Part one in a special report on clinical trials by Donna Chisholm
Read tomorrow: the business of clinical trials
Evan Donnelly became a healthy volunteer in drug safety trials for the money.
He was saving for a deposit on a house, and the reimbursement on offer – thousands of dollars for about a week’s work, all up – was a good way to reach his goal.
Now, though, he says he’s driven more by altruism, and is a strong advocate of the benefits of trials, both to those who take part and to the country.
“The initial driver was money – the idea of having a quick cash injection was incredibly attractive – but once I started the process, I became interested and quite fascinated.”
After taking part in 13 trials over six years, he’s earned more than $40,000.
The first trial he joined involved a Hepatitis C drug, which is now on the market.
“I was really excited when I found out it was at that point, because you can think, ‘Oh, we’re trialling a drug, that’s nice’, but now people are getting cured by taking a course of pills and you think more people need to do this.
"If we don’t do these studies, we don’t get new drugs. It really does help.
"My mindset shifted into volunteer work – you are doing something for other people.”
He says he’s encouraged several friends to take part.
Donnelly, a massage therapist who runs a number of franchise businesses in other fields, says he’s able to continue with his admin work during the trials, at New Zealand Clinical Research's Grafton base near Auckland City Hospital.
“It’s like you’re in a fancy hospital ward with emergency button, lights and a hospital bed that goes up and down, which is quite nice when you’re watching Netflix.”
Healthy volunteers like Donnelly have to spend a number of days living-in at the trials unit, where they are closely monitored after receiving small doses of the medication on trial, or a placebo.
He’s never had an adverse reaction, nor is he worried about having one.
“I look for the ones that are first in humans because they’re at the lowest doses, with the least amount of risk.
"I’m really not that concerned about something going wrong, because the dosing generally is incredibly low.”
Although the Accident Compensation Corporation doesn’t cover trial participants, companies are required to have insurance cover to at least the level of ACC.
NZ Clinical Research says it hasn’t used its insurance policy in 20 years of trials.
Meals are at strictly regimented times, according to when the medicine has been taken. Every patient gets the same amount of the same food and must eat everything they’re given, within a set time frame.
“We used to eat quite large meals, butter chicken, lamb shanks, all sorts of things, but they were too large for most people, so now they’re smaller.
"The original meals had dessert, which was super-exciting, but the new meals don’t, which is quite sad,” says Donnelly, a self-described big eater.
One of the downsides is participants can’t exercise.
“It changes the protein levels in your body, and the results.”
In the past, he says, organisers have arranged classes in yoga and even bongo drums.
“I find the study time passes very quickly; even five days is a blink of an eye.
"Even though I’m still working every day, because I’m not in my normal environment I feel like I’m on holiday.
"I feel very relaxed while I’m there and I look forward to them and to seeing people again – sometimes you catch up with people you did studies with three or four years ago. It’s a very welcoming environment.”
The rates paid vary according to how many days participants spend at the facility, and how many follow-up appointments they need to attend.
Trials being offered now on NZCR’s website are paying $5,800 before tax for a study requiring two three-night stays, two one-night stays and five visits.
One needing an 18-night stay and one follow-up visit is paying $11,000.
For Donnelly, it’s been a nice little earner.
“Thanks to that study, I bought my first house – the money was enough to push me over the line for the deposit and I used the equity in that to get the second.”