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To be a lab rat for cash or for cancer - (1/5/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Howie came into the pharmacy. “Hey, Doc,” he said to the pharmacist. “I wanted to pay off my bill.” “I guess those clinical studies you volunteered for are generating some cash,” the pharmacist replied. “Yes, you can officially call me a lab rat!” Howie said.

 What is a clinical study? What kind of money can it bring in? A clinical study is an experiment that tests whether a drug or a medical device works or not. Let’s say that researchers want to test Drug A to see if it works for in lowering blood pressure. Thirty human subjects (or colloquially, “lab rats”) are chosen for the study based on their age, gender, and ethnicity. These 30 subjects are divided into two groups: 15 subjects get Drug A and 15 subjects get a placebo (aka: sugar pill). If the group that got Drug A saw a decrease in their blood pressure and those in the placebo group saw no drop in their blood pressure, then Drug A can work to lower blood pressure in the general population. If the Drug A group did not experience lower blood pressure, then Drug A did not work.  

And there is money in this, you ask. Just ask Howie. “The amount you get paid depends on the complexity of the study in which you are enrolled,” Howie explained.  Clinical trials pay $50 to $300 per day per visit, with compensation dependent upon the length of time required as well as the procedures performed. Typically, overnight stays pay more than those involving repeat day visits. Similarly, the more invasive the procedures - such as blood draws - the larger the compensation the studies provide.


Besides the dinero, there are advantages and disadvantages to being in a clinical study. For example, one will get a free head-to-toe physical examination prior to the start of the study. If you have not been to a doctor for a while, knowing this information will be important for your files. The drawbacks may be a drug side effect. That side effect will be very important to the researchers in determining whether the drug is safe. While the side effect may be uncomfortable, rest assured you will be treated accordingly. 


Clinical trials can be a last-ditch effort to get a novel treatment regimen for advanced disease. For instance, Jenny has advanced thyroid cancer. She has been on several treatments but has not responded favorably. She located a clinical study within 4 hours from her home. The travel may be tedious, but she will get the chance to assess whether the test drug will work for her. Before she can enter the study, she must meet the inclusion and exclusion criteria set up by the study investigators. Example: The investigators may want only women ages 18 to 65. They may exclude a subject who is pregnant. Yes, a possibility exists that the test drug may cause severe side effects. However, the benefits may outweigh the risks of the test drug as decided by Jenny as well as the researchers. BTW, the test drug will be free. 


How do you find a clinical study that is right for you? ClinicalTrials.gov is a databank of federally funded, privately supported, and unfunded clinical trials involving human subjects. The website is managed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). With a few keystrokes, you can locate a clinical study and scan through the details of the study, and whether the study investigators are still recruiting subjects. Even though Howie and Jenny had different needs, they both found studies that would suit their situation. 


Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press. 

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