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Hundreds of people are participating in paid clinical trials to raise fast and easy cash in the recession.

The recession is turning more people into paid clinical trial volunteers

by Manya Gupta
Oct 29, 2009

Paul Clough, a 30-year-old Texan, first volunteered in a clinical trial in 2004 while he was unemployed. He earned $600 for four nights of participation in a clinical trial that he no longer recalls. 

After that, he turned clinical trials into a profession - not as a researcher but as a paid subject. Participating in about eight trials a year nets an income of approximately $30,000. 

Thousands of people are raising cash in the recession as paid volunteers pariticipating in clinical trials.

“Since the downturn, there has been an increase of about 16 percent in clinical trial volunteers,” said Alex O’Meara, the Pittsburgh author of “Chasing Medical Miracles.” The new book looks at the complex world of clinical trials.

Clinical trials, which are conducted to gather safety and efficacy data for drug companies by testing new drugs on volunteers, are fast becoming a part of people’s everyday lives. Experts say more people are volunteering for clinical researches as a desperate attempt to earn money.

“We don’t have the exact numbers, but we have heard anecdotally from research centers that the numbers have increased,” said Steve Zisson of CenterWatch, a Boston-based organization providing clinical trial resources to professionals and patients.

There are more than 40,000 clinical trials in communities across the country currently registered with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The trials are required as part of the Food and Drug Administration review process for new medications. 

While most volunteers in trials participate for altruistic reasons, monetary incentive has never been ruled out, Zisson suggested. 

A person volunteering for a phase 1 trial, which involves testing a drug’s safety on healthy volunteers, is paid anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the length of participation.

The money comes from the drug companies who authorize several university and commercial sites to conduct the research, said Dr. Glen Sussman of ICCT Research in Chicago. The clinical trials center specializes in diabetes trials.  

Some patients volunteer for trials because new drugs hold out the hopes of a cure from an illness where drugs already on the market have failed. Sussman said the intial phase 1 trials that focus on safety - the phase where many drugs are eliminated from further consideration - attract young, healthy, predominantly male volunteers.

But subsequent trials are better suited for people with existing medical conditions because the trials involve testing the efficacy of the drug. For people with no jobs and medical insurance, such trials offer a chance to get treated without paying the expensive medical bills.

“They get the drugs, they get physical exams and all the blood tests that, normally, their own doctors would not do,” said Sussman who predominantly conducts phase 2, 3 and 4 studies. “In today’s economy, that is a lot of money for people who have a disease.”

“Whenever there is easy money to be made people do it,” Clough said, adding that more people are joining the trials because these are a convenient means of paying the bills “There is a lot of frustration in a normal job where you have to show up every day.” he said. “Here you get to pick and choose what you want.”

However, Sussman said money comes in direct conflict with the research and people should not use clinical trials as a means to earn money. Also, the risk of potential negative side effects of unknown drugs poses ethical questions and potential side effects are something volunteers need to consider carefully. Volunteers are always told what to expect at the time of signing the consent form.

O’Meara added that there is a need to enforce stricter regulations. “There is a lot that can go wrong here,” he said. “The hodge-podge system that we have works, but that does not mean it always will.”