“At Anapharm, the food is better, but here at Algo, they pay more.” This is a veteran clinical trial participant named Martin breaking down the differences between the city’s two major drug trial companies over our lackluster dinner. As a freelance translator, he supplements his income by doing about 5-6 clinical trials a year. “But,” he goes on, “I can’t do any trials at Ana for the next 6 months, they blocked me.” I perk up at this. I wonder what caused that? A dangerous drug interaction, an altercation, what happened to earn this experienced participant a 6-month block? Turns out, he was too eager. He signed up to start his next trial 29 days after his last one ended, which is long enough for the standard 28-day between-trials waiting period, but this particular trial had requested a 30-day window. “I guess they thought I was trying to be sneaky. At least I can still do trials here in the meantime. Too bad about the food though.”
Martin is one of the 20-odd people that I spent two 48-hour stretches locked up in a cozy clinical facility with. Most of the people are a good deal older, thirties, forties. Food is a popular topic, probably because we have no control over it. Meals are doled out at scheduled times, and no intervening snacks are allowed. Not that we’d have anything to eat, since our belongings were searched upon arrival to make sure we didn’t have anything that could affect the validity of the trial. For instance, I had to leave my lip balm behind (medicated, of course), and my toothpaste ingredients were checked. So smuggling in a sandwich would be difficult. Our meals are tied to our hospital-style bracelet numbers, and checked afterward to make sure we’ve eaten it all. Eating it all is pretty easy though, since 3 small-ish scheduled meals a day and nothing else but water can make you plenty hungry when it’s food time.
As for the actual trial, in my group the drug was to be administered after a 12-hour fast, so we were all admitted in the evening before. We got settled in our bunk beds, slept, got up, and lined up to take the drug. I’d say actually swallowing the pill is the most lab rat-feeling part of the experience, since you walk into a room with about 6 people in lab coats, and most of them just seem to be taking notes on what you’re doing. You walk up to the tech with the pills, show your bracelet, and receive your pill, with swallowing instructions (no chewing…). After taking the pill and drinking all of the mandatory water, you step over to the verification station, where your mouth, tongue, and hands are checked with a flashlight to insure that you are properly dosed and that you have nothing up your sleeves.
After that, the blood draws start. For my trial, it was a draw every 20-30 minutes for about 4 hours, then a gradual tapering to one draw every couple hours. The needle part concerned me a bit, and the first couple were a bit rough, but after a little while you get used to it, even get into the groove. I learned which lab techs knew their way around a needle, and those draws I barely felt. On the other hand, there were a couple new techs training, and those draws could be a bit sketchy. All in all though, I’d say I worried more than I suffered.
Finally, two books, 20-odd albums, and 36 hours after drug administration, we were set free with $60 in cash, a granola bar and juice box, and a reminder that we were due back bright and early the next two mornings for a follow-up visit and quick one-off blood draws. Some of the balance of the payout we get after the second morning follow-up visit, but most of it it held on to until we finish the all-important second phase 28 days later, where we have the exact same experience, down to the number of green beans in our dinner, with the other drug.
Was it worth it? I’d say yes. In terms of discomfort, the blood draws weren’t too hard to get used to, and I certainly brought enough amusements to keep myself entertained, even without watching the offered TVs or using the ragtag boardgames. My advice to anyone interested is, bring enough to keep yourself busy, don’t rely on having reliable internet access (worked one day, didn’t the next), and don’t try to do anything too mentally involved during the frequent blood draw period. I found myself putting aside more difficult things, like writing important emails or studying, and just sitting around listening to music or reading instead. The worst part, for me, was probably not being allowed to go outside for 48 hours, but even that wasn’t too bad. However, the process definitely requires a decent helping of patience, good-humour, and a healthy attitude toward needles. And then they pay you!
Photo credit: Thirteen of Clubs
Dylan is an applied linguist, an enthusiastic cyclist, and at least 33% of the Japan by Bicycle team. Meet the whole team here.