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.

Gateway president and founder Daniel R. Shipley did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

When "Ben" calls requesting information, he is directed to a spokeswoman for the company, who agrees to speak for the record only on the condition that her name not be published.

"No one has been significantly harmed from one of our studies," the spokeswoman says. She estimates that about one-third of those who participate in Gateway trials are students or people in their early twenties, but takes issue with the exploitative picture Sharav paints. "Number one, we don't have any hidden risks," she says. "Number two, we do not pinpoint that specific group. We just put the word out. We don't turn anybody away, unless of course they don't meet our criteria to do the studies. But we don't pinpoint that age."

A veteran of paid medical studies at Gateway Medical 
Center in St. Charles, Alecia Hoyt is always nice to her 
Jennifer Silverberg
A veteran of paid medical studies at Gateway Medical Center in St. Charles, Alecia Hoyt is always nice to her phlebotomists.

Another subset of study participants, according to the Gateway spokeswoman, is the homeless. "That happens all the time and there's nothing we can do about it," she says. "I mean, their blood is just as good. That's why we do our screening process. We're not going to turn somebody away. I mean, it helps them out, it helps us out -- there's no harm in that as long as they pass our screening process."

And what about participants who use marijuana and other taboo substances? "Hopefully they'll weed themselves out [during the screening process]," she says, apparently oblivious to the pun. "Normally people who do drugs won't come in and do a drug screen."

Ben has pneumonia. Still, he has resolved to pursue the cash. (And the journalism, of course.)

But will Gateway's screeners permit a man with pneumonia to partake of Parkinson's medication?

Perhaps a better question is: Will a man with pneumonia be dumb enough to partake of Parkinson's medication?

A few minutes early, Ben slowly drives in circles around the facility's half-dozen clinics. Pulling over, he peers through Clinic 5's blinds, which are slightly askew. In the "quiet" room, two college joes are watching what appears to be a school-related video, while in the "smoking" room another handful of men blab and puff.

"I'm on antibiotics," Ben fesses up the instant a clipboard is placed in front of him by a smiling phlebotomist. She immediately retracts it and sends him to a stern-looking superior across the room.

The woman looks up from behind her desk. "What's wrong with you?" she asks accusingly.

Ben gulps. "I'm on antibiotics."

She shuffles papers for a minute, deliberating.

"I have pneumonia," he volunteers.

The nurse looks at Ben with an expression that makes it clear he has just set back the medical community several hundred years' worth of research.

"You can't participate," she declares, ignoring Ben's protestations -- "Can I get into another study sometime?" "I'm sorry!" -- and banishing him to the parking lot.

Correction published 5/19/04: The original version of this story contained a paraphrased statement about recreational drug use that was erroneously attributed to clinical-trial participant Alecia Hoyt. The above version reflects the retraction.

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