Look ma… I’m a guinea pig!

Student medical trials are often talked about, but rarely understood. Nontobeko Sibisi and Rodain Joubert tell a story of scientific discovery, funny skin ointments and free food.

This is Jack. See Jack run. Run, Jack, run! See Jack enter a Rhodes medical testing programme. See Jack getting paid to take a butt injection. See Jack eat pizza. Eat, Jack, eat!

The above is a rather inaccurate summary of the Rhodes medical trials that take place about six times a year, but it’s a start. It is also one of the images that students paint for themselves when they hear about these trials for the first time. The posters are up on campus, the pharmacy lecturers are mentioning them to their classes and the word is being spread by enthralled students, yet the matter of what exactly goes on behind closed doors at the department remains a grey area for most people.

There are many questions surrounding this topic which people feel need to be answered. What exactly does a student go through when taking these tests? What sort of mad concoctions get tested on people who volunteer for these things? What about that scary little word – ethics? Daniel Ekar (20), a second year BPharm student, participated in a medical trial earlier this year. The purpose of the trial was to test for a bio-equivalent drug to that which is already on the market. The testings were two weeks long: three days of the first week were spent on one version of the drug. After a week three days were spent testing the second version.

Samule Chogugudza (21), a second year BAcc student also underwent a trial that lasted for three weeks. The process was similar to that of Ekar, except Chogugudza’s trial was on every weekend for three weeks. Each weekend, they were required to take a pill and their blood would be drawn at least once an hour to record the effects of the drug.

In order for them and others to be tested upon, they had to be non-smokers, not have exercised in the previous month or two and were not allowed to have taken any supplements, or anything that required an increase in their metabolism. Only the healthiest were tested. If you did not comply with the regulations, your services were no longer needed. Before anything could take place in the test, they were given a detailed explanation of the possible consequences, the purpose of the experiment and other information pertaining to the trial. Even then, they still had the option to chicken out at any time, which was a handy little agreement for any student worried about turning into little green monsters with red spots. But the side effects for subjects – if any were experienced – were limited to stomach aches and minor vomiting. Volunteers were required, of course, to sign a consent form.

“The food was tasty, I won’t lie,” said Ekar. They were fed healthy food and sometimes even scored free burgers, pizzas or pies, and were given a remuneration of R2400. Chogugudza says that the remuneration has nothing to do with the risks but ratherthe duration of the tests. Different trials have different cash rewards. “It was for the money – if I can, I’ll do it again,” he said.

Professor Roy Jobson, a lecturer in the Faculty of Pharmacy and the recently elected Chair of the Rhodes University Ethical Standards Committee, also had a lot to say on the matter. Being directly responsible for a multitude of ethical matters ranging from consent forms to advertisement wording, he is familiar with the meticulous process that is involved with upholding ethical standards. “These medical trials are subject to good clinical practice,” he said, “they follow international standards.” Insurance is also provided for the outside chance that, say, a volunteer ends up growing an extra arm (something which the faculty claims has not yet happened).

Dr Mike Skinner, head of the Biopharmaceutics Research Unit, also elaborates on the issue. More specifically, he outlines the thoroughness of the screening process and also makes an important note of the drug types that get tested. Usually, they are oral tablets with a smattering of ointments and other product types thrown into the mix – and they’re all generics. Skinner says that any pharmaceutical products tested on humans at Rhodes have all been on the market for years already.

Genevieve Au, one of the Master students whose drugs are being tested on the volunteers, confirms this fact. “The tests are very safe,” she says, “I even test the products on myself.” With this, she points to several lightened patches of skin on her arm. She says all of her colleagues do this too, and has absolute faith in the safety of the products which she is testing.

More often than not, the mysterious concoctions that get tested on students come straight off

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