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Paid studies draw more interest in sour economy

By Jean Ortiz
Associated Press Writer / January 5, 2009
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OMAHA, Neb.—When Ricardo Vega lost his job at a call center this fall, his focus remained on keeping himself, his wife and 3-year-old daughter afloat.

"I was trying to find anything I could just to get an income source," the Omaha man said.

For Vega, 25, that meant taking a job that doesn't rely on his work experience or skills, but rather his good health and availability.

Vega is among a growing group applying and -- in some cases competing -- for spots in clinical research trials that pay participants sometimes upward of thousands of dollars in exchange for a few weekends or more committed to testing new drugs.

At a time when unemployment levels nationwide have reached a 15-year high, research centers and those familiar with the industry say interest is up among those wanting to participate in studies testing everything from pain medication to cancer drugs.

Officials at Omaha-based Qualia Clinical Services say their database of potential participants has nearly doubled from 9,000 a year ago to about 16,000 today.

The pool also is growing more diverse and drawing far more than the college crowd, said Steve Peck, director of operations.

"The way the economy is going, you see more people between jobs," he said.

Dr. Kenneth Kaitin, director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development based at Tufts University, said the economic conditions are influencing interest levels after years of waning interest that helped lead some drug developers to take studies to India, China and elsewhere.

"I don't think there's any question that this will turn that around," he said.

Ken Getz, founder of the Center for Information & Study on Clinical Research Participation -- better known as CISCRP -- said there's already evidence the outsourcing trend is reversing, specifically with early-phase testing. Economic conditions and regulatory process changes are helping draw studies back to North America, he said.

While no hard data on recent interest levels in clinical study participation is available, he knows interest is up based on the phone calls flooding into his 5-year-old nonprofit group, he said. Part of the group's mission is to educate the public about what a clinical trial involves.

"We must receive several hundred phone calls a month from people who just saw an ad about a clinical trial -- it might not have even been an area of interest to them, and they decided to call us for more information," he said.

Interest is good, but the challenge remains in finding qualified participants, Getz said.

The increased interest is a boon for Qualia, which was able to scale back advertising by 80 percent this year and focus efforts on job-placement publications, including the help wanted section of the local newspaper, said Holly Baker, manager of participant recruitment and marketing.

Baker is considering more adjustments, including changing the company's message to focus on how money earned through participation can help during challenging economic times, she said.

Qualia, which also has offices in Canada and the Ukraine, primarily handles early stage testing of generic versions of brand name drugs using healthy volunteers at its Omaha clinic.

MDS Pharma Services, whose radio ads tout the earning potential of participation, also reports interest is up.

But Gary Diesl, who directs clinical operations for MDS in Lincoln, said in a statement that people have many motivations and that "monetary concerns are not always the overriding factor."

Vega puts compensation first among his motivations.

He earned $150 in his first attempt at participating because he was designated an alternate and wasn't needed to go through the full trial.

But he'd stick with it as long as his schedule allowed him, he said, as wife Ginger nodded in strong support.

As the economy has weakened, plasma donations also have been on the rise.

In 2007, plasma donations topped 15 million, up from about 10 million in 2005, said Josh Penrod, vice president of the Source division of the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association.

The number of donation centers also climbed from about 290 in 2005 to about 335 today, he said.

Penrod declined to say what's driving the trend -- reasons he says vary by region -- but said compensation is critical to generating enough of a supply for use in treating serious medical conditions worldwide.

Each plasma collection center has its own rules about paying donors, although it is a fraction of both the payment and time commitment involved in clinical trials.

The time commitment is no bother to Pam Ford, 57, of Omaha, who has participated in several clinical trials with Qualia in less than two years.

She likes knowing she's played a part in getting lower-cost generic versions of drugs on the market and says she likes the attention her health is given in the process.

It's worth it, said Ford, who's made $10,000 to supplement income she makes from her cleaning business and said her primary motivation is clear.

"It's absolutely to make extra money," she said.

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