Guinea pigging, it’s a living

Reading Time: 3 minutes

RaVae Beck, staff writer, @ravaeb

Illustration by Trevor Robertson

A business exists where employees can be referred to as “guinea pigs.” There are no deadlines or quotas, and almost anyone qualifies. A worker may spend days in bed watching TV, playing games or reading and they will continue to get paid for their work.

At first glance, guinea pigging sounds ideal. The perfect guinea pig can be male or female, healthy or unhealthy, dark haired, light haired, athletic or sedentary. The only consistent, necessary trait of a guinea pig is the willingness to be just that.

Guinea pigging refers to the voluntary participation of individuals in clinical and medical trials. The technical title is Clinical Trial Volunteer, and the research can include investigative medications or experimental treatments. For some with serious medical conditions, volunteering may be their only option.

There is a history of successful investigative treatments. Included in this is the story of Emma Whitehead, a six-year-old who beat leukemia with experimental treatments. But what about the testing done on healthy individuals?

Healthy individuals can choose to become guinea pigs for clinical trials for several reasons. For college students, however, the incentive is commonly the same: relatively high compensation rates. Clinical study organizations can pay anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars depending on the nature of the study, and they are paying for a human test subject.

One UVU student recently participated in a Salt Lake City-based trial and shares the realities of guinea pigging.

“You should have some sort of a reaction. It means the pill is working, and it just comes with the territory,” *Mike said.

The clinic’s conditions were favorable and the subjects were given free living quarters and meals. Participants were allowed to watch TV, play games, etc., but they had to remain at the facility for the duration of the study.


Though the drugs are deemed relatively safe by this point, adverse reactions can and do happen. The organization is testing for safety and effectiveness of investigational medications, and according to a Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development study, only one in five investigative drugs that enter the clinical trial stage are ultimately Food and Drug Administration approved.

It has been over a week since the initial tests began for Mike, and he jokes that his skin is finally starting to feel normal again.

“I felt like my skin was on fire. It has been burning for a long time,” Mike said. When questioned if he was concerned with the severity and duration of the reactions, he laughed again. “At one point they gave me a Dr. Pepper, and I couldn’t taste it.” The research center has been concerned for the care of Mike, enforcing several check-ups after his symptoms were noted.

A prevailing argument in favor of volunteer clinical trials describes these tests as the best way for medical treatments to advance. It can be considered a necessary evil.

This perspective is often met with hostility as opposing viewpoints question the ethics and safety of using healthy individuals, especially students, as test subjects.

Mike describes his overall experience in a positive light, joking about the four day “quarantine” he and his friend were placed under.

“If you’re not afraid of needles and you have some time to get away, it’s not a bad way to make some money. For me, it was worth it,” Mike said. A 2005 Harris Interactive study found that 88 percent of volunteers would participate again.

While safety is a high priority for both experimenters and subjects, there is always a potential for adverse reactions. Before considering becoming a trial volunteer, research should be done on the organization and the nature of the study.

Many struggling students will express the value of a quick buck, but it is important to understand the pros and cons before becoming a clinical trial volunteer. Guinea pigging is not considered a profession, but it can be a way to make a little money on the side if done so safely and informed.

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