Money is the cheese that lures professional 'lab rats' Those who join medical studies find quick profit in boredom, side effects

May 21, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

For Carlton L. Murray and Don Jones, the easy money comes in tablet form and at the prick of a needle. And it can be habit-forming.

This time out, the two men are holed up on the second floor of a West Fayette Street building, confined with 14 other healthy men, each assigned a number in a research test of generic form of high-blood-pressure medicine. For seven consecutive days, they pop pills, give blood -- as many as 12 syringe-sucking draws a day -- eat what's on their plate, refrain from exercise, put up with "stinky feet" and other niceties of dormitory life. Then, they do it again for another seven days. The payoff -- $ $ $ -- one thousand of them.

"We know a sweet study when we hear one," says Mr. Murray, a cheerful 36-year-old from Washington and a regular in PharmaKinetics Laboratories Inc.'s stable of participants in such tests.

"I seen how easy it is to make a little bit of money, and I've been coming every time," says Mr. Jones, 34, of Baltimore, who earned his first dollar at the private drug-testing company in 1989. "I'm laid off right now. . . . As far as I'm concerned, this is a savior."

And it's an offer many people can't refuse.

From Lincoln, Neb., to Miami, hundreds of volunteers across the country are participating in scores of studies at private contract research firms, pharmaceutical companies, universities and medical institutions.

They test everything from nasal sprays to new AIDS vaccines, drugs to relieve the numbness in a diabetic's toes or aches in arthritic joints. The pay can range from $300 to $3,000.

"Hopkins needs you," says an announcement in a Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions publication. The notice lists at least 20 different studies, searching for tension headache sufferers, healthy men, diabetics ages 18 to 59, marijuana users and others. Not all test drugs on their participants. Many, nonetheless, do offer cash to compliant research subjects.

In a billion-dollar industry that relies on healthy volunteers for the initial phase of a clinical drug trial ("first in humans"), competition for participants can be stiff.

It's a mostly male club; test subjects rarely include women because of concerns that a drug may affect their ability to have children. But grandmothers (post-menopausal women) have joined novice filmmakers, retired machinists and the unemployed test drugs that have previously been administered to animals. There are even a few young men -- known to some as "professionals" -- who hop from state to state, study to study, to earn a living.

Pharmaco-LSR of Austin, Texas, billed as the largest clinical research testing firm in the country, draws retirees and college students alike with offers of "Shoot Pool . . . Get Paid," "Watch Movies . . . Get Paid." The newspaper advertisements play off the leisure time afforded a drug tester who may be confined for 24 hours or a month at its 198-bed unit. Last year, the company paid out $2.6 million to 2,903 test subjects.

"We've never hesitated to use humor as a way of capturing people's attention," says Ellen Buckmaster, a company spokeswoman. "Our aim in advertising has always been to try to be real and human . . . and to reassure."

Stephen M. Hale of Austin has been so reassured by the "Camp Pharmaco" staff that he's volunteered for more than a dozen studies.

"I stopped counting at 15," says Mr. Hale, who joined what he once referred to as "Laboratory Rats Inc." to make extra cash. "I know one year I made $7,000 and it put me in the next tax bracket. I would recommend it to anyone who needs quick, easy cash legally."

Plus, "you're doing something for mankind," says Mr. Hale, the 45-year-old father of two and a program director of a vocational rehabilitation center in Austin.

At PharmaKinetics in Baltimore, where (in the words of one ad copywriter) "helping others always pays," Carlton Murray, Don Jones and the others have traded in their street clothes, money and other belongings for lab scrubs, thermal underwear, numbered T-shirts and slippers embossed with a smile. Physical exams and blood work completed, they have tested negatively for drugs or alcohol, a must to enter the study.

After signing the consent forms, they know what to expect from the generic drug they will test -- a calcium blocker used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Headaches, stomach cramps, dizziness, "a hot flushed feeling" -- the possible side effects associated with the drug -- can be treated by friendly staff nurses.

When friends call him "a guinea pig," Mr. Murray explains that he's usually taking a generic form of a brand-name drug that already is on the market. And, he notes, the test is measuring how well the body absorbs the drug -- "how fast it goes in, how fast it goes out."

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