It is a cool Monday evening in February. I just finished classes and take the bus to the British Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology in Bristol where I have a 6 o’clock appointment at their Research Division. I reach in time and am warmly greeted by Christine Armstrong, a research coordinator. She helps me into a leather reclining chair, rolls up my right sleeve, efficiently unwraps a butterfly needle, connects it to a plastic syringe and eases it into the vien above my elbow. I close my eyes and think about that last Christmas I spent with my family in Manila, recall the squeals of delight as my younger brothers and sisters (2 boys and 3 girls) gushed over the presents I had brought for them. After exactly 15 minutes, Christine taps me on the shoulder. She removes the equipment. She has harvested 4 syringes of blood needed for a study on “allergic dermatitis,” a skin allergy. Christine smiles, hands me a large carton of orange juice, a payment voucher and reminds me about the next appointment due the coming week. On my way out I collect £30 from the cashier and smile with delight.
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My name is John Sanoy. I hail from Manila in the Philippines. I am presently a medical student at the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry in University of Bristol located in Tyndall Avenue while living in their dormitory. I am a regular volunteer for medical experiments – a human guinea pig, as people like me are normally called. I am not ashamed of what I do. After all, it is a sort of part-time job which pays well, and God knows I need the money for my college and dorm fees. My family back in Manila is not well off. My father owns a small grocery shop and struggles to make ends meet his wife and eight children, of whom I am the eldest. Short of borrowing at high interest rates, my family cannot afford to send me money for my expenses. While I will never cease to be thankful for the scholarship that enabled me to join the University of Bristol, the four months during which I was forced to accept money sent by my family for my living expenses will always remain in my memory like a festering sore, because there seemed to be nothing I could do.
Two coinciding incidents propelled me into the human guinea pig profession. I read a book called “Guinea Pig Zero” by Bob Helms, and was simply fascinated by the astounding information of the author, a renowned guinea pig himself. That same evening I spotted an ad in “Medical Student Newspaper” (the U.K’s largest free publication for student doctors) that read: “Wanted: Fair-skinned volunteers for skin study. Good compensation paid.” I called the number provided and discovered it was the MRC Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology. The skin study involved subjecting fair-skinned, healthy volunteers to UV rays treatment. The 30 minute session involved a £50 compensation. I snapped up the offer, and the rest is history.
It is now nearly two years since I underwent my first guinea-pig experiment. I have since rented by body to science with lofty ideals of facilitating the advancement of knowledge and helping future generations, while basically getting some well-earned cash. While acknowledging that my explicit permission is required, and that it is entire up to me to consider and evaluate how far I am willing to go (some experiments are more involved, time-consuming, painful, and yes, dangerous than others). I have earned more than £8,000 since then by sometimes just filling in a questionnaire, while in most others allowing doctors and researchers to poke, prod and even burn me; I have undergone electroshock treatment and 15 MRIs. I was pleasantly surprised to discover many students at my faculty in the University of Bristol also submitted to human guinea pig experiments. A good friendship developed between me and 3 such students named Jason, Bella and Joan. We decided to form ‘The Medical Rovers.’ What started off as a joking reference to Bristol’s famous soccer team the ‘Bristol Rovers’ soon turned out to be very useful.
Spreading out, we stalked medical-center bulletin boards, read the very useful ‘Medical Student Newspaper’ from end to end, bookmarked sites that listed trials and swapped information telephonically and by email. I remember the delightful hug I got from Joan when I showed her a flier ad for healthy females to volunteer as the controls in a study about hair loss for a compensation of £50. Bella was thrilled when Jason came across an ad in a health magazine for volunteers in a study about the correlation between general health and anger management in young women; she eventually earned £75 for it. Knowing that I particularly favored MRI experiments, Joan immediately showed me an ad she discovered for volunteers to undergo a medical exam involving a MRI. I thanked her profusely, and ultimately, after undergoing a 40-minute session involving being pushed head first into a coffin like tube so that researchers could study the reactions of my body organs, I got a hefty compensation of £100. Jason was thankful to Bella when she found a website calling for volunteers in a psoriasis study; he earned £70 for his efforts.
We soon found that we had literally hit on a gold mine. Bristol’s large number of medical institutions conducts dozens of clinical studies annually that require hundreds of volunteers. Given the fact that most people do not volunteer to become human pincushions for below minimum wage, attracting volunteers is the most difficult part of medical studies. As a result, human guinea pigs like our gang quartet have developed into a rare breed, one that is very much in demand – constantly. We derive considerable satisfaction from knowing that we are renting our bodies to science for good causes, involving the advancement of knowledge and the chance to assist future generations. We are proud to be counted among the thousands of people in the U.K who annually volunteer in different levels of medical research. We lend credence to the astute observation of English essayist Alexander Pope who once said: “The proper study of mankind is man.”
My friends and I are aware of potential adverse reactions like headaches, nausea and in extreme cases, even death. We are also aware that many researchers, blinded by the possible scientific reward and acclaim, forget the moral and human rules which they should follow. So far we have used our considerable medical knowledge background to shy away from potentially dangerous experiments, except on two occasions.
A year ago, Bella signed up for an experiment involving a new herbal hair shampoo that was supposed to be the ultimate aid to develop smooth hair. Bella and the other volunteers were given the mandatory warning that there could be side effects such as hair fall out. We tried to dissuade our friend from undertaking the experiment, even going to the extent of darkly predicting total baldness, which would be such as shame since the girl had wonderful, shoulder-length curly black hair. Bella did not pay heed to our warning (we learnt later that she was in great need of the hefty fee of £500 to pay off her rogue brother’s gambling debt that was threatening dire consequences to the entire family), and we cursed ourselves when our foreboding came true – Bella lost all her lovely hair, and since that black day 3 months ago, has taken to wearing a curly black wig. She continues to make light of the predicament but we know that our dear friend hurts deep down inside.
On the second occasion, much against the advice of my friends, I enlisted to become a guinea pig one month ago in a brain scan experiment undertaken by a neuroscientist who was testing how memory alters with age. While brain experiments are dime a dozen these days, this particular one was ‘cutting edge’ because it was the first to join three brain scan technologies in one study functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG) and trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The other volunteers and myself were all warned that we would be subjected to extensive ‘zapping’ that could provoke unknown reactions – maybe causing seizures in some while curing depression in others. The duration of the experiment was the longest I’ve experienced so far – 2 hours, but then it also paid the highest single experiment fee that I have earned so far – £1,000. I am told that it will take a few months for the experiment results to be properly sorted out and analyzed. I am keeping my fingers crossed on two counts: that the results successfully determine who we remember some things and ignore others, and that none of my memory circuits have been knocked out during the experiment!
Perhaps it is an uncanny coincidence that as I write this story, less than a week ago (on April 29, 2008), Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman, Father of drug LSD, died. Hoffman was renowned for becoming the first human guinea pig of LSD that was meant to revolutionise psychiatric research but eventually turned out to be widely used illegally for mind-altering purposes. Unlike the famous scientist whose single-minded, well-intended invention was put into extensively wrong use, we, the members of ‘The Medical Rovers’ are totally different on physical as well as mental level: we are young, healthy and suffer from a similar malady – we believe we are invincible!