Get Poked, Get Paid

Clinical drug trials offer good money, comfy dorms -- and sometimes even a free buzz. But beware: They're gonna suck your blood like Dracula.

Back at Gateway, Ben's tour ends and the phlebotomist hands him a packet of papers that lay out the details -- and the do's and don'ts -- of the study he's signed up for.

Two weeks beforehand: no prescription medication. One week beforehand: no over-the-counter meds, and no herbal dietary supplements. One day beforehand: no caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, grapefruit or poppy seeds.

No grapefruit?

On the next page, entitled "Study profile," matters get more serious:

Description of Drug: Used for the treatment of Parkinson's Disease.

Most Commonly Reported Side Effects: Abnormal liver function; occasional reduction of white blood cell count, or red blood cell volume; loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dry mouth, weakness, headache, dizziness, numbness, confusion, hallucinations, fatigue, anxiety, difficulty swallowing, taste disturbance, unusual movements, disturbance of blood clotting, diarrhea, constipation, back pain, sleepiness.

After musing about the difference between sleepiness and fatigue and wondering what 'taste disturbance' and 'unusual movements' might be, Ben concludes that at the very least, the diarrhea and constipation will cancel each other out.

No. of [blood] Samples: 18 per period.

Draw Times: 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 7:45 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 8:15 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 12 p.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Other miscellaneous notes:

Subjects #17-32 who do not eat the entire FDA High Fat Breakfast in the time allotted will be dropped.

This is underlined.

Subjects who experience vomiting within 12 hours after dosing may be dropped.

Oh, boy.


An instructional interlude: Want to participate in a paid medical study? Who wouldn't?

A quick way to learn about studies in your area is to dial up www.centerwatch.org/patient/trials.html, a national database maintained by Thomson CenterWatch, a Boston-based information-services company. Also on the site are resources for would-be clinical trial participants, including a nice FAQ section that provides the basics on human trials. You can even sign up to be notified by e-mail when new studies are available.

In fact, if you're willing to travel and you have an ailment that fills the bill, CenterWatch allows you to check out studies that are actively recruiting patients at centers around the nation in fields such as "Dermatology/Plastic Surgery," "Musculoskelatal," "Otolaryngology" and "Psychiatry/Psychology."

A quick browse of this last category shows current studies available for patients beset by disorders ranging from "Kleptomania" to "Binge Eating," "Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)," "Restless Legs" and "Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)." One study solicits with a single simple question: "Menopause...has it changed your sexual life?"

CenterWatch is the fastest method for finding out about studies at WU and SLU (for the latter, you can also visit http://solutions.slu.edu/). The easiest way to volunteer at Gateway is to fill out an application at the company's Web site, www.gatewaymedical.com. If accepted, you're in the database, which means you can call in weekly to find out about new studies.


Eric Carter is a semi-professional lab rat. "I was messed up, man," the scraggly-goateed 23-year-old confides over a beer at Brandt's. Carter refers to a study he participated in last May, which netted him $800. "They hopped me up on OxyContin and let me do whatever -- walk around the hospital," he says. The drug, revealed last year as Rush Limbaugh's narcotic of choice, is known as "hillbilly heroin" in some circles. "Every hour I had to check in and give a blood sample, but for eight hours a day for four days, I basically had nothing to do except watching The Price Is Right, reading magazines, listening to music."

Carter picks up his Guinness, revealing the letters "SSS" -- for "South Side Saboteurs," he explains -- tattooed on the knuckles of his left fist. His expression takes on a nostalgic cast, the sort of fond faraway look one might display when recalling the senior prom. "I was in outer space," he says. "I loved it."

A native of Washington, D.C., Carter came to St. Louis a year and a half ago and now stays at the so-called Bolozone housing collective, an anarchists' nexus in south city that made news when several of its residents were arrested in advance of the World Agricultural Forum's convocation last year in St. Louis. He estimates the three test studies and one survey he took part in last year, all undertaken at Washington U.'s School of Medicine, accounted for half his annual income.

Carter, who works at a friend's guitar-assembly plant when he's not brimming with experimental drugs, says he tries to get into paid medical studies whenever possible. "The best part about them are the free STD screenings," he says.

But they haven't all been pleasant. The worst, he says, was an alcohol-and-tobacco study. Carter decided to participate in it partly because he'd heard through the lab-rat rumor mill that it required little more than sitting around smoking and getting drunk. Alas, the "smoking" involved unpleasant puffs from a nicotine nasal inhaler, while the "drinking" entailed rapid ingestions of an apple juice-like substance.

"They just give you four cups and say, 'Drink all four,'" he recounts. "You don't know which ones have alcohol in them, if any of them have alcohol in them. I did that three times, pretty much on an empty stomach. It was very disorienting. I was in a hospital, I wasn't moving around or anything, just sitting there reading magazines. I didn't know how drunk I was."

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