Wednesday, 20 April 2011

My past life as a human guinea pig.

While I was a student, completing my PhD, I would often find myself short of cash. So, to earn a little pocket money, I would volunteer to have products tested on me. My set of criteria for picking which study to go in? It had to pay more than I could get working at Kmart. That was it. It all came down to money. I did find the science of these studies very interesting, but really it was all about money for me. I thought that I would share my experiences with you to give you an understanding on how research is conducted on humans in the beauty and medical industry.

The first study I went in was for a dermatologist completing her PhD. This one wasn't for the beauty industry but rather it was for developing a better understanding of the skin's immune system. The skin has a whole bunch of cells in waiting, ready to pounce on any bacteria or foreign material that breaches the skin barrier. These are the cells responsible for skin sensitivity - in people with sensitive skin these cells are too good at their job and react to anything that comes in contact with the skin. According to this dermatologist, nickel is the most common allergy in the general public. Have you ever had a reaction to a pair of earrings, or jewellery or even a belt buckle or watch? It is nickel you are reacting to. The purpose of the study was to see whether UV radiation suppressed the skin's immune system. I am allergic to nickel and had to wear patches on my back for 48 hours that had varying concentrations of nickel. It was bloody itchy! They then measured how badly my skin reacted. Following that, they zapped another patch of my back with varying strengths of UV radiation applied the nickel patches, then tested my reaction to the nickel again. If I didn't react as strongly it meant that UV radiation did suppress my skin's immune system. I don't know what the overall results of the study were, but my skin definitely reacted less to the nickel in the area that had been exposed to UV radiation.

Another study I went in was for the beauty industry. They would get a panel of 11 different products, and apply them to these little metal disks. They would then stick them to my inner arm with a waterproof patch and leave them there for 48 hours. They also had a 12th disk which they would just put distilled water on, to act as a control. I am not sure what they were testing because all of the tubes were blank with just numbers on them, but I am pretty sure it was sunscreens.

Have you ever wondered how they test how long a sunscreen will last for? There was a study going on when I was in uni testing this. They would cover you in sunscreen then you had to sit in a kiddies wading pool filled with water for 6 hours and each hour they would zap a part of your skin with UV radiation to test whether the sunscreen was still working. I didn't end up doing this study because they only paid $120 and I didn't know how I could occupy myself for 6 hours in a wading pool.

The study I regret going in the most was another medical study though I am sure the product would end up being more lucrative to the cosmetic industry. It was for a drug that increases melanin production in your skin, without exposure to the sun. Melanin is the body's protective mechanism against UV radiation. When you go out in the sun your skin darkens. This is because it starts producing more melanin to prevent it from burning. So this drug was meant to turn on melanin production without sun exposure, and the medical purpose of this was for people who have extremely pale skin that produces next to no melanin, for example Albino's, making them virtually house bound. However, I suspect it will be used more by people who want a year round tan without using a solarium or fake tans. In this study I had a rod implanted into my arm that contained either the drug or a placebo. They took biopsies of an area of my skin that got no sun exposure (my bottom) before the study then again after the study to test whether the skin had changed colour and to have a look under the microscope at what the skin cells were doing. I am almost certain that I got the placebo as my skin didn't appear to change colour at all. I was speaking to the doctor running the study asking him whether he thought that the product worked. He told me that he had one volunteer who had really pale skin with heaps of prominent freckles. As the study progressed, his freckles became less and less noticeable. This doctor thought that it indicated that the drug worked as the rest of this guy's skin was getting darker and catching up in colour with the freckles. This was a double-blind study. What this means is that us volunteers had no idea whether we were in the control (placebo) group or the study group and the research also didn't know. So when he implanted the rods, they were all coded so he had no idea who was getting what. I was paid $300 for this study, but regret it as I now have 5 scars on my body from the biopsies and the implantation and removal of the rod. However, they are on the underside of my arm and my bottom so I mostly forget that I have them.

The study that ended my career as a human guinea pig was for an asthma study. I did all of these tests to determine whether or not I had asthma as they needed both normal and asthmatic volunteers. Interestingly, I was diagnosed with asthma in this study - I had had it as a child but thought that I had outgrown it but the researcher determined that I still had it and suggested that I see a doctor about treatment. As I have not had an attack since I was under the age of 5, I have not gotten around to following it up. One of the tests they did in diagnosing asthma was stick a tube with a balloon on the end of it into my nose. I then had to swallow while they directed the balloon into in my lungs. They inflated the balloon and measured my lung's response. I remember sitting there with a tube up my nose and a balloon in my lungs thinking 'Sarah, what the hell are you doing here?'. This part of the study paid $50, then if you went on to the second part of the study you got paid an additional $300. What did you have to do to get this $300? Have a biopsy taken from your lung, of course! I was actually considering it until I mentioned it to a friend - he looked at me with such shock and said that if I needed $300 that badly he'd give it to me. It was then that I realised I would never need $300 badly enough to allow my lung to be biopsied - no matter how safe it was. And so that spelt the end of me selling my body to science!

So, although most of the research on humans generally only involves no more than filling in a questionnaire answering whether you saw less wrinkles or more hydration when using a product, there are more in depth, and invasive, studies being conducted.

What would you allow a researcher to do to you in the name of beauty or science?