Guinea-Pigging: Drug Safety Trial Testing for a Living?

Guinea-Pigging, a drug safety-testing method increasingly used by pharmaceuticals, was recently reviewed by bioethicis professor Carl Elliott.  His article discusses the trend of participating in drug trials and testing and making a living off the income.  Professor Elliot cites many concerns regarding "guinea-pigging," which may affect the safety and welfare of the subject as well as the validity of the study.
Drug companies are under increased pressure to create new drugs and improve drugs already on the market.  To do this, drug companies are spending millions of dollars on testing new and improved medications.  Guinea pigs often receive money, accommodations, food, and other benefits to sacrifice some time for testing.  Professor Elliot points out that many who frequently subject themselves to drug trials are poor and uninsured. The relative ease of making easy money can be dangerous however. 

Although participants  who sign up for testing are being compensated for sacrificing time and taking a risk,  there is often no incentive to stick to any dietary or lifestyle restrictions placed on the guinea pigs. This non-compliance puts the guinea pigs at risk for side effects and puts the trial at risk as well.  In addition, instances of potential participants dishonesty about prior medical history to get into a higher-paying study compromises the validity of the study. 

Furthermore, there have been reports of subjects being placed in testing facilities with deplorable conditions and given drugs they know nothing about just for the paycheck.  Because many guinea pigs are uninsured, they are being given drugs that they will not be able to afford if the drugs are put on the market.  If the guinea pigs suffer any side effects from participating in these studies, it is not always certain that the testing facility will provide follow-up treatment or reimburse the subject for additional medical expenses.  Without insurance, many guinea pigs are without options.

While drug testing is subject to review from Internal Review Boards (IRBs) and the FDA, these Boards do not always inspect the conditions of the testing site to the extent they review the process and potential benefits and risks.  It is critical for potential participants in guinea pig projects such as drug testing to make an informed decision prior to enrolling in a drug testing study by asking questions. Following are some examples of questions to be considered:

  • What are the known risks for this particular drug?
  • What is the time commitment?
  • What are the compensation terms?
  • What are the conditions of the testing site?
  • What is the follow-up treatment, if necessary?
  • Will there be reimbursement for possible additional treatment?

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