Derek Daly
Derek Daly

Drug trials — in the eye of the needle

Here are some snapshots from my days as a human guinea pig. Taking part in “medical research” had a less worrying aura to it in the mid-Nineties. It was before the horribly unlucky “elephant men” in the United Kingdom with their expanding faces, and it was something that many South Africans, New Zealanders and Australians did — largely due to the excellent payment for grinning and bearing a few needles for a few days or weeks.

You obviously avoided trials that involved the swallowing of cameras. If an enema was involved at any stage or the inducing of nausea in a controlled environment, you steered well clear.

Someone I heard of ended up in a study that examined the effect of vodka on Viagra. When does the one start cancelling out the other? This was the sole purpose of the medicine trial. Large quantities of both were ingested, and porn was shown to the person in a controlled environment to induce arousal.

The worst one I ever did was at Zurich University. I heard about it through music students with whom I was staying. It was a one-on-one in a small room with a Dr Schalger and his assistant, a guy that looked like Quincy’s assistant from the TV programme.

I was told it would be concerning diabetes medicine. The full details emerged as the session gathered steam.

First it started almost comically as, for about 10 minutes, the doctor tried to find a vein. As a self-confessed needle-phobiac, this was not good news and I tried not to panic as he missed — and kept on missing.

I tried to let my mind drift and think of pleasant things, but couldn’t help noticing that on one attempt he missed a reasonable vein in the top of my left hand, little jolts of blood squirting into the air and on to the white mattress as the needle made its way to the bone with an icy burn.

He finally succeeded after four attempts, entering a vein just below the elbow. A large pipe was shoved in there. It had a tap attached that was designed to make the frequent capturing of blood a straightforward process.

Now the trial proper began. Behind me in the small room, a large machine hummed ominously, waiting for the work that was intended for it.

I was soon to discover its sombre purpose: regulating the closing of four clamps on my arms simultaneously, one on the wrist, the other above the elbow. Circulation was to be cut off in both arms for about a minute. In that time, a hormone was to be passed into my left arm. Its purpose was to expand my vein. Or that’s what the doctor hoped.

Because they weren’t certain it would do this yet. That’s why we were having this trial.

But now the talking stopped. The machine was briefly quiet and then hissed into action. It knew what it was doing. The clamps quickly fastened on my wrist and above the elbows. Both arms were now without circulation, settling into a trapped pain that would grow numb and lifeless as the day progressed. It took some getting used to.

The doctors were eager to record each successive measurement and excitedly rushed off to their desks after each finding, forgetting about me. The result was that they often forgot to release the clamps, something that they had to do manually — which meant 50 seconds often became three minutes in the clamp.

We started at 8am. Each three-minute period saw a new cycle kicking in, each hiss from the machine announcing a new clampdown. It really was a sound that enjoyed its amplification in that small, bare room. The closest equivalent I can think of is the hiss just before train doors close.

It was only after 3pm that the machine and its cycle became more forgiving, acting once every 10 minutes. By that stage my forearms were feeling like slabs of spongy ham.

The trial concluded at 5pm.

Reflecting on the results, the doctor said: “It worked.”

What he said immediately afterwards has always worried me.

“But not in the way we expected …”