THOUSANDS of people are volunteering to be guinea pigs in clinical drug trials because of the recession and rising unemployment.
The country’s only contract research clinic, which carries out medical trials, is receiving about 400 enquiries a month, with the majority of calls from people aged 21 to 25.
While the Shandon Clinic is the only unit of its kind in Ireland, according to the Irish Medicines Board (IMB) trial sites can also range from hospitals to medical clinics and GP surgeries, with about 390 trials ongoing at any one time.
Just over half of those volunteering for clinical trials at the centre are women. The vast majority are students from local colleges, who can expect to make up to €150 a day for tests on medicines which are not yet licensed for sale.
Director of clinical studies at Shandon Clinic Dr Morris Dowling said it has become significantly easier to fill the quota of volunteers for trials.
“We recruit about 40 people and from this select about 25 of the most suitable. During the boom times it was hard to recruit, as people were not available due to work commitments, and they had money.
“Now we receive about 12 phone enquiries a day – people have more time on their hands, so there is a lot more interest,” he said.
Dr Dowling said the compensation being offered is decided by an ethics committee regulated by the Department of Health and Children and is only enough to cover a volunteer’s time and expenses.
Clinical trials in Ireland are strictly monitored by the IMB and governed by European Communities (Clinical Trials on Medicinal Products for Human Use) Regulations 2004.
However, there is still risk associated with taking medicines whose side effects are not yet fully understood. During a clinical trial in a London hospital in 2006 six people, including one Irishman, suffered multiple organ failure and swelling after being given TGN1412, a drug designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis, leukaemia and multiple sclerosis. Ryan Wilson Flanagan was 20 when he took part in the trial that led to him suffering irreparable damage to his hands and having his toes amputated to the balls of his feet.
However, director of clinical pharmacology at the clinic Dr Andrew Leary said there is very little cause for concern regarding the drugs being tested at the Shandon Clinic.
“We always contact a volunteer’s GP prior to the trial commencing and our own basic principle is we don’t do studies we wouldn’t do on ourselves or our own children,” he added.
However, according to the clinic’s ethical guidelines, its staff are not allowed to take part in trials.
The Union of Students president Gary Redmond said he believed the increase in students volunteering for trials was a knock-on effect from the decision to cut student maintenance grants by 5% and raise registration fees 67% in the last budget.
“It is extremely worrying that students are turning to clinical trials to fund their education because of another example of a shortsighted move by our government,” he said.
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