Debbie Knight

I’d be a human guinea pig in a heart beat!

In observation on October 6, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Today, Reuter’s  published an article online about Dr. Ralph Steinman who died three days before he was announced the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine. As if winning the Nobel Prize on Monday wasn’t newsworthy enough, this scientist made himself a human guinea pig by testing several experimental therapies in his battle against pancreatic cancer. Four and a half years ago he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer which had spread to his lymph nodes. This is amazing considering a patient with such a diagnosis has about a five percent chance of surviving just one year.

I’m a big believer in medical research.

And if I had the opportunity to help advance medical discoveries like Dr. Steinman attempted to do, I would do so in a heartbeat.

That being said, I have participated several times in scientific research.

  • I’ve let researchers draw my blood more times than I can count. I even used some for my master’s project (and I have the scar to prove it).
  • I’ve donated bone marrow, allowing a researcher to drill into my pelvic bone.
  • I’ve undergone bronchial lavage — a procedure where they effectively rinse out your lung with saline so that they can collect, in this case, immune cells. I only did this once — not my best research experience.
  • I let a researcher studying stress make several blisters on my arm to monitor my ability to heal (I think I was a healthy control in this study — I wasn’t really stressed out during the experiment).
  • I’ve participated in a psychology study — took two drugs to look at how they affected cognitive ability. One kicked my brain into high gear, but for all I know it was just caffeine. The did nothing other than make me vomit. I don’t do this sort of study any more.

Being a human guinea pig by participating in research does have a few benefits.

Sometimes you get paid to participate.

For the wound healing study, I got a few hundred dollars for a weekend stay in the clinical study suite — getting paid to do my homework, watch TV, and give some blood. Not a bad deal for a college student.

And sometimes you get “useful” information.

  • One study, I found out what my tissue type was. This is the kind of information they use for organ transplantation. So in the event of a transplant, I’m set!
  • In another study, I found out that my B cells readily convert into cancerous cells in a mouse model. This information suggests it’s possible that should my immune system become compromised, through disease or old age, I’m likely to develop B cell lymphoma. Yikes! On one hand, I’m not sure I really wanted to know this. But on the other hand, it’s good to be aware (and perhaps prepared).
  • Another study has shown that I have some autoantibodies that could result in an autoimmune disease.
  • I’ve learned about some polymorphisms I have hanging out in my DNA. I’m not sure how useful this information is at the moment, but you never know with all the new discoveries being made in the molecular and cancer genetics field.

So, I totally understand why Dr. Steinman made himself a human guinea pig. If I were in a similar situation, I would as well.

And I’d try to be the best darned guinea pig ever!

  1. we certainly would be better off with more thinkers like you–is there a special maintenance person who keeps your head screwed on straight?–if so she/he is doing a great job just like you!

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