to anti-seizure medication — with the duration of the study, number of participants and compensation depending on the specific study.
But one thing is always certain: The longer and more draining the testing, the healthier the compensation.
And with eight studies behind her, Shannon Richards has realized the most important part of the tests: sticking to the end. The overnight studies generally pay between $1,200 and $1,500 for two weekends — enough money to ignore any minor side effects. “If you left the first weekend, you’d probably only get a couple hundred bucks.”
And for Richards, the whole point of taking the tests is the money. While she thinks the companies are targeting the financially desperate, she simply can’t refuse to accept it in the face of tuition and living fees. And she’s fine with that. “Most people wouldn’t just take a medication if they didn’t need the money.”
*Name changed because she signed a confidentiality clause.