'Not Just for the Money': What it’s Like to Be A Human Lab Rat

"The food is pretty average, kind of like mid-2000’s highway servo gourmet. Fulfils a function, but at what cost?"

It’s 2020. The world is knee deep in the pandemic. You’re pinched for cash, maybe saving for something special and maybe just trying to get by. Shift work is eroding your resolve. A tax-free lump sum of cash sounds pretty fucking good. The trade off? A few days of your life, in the name of science. Tempting.

We’ve all been there. Well, I know I have. Clinical trials are just one of those things. 

There’s always that one friend who’s talking about doing one but never does. And we all know someone who made the leap, came out unscathed, and decided to continue to sacrifice their bodies and precious few hours on this earth. In exchange for a fat cheque, of course. 

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And the cheques are, indeed, fat. Cosplaying a lab rat has its perks. 

There’s something intriguing, bizarre and frankly, dystopian about it all. A handful of people from all walks of life happen to cross paths at the intersection of science and humanity.

While I’m endlessly curious as to what goes on in those sterile rooms, I’ve never actually had the gall to go through with it. So I asked a few people who had. 

So, what got you into clinical trials?

Mike, 33-years-old: I was doing Uber driving as a bit of extra income. And I was dropping off a passenger at a clinical trial and he was telling me all about it. I found it super interesting. Then he was telling me about the money and I was like, ‘Hell! I've got a random schedule. I'm going to sign up.’ 

So I did, I signed up. And I wasn't really concerned about it at all. They give you a rundown on what they're testing and what the expected side effects might be. But generally speaking, the risk is super, super low.

João, 25-years-old: I first did it when I had no job and my Centrelink was taking ages to be approved. I saw this ad and I was like ‘yep.’

It’s truly such a random experience, some people in there literally describe it as a paid holiday, which I think is so funny.

Mia, 24-years-old: I had been semi-warned by a couple of friends that [clinical trials] were very uncomfortable and very strange, but $1600 was very alluring. I did a four-day clinical trial for pulmonary hypertension study. Turns out getting paid $1600 to sit in bed and eat snacks was definitely worth it.

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Jim, 26-years-old: It seemed like a good way to make money. I had a friend that had done a couple and he recommended it. 

Clementine, 23-years-old: The money. It was at the start of 2020, before Centrelink payouts were a thing. I only stayed one night because they rejected me because my veins were too small. So now I feel insecure about my veins being small. But I got paid for the night and didn’t get given the medication, so that was an easy $375.

How were the vibes?

Mike: You go a little bit crazy. I typically sign up for the longer ones because it's better value for money. The shortest one I've done was 11 days and the longest was 14 days. By the end of it, you and all your friends are kind of just laughing at everything and losing it a little. 

A group of guys that I met on the very first one, I've stayed really good friends with. And since then, I've made a couple of friends each time that I've actually kept in touch with.

João: I’ve been doing them for like three years, I’ve just done my fourth one, and it may have been my favourite, because I came in with a lot to do on my laptop. Someone brought their own PS4 and a monitor, something like that could last me a long time.

Mia: For some reason, all of the nurses were Irish and so funny. We bonded heaps and they said it was one of the best wards to be placed on because everyone was just chilling. They actually had epic facilities: a cafeteria, video game room and a communal TV area with a view of the ocean.

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The woman in the bed next to me was particularly iconic. She was like 40 years-old, from Cronulla, and this was maybe her 8th clinical trial. She knew all the life hacks, like what snacks were the best and when was the best time to shower.

Jim: There’s a strange amount of camaraderie in the clinic. People are in there for a few weeks at a time sometimes, so people get really chummy.

Clementine: I was there during lockdowns, so the vibes were bad. Mainly because I couldn’t have coffee for three days prior, so I was dying of caffeine deprivation. Never felt so shit.

I spend 14 nights here and I make two months pay of what I’d make in a bar working 40hrs a week.

Assuming the payout was the best part, what’s the strangest part?

Mike: It's weird, because you have to spend the whole time that you’re there in the clinic, especially in COVID times where they're so strict on what's happening. So you don't actually get to leave. And you can’t have any coffee. That's the weirdest part, having your own version of lockdown where you don't get any fresh air and you’re very limited to their meal schedule. It feels like you're in some weird little game show.

João: My second time in, out of all the people there was this guy I had slept with in Japan. He’d messaged me saying he was moving here and I had just blocked him because cbf. Then lo and behold he’s in the clinical trial with me. I just kept pretending I was on the phone when he’d come over. Or he’d come and really quickly I’d be like ‘omg I have to run I think I’m late for my next round of vitals/bloods’.

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Mia: The weirdest part was probably the other patients. It has massive hostel vibes where you just spend so much time in close proximity to a very diverse range of people. Some people wanted to chat the entire time and then some people stayed in bed the whole time.

Jim: The weirdest part is getting woken up at strange hours for tests. I was in for an asthma treatment so they would take blood while I was asleep from a cannula then wake me up to do a lung function test. The food is pretty average, kind of like mid-2000’s highway servo gourmet. Fulfils a function, but at what cost?

Clementine: The food was disgusting. I was a vegetarian at the time, I actually did feel a bit hungry, which I never do. And I didn’t like one of the doctors who interviewed me – a creepy old guy. 

Would you do it again?

Mike: I'm hoping to get one, maybe at the end of April. I’ve just got to wait because they’ve got a mailing list and they’ll send around an email. 

I was definitely attracted by the money originally, because you get the 11 day ones which are worth just over $3500. But I’m helping science, too. I'm doing a good thing at the same time. Like, I've got a friend who’s a bit ill, and she's like, ‘I really appreciate it, because you're helping them research the things that help people like me’. 

João: I’ll keep doing them. Not just for the money. It’s like a random thing to do that breaks up my schedule in a different way. Quitting weed if anything is the most annoying thing. But I’m pretty chill with it. The money waiting for me at the end makes it easy.  

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Mia: I think it would’ve been way weirder having to spend time isolated inside for multiple days if we hadn’t had lockdown for the past 2 years. I just did my uni work and online tutorials during the day, would do some yoga, read and have snacks. I would definitely do it again and have been looking to do another with a friend, as you’d literally get paid to hang out. I think a trial that was longer than a week would be hard but then again the payment significantly increases the longer the study is.

Jim: It’s no good if you just do it so you don’t have to work, but if you’re using that money to complete a goal it’s totally fine, because you’re like: okay, I spend 14 nights here and I make two months pay of what I’d make in a bar working 40hrs a week, so now I can go live in my van for six months and actually eat good food and pay for petrol and live a cool life.

I’d do a bunch more. It’s such an efficient way of making money. There’s also a $500 referral bonus so whenever I tell people about my experiences with it and that I recommend it they think I’m a plant, but really I just don’t like working and it’s a pretty fun/surreal/kinda altruistic thing to do.

Clementine: If my veins weren’t too small, I’d probably give it another go. But also, I don’t know, I did go to apply to do it again and the trial was a tiny bit dodgy. It wasn’t something I would’ve felt comfortable doing. They were saying that some people had fainted, that some people had gotten super dizzy. It was a neurological medication, and I was a bit like ‘woah, maybe testing medication isn’t that chill, especially when you’re young’.

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Read more from VICE Australia.

Tagged:

clinical trial, Youth, Australia, Australia/NZ, Drugs, Money, Science, medication

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