I was a human guinea pig

Why I allowed the medical establishment to test their new drugs on me.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

In the late 1990s, I volunteered for medical experiments at the research centre Medeval in Manchester, England. Since the disastrous tests of new drugs on volunteers at Northwick Park hospital in north London, which have left two men fighting for their lives, some of my family believe I’ve had a lucky escape.

Back then I was working as a full-time freelance music journalist. While the perks were reasonable enough, the infrequent pay was not. Selling promotional CDs of dreary bands like Radiohead and their ilk could provide weekend beer money but little else; so every four months or so I’d get paid, quite handsomely, for testing out new medical drugs. For me the set up was ideal. I’d spend 10 days in a hospital ward but could still knock out articles and album reviews. The forced enclosure also provided ample reading time. Believe me, the days and nights seemed very long indeed.

To become a volunteer you need a number of medicals to prove you are physically and mentally fit enough to take part. Despite the number of needles jabbed into my veins, I garnered a small degree of satisfaction from this procedure. It seems no matter how much nicotine, alcohol and late night kebabs I’d consumed while carousing the nights away, I’d still be classified as 100 per cent medically fit. It appears as though the five-fruits-a-day health zealots have got it wrong. Besides, if my body could take all this punishment, testing beta blockers and flu remedies would be a cinch.

At every step of the way, doctors made clear the potential, but very negligible, risks involved. And if something does go wrong you couldn’t be in a better environment than a hospital. What was striking about the research body in Manchester was just how meticulous and stringent their procedures and tests were. At first hand it was a testament to the marvels of medical science; botched experiments and bad reactions of the recent kind are an extreme, almost freakish, rarity.

Nevertheless, acquaintances in Manchester thought I and others were ‘mad’ for taking part in such ‘Frankenstein’ experiments. There was a belief we’d suffer irreversible side-effects and that we probably weren’t told the truth about the drugs being tested. Interestingly enough, such individuals were also hostile to scientific experiments on animals as well. A key plank of the animal rights argument is to claim that testing drugs on animals is biologically unreliable – so why were these individuals, many of whom had former backgrounds in animal rights politics, against drugs being tested on humans? Surely, they’d all be in favour of it?

It seems compassion for rats and mice hides a more basic suspicion towards any scientific experiments. As I subsequently discovered, the issue of testing drugs on humans can almost be as polarising as animal experimentation. This is why, for some of the human guinea pigs at least, there is more to doing this than providing slush funds for a holiday abroad. Many volunteers fully accepted the premise that such research is vital to medical development, and that it could potentially alleviate human suffering. You also have to accept that something might, just might, go wrong (though experience always indicated how rarely that happens).

At times the tests can be quite physically demanding. On arrival to the hospital a blood tap is implemented into your left wrist. If the nurses can’t quickly find a vein it can be a pretty irritable ride until they have. From there on you’re woken up at unearthly hours to be continuously tested and prodded. Even worse, you’re not allowed to consume alcohol for weeks on end.

At other times, though, the experiments themselves could be oddly joyous. On the eve of the Phoenix rock festival in 1996 myself and a couple of friends, Sally and Anna, were tested to see the effects of eating MacDonald’s food all day (Morgan Spurlock, eat your supersized heart out). The experiment not only furnished us with spending money, it provided a handy dress rehearsal for that weekend’s culinary intake. Unfortunately, the number of bruised needle marks on our arms also made it look like we had developed a serious narcotics habit….

In light of the complications at Northwick Park hospital, ‘just say no’ might be the conclusion drawn from taking part in human drugs testing. I would still say the opposite. Thousands of drug experiments are carried out each year with no lasting side-effects to human volunteers. Medical experiments on humans are crucial in developing new drugs and vaccines to combat illness and disease. Somehow, a week in hospital with perforated arms is definitely a price worth paying.

Neil Davenport is sociology and politics lecturer and freelance writer.

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Topics Politics


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