Life as a guinea pig
Boston offers opportunities for those willing to take risks in the name of science - and cash
Long before "Fear Factor" and "Survivor" made it chic to do strange and awful things to your body, Steve Gallanter was blazing the trail. His adventures began at small medical testing company in Jamaica Plain, where, for $20, Gallanter smothered his brown mane with hair gel. The catch? There was a small chance, researchers cautioned, that the experimental gel might burn the skin off his scalp.
His head still intact, Gallanter moved on to Longwood hospital studies, where he gulped down anti-anxiety drugs that made him feel as energetic as a pine cone, and Harvard's psychology department, where he stared at computer screens and pushed buttons for hours.
"I've been guinea pigging on and off for 20 years," said Gallanter, a 45-year-old Fenway resident. "There's always some sort of test you can do."
Gallanter's lack of inhibition and willingness to follow orders has helped him earn thousands of dollars as a "professional" human test subject. But he credits much of his success to another all-important factor -- location.
Boasting a long list of universities, dozens of hospitals, and biotechnology companies, and a few private research firms and corporate headquarters, Boston is among the country's research meccas -- rivaling Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston and Bethesda, Md. -- as the place to be for aspiring human guinea pigs.
Government statistics track only a portion of the testing conducted in the Boston area, which is supported by both federal and private funds. But medical professionals, and what numbers are available, suggest that 1,000 clinical, psychological, dietary, developmental and commercial trials are initiated in the region each year -- and probably many more.
Money is usually the biggest lure, with arduous sleep studies and long-term drug trials paying several hundred dollars to more than $1,000 per test. The Forsyth Institute of dental research, meanwhile, offers free checkups and fillings to children participating in a seven-year cavity study. For more simple tests, the payoffs include small (tax-free) stipends, stuffed animals, free shirts and candy bars -- even homework grades for college students.
"The psychological ones, some are 15 minutes long, and they'll give you $5," said Andrew Milford, a senior at the Berklee College of Music who squeezed in at least three trials a week between classes this summer. "Rather than going to the ATM machine, I'd go to one of them."
Like Gallanter, many test subjects begin volunteering to earn money for college. But, as newspaper and subway ads attest, almost anyone at any age can get in on the act. Brigham and Women's Hospital begins enrolling babies in developmental learning studies when they are 2 days old; senior citizens are prime recruits for strength, diet and memory-loss studies.
College bulletin boards -- the Holy Grail being the "Subjects Wanted" board at Harvard's William James Hall -- are littered with fliers asking participants to do a variety of things for a few bucks, including napping, baking cookies and evaluating promotional videos. "ESP, Telepathy or 6th sense? Anxiety in situations with unfamiliar people? Few close friends? Study seeks righthanded people ages 18-55," stated one recent ad on the Red Line.
Dr. Adil Shamoo, a bioethicist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, warned that testing is not without risks despite informed-consent laws and significant increases in oversight in recent decades. By his calculations, which he says have neither been supported nor challenged by government regulators, as many as 5,000 test subjects a year nationwide suffer side effects or injuries that go unreported.
"If they're trying to get you to volunteer, and anything in their literature suggests you can get high and get paid, or have sex and get paid, it is a scam," said Bob Helms, the Philadelphia-based author of the book, "Guinea Pig Zero."
Gallanter, who has completed more than 100 tests, said he has routinely shed his clothes for researchers, taken needles, given stool samples, been poked and prodded, and asked to do all sorts of seemingly crazy things for cash.
"[In one] test, for a hospital which shall remain nameless, I took an anti-anxiety drug," he said. "It was like being stoned for 24 hours a day. It took away any degree of drive or ambition to do anything at all, except to stare into space."
For the overwhelming majority of tests, though, the worst a subject will endure is having to wash electrode adhesive from his or her hair, stretch out muscle cramps from lying in an MRI machine or suffer through a bland, no-carbohydrate diet. Still, volunteers are asked to do some pretty weird things. Kristofer Smith, a Boston University Medical student, once donated stem cells for $500. "The strange part about the whole process was they took my stem cells and injected them into a monkey," he said. "So, for several years, there was a monkey in [the] research facility that was part Kris Smith."
Bill Alley, 50, a part-time opera singer, submitted to having his blood drawn every 10 minutes for eight hours while spending the night as a healthy "control" participant in diabetes studies this year at Massachusetts General Hospital. Despite the suffering, he said he was proud of having an impact -- no matter how small -- on scientific research.
"It's sort of a mini-vacation," Alley said. "You check in and spend the night. You're getting pampered. You can bring in videos. I've had really great views of the Charles . . . and I'm helping science by doing this and trying to make people better."
Gallanter, who works nights as a bartender and hotel concierge, said he also takes satisfaction in helping researchers unlock the mysteries of the human body and brain.
Often though -- like the time he was given a dart gun and told to shoot at pictures of Mother Teresa or Saddam Hussein (his choice) -- he acknowledged that he has no clue what the researchers are trying to prove.
"It's not really my concern," he said, adding that his main goal is to keep getting picked as a test subject. "All I want is to rapidly and efficiently give them a good experience. I want to keep being a good lab rat. . . . Push lever, get pellet -- that's me."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.