With the number of clinical trials in the US on a steady incline, pharma companies need human volunteers. Lucky for them, there's a small but engaged group of broke people willing to forgo the usual options for quick money (waiting tables, shitty temp jobs, selling your panties on Reddit) and put themselves on the dicey front lines of medical science for cash.
After being tested on animals, clinical trials move into phase 1, where the drug's side effects and the rate at which it's processed in the body are tested on healthy subjects. We spoke to Sam Spadino, a Minneapolis resident who works as a human lab rat in those phase 1 clinical trials to support his true passions as a writer and filmmaker. (Fun fact: This is how Robert Rodriguez funded El Mariachi.) Full-time test subjects can make $18,000 to $28,000 a year participating in these trials, but there are of course risks involved with this line of work. That fact came into stark relief earlier this year when a phase 1 trial for an experimental painkiller in France left one man dead and put five in the hospital.
Spadino talked to VICE by phone from his day job, on day 71 of a 90-day thyroid medication study.
VICE: How are the accommodations?
Sam Spadino: I'm checked into a dorm-style clinic. The beds are all right; they're bunk beds. The food is pretty mediocre hospital-level food. Which is dumb—I'm getting paid $2,500 by the research company to do this study [which is three months but only includes three 72-hour inpatient visits]. Why are they skimping on the food?
Is that pay typical? How much do you usually make?
It's pretty typical; $250 a day is reasonable. You're there twenty-four hours [a day], but you're not really doing anything either. You're just hanging out, watching movies or reading. There's a pool table and games if you want to interact with your fellow guinea pigs.
What are the fellow guinea pigs like?
It's a range of people, from the crust punk scene to ordinary moms trying to make some extra money. And then there are the regulars who do studies all over. I usually don't try to interact with people. I put on my sunglasses, I put my hood up, and I just get into the zone. It's usually hard to get any writing done, but I have been able to monitor the election results coming in and do a lot of social media action from here. I make a lot of memes.
How did you get into guinea pig work?
One of my friends must have told me about it. It's been a while. [My first trial was] testing out a new delivery system of Fentanyl, a pretty hardcore painkiller. There was some sort of electronic patch that would deliver the dose, but they gave you a blocker, as they often do, so you don't feel the effects—unfortunately, you're not just in a stupor fucked up on Fentanyl. I also did a study that was with synthetic THC, and I got a little high off of that. They did a very small dosage, but I wasn't a pot user at that point, so I felt the effects. Right as I'm feeling it, my mom calls. I had to hold back a lot of laughter. She was a total buzzkill.
What kinds of reactions do you get for doing this work?
People ask, "Oh aren't you worried about your body and the long-term effects?" These are the same people that I've seen snort whatever they are handed at a party; I'm at a medical clinic having around-the-clock supervision, and you're doing bumps of God knows what. I've heard some horror stories of medical studies, but for the most part, I think they're pretty benign. For me, as a person who doesn't have healthcare, doing drug studies actually allows me to have regular checkups and physicals. I'm fortunate that I have good health, but if anything were to happen, I'm not that far away from a study doctor who has probably looked at me recently.
Have you experienced side effects from any of the studies?
I definitely have had side effects: fever-like symptoms at Pfizer in Connecticut. That was something they were predicting. I had the worst 24-hour sweats—hot sweats that made me feel like shit.
What are the weirdest studies you've ever been in?
In one particular study, I had to swallow a pill on a string—so basically, I swallowed this pill, and there was, like, a cord of dental floss that was long enough to let the pill go into my stomach, and then this string was taped to the side of my face, and it was in there for a while, and they had to withdraw the string, pull it back up my esophagus eventually. I don't know if you've ever tried to swallow a hair, but it doesn't feel good.
Then there was a study in which a little plastic dissolvable thing was inserted into my skin and was meant to make me tan. It was put into my abdomen. They left it in me, and they would take pictures of my skin to see if it was changing at all. They were expecting it to, like, really work, and I'd get like a crazy Brazilian tan or something. I have red hair and light skin. It didn't happen. So that was a letdown.
Any other interesting tidbits?
The longest study I've been in was about three weeks, in-patient. You don't get to leave. That's a fucking long time to keep [someone] cooped up. Three days feels like a long time with very little activity. That was a very easy study… a lot of those days were just waiting around collecting all of your urine. Studies will require you to collect your urine, and in that particular study, I believe it was collecting everything. It's a pretty unique feeling going to the bathroom in a bucket.
Has all this changed the way you look at the pharmaceutical industry?Absolutely. Look at all the money that gets poured into research. If you're conducting a multi-level [study] over the course of years, and you're paying each participant $6,000 if it's a longer study… just run the numbers on that. It's insane how much money goes into research and development on these drugs. As someone who doesn't use pharmaceuticals outside of drug studies, I don't mind benefiting from it, but in no way do I support the industry. I think it's a really fucked up system of legalized drug dealing. It's just a creative means to push products that don't really seem to cure anyone. I'm not saying that there are no good drugs out there, or that no cures have been discovered through the process, but for the most part, it's just this capitalistic industry largely benefitting on the same continued illness of people it is supposed to be helping. Considering how many sleeping pills are out there, [or] the amphetamines that are prescribed to kids… that's mind-blowing to me.
How can people interested in this work learn about studies?
There are websites; one is appropriately named "Just Another Lab Rat!" If you're looking for something, you can check that site out. It will tell you all the places these are happening and what the studies are. I think it's interesting that people who are used to traditional employment hear about something like this and are like, I would do that. When it comes down to it, most people are not going to do that. It's kind of a select group of weirdos who subject themselves to this.
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