So I’m sitting in the office at work getting on with some data analysis when this email lands in my inbox …
I’m used to receiving requests for volunteers for various studies; it’s part of daily life in a large research University, but I had never seen a request for volunteers to snort cocaine in the name of research before!
This started me thinking about the things “healthy volunteers” will do in the name of science.
The most obvious example is that of Dr Barry Marshall of Perth, Australia. Having discovered a kind of bacteria capable of living in the human stomach, he was dismayed to find that the majority of his peers did not share his views that this may be a cause of stomach ulcers. In the tradition of true mad scientists everywhere, he then proceeded to drink some of this bacteria. Sure enough, he developed a stomach ulcer, which he then went on to cure with antibiotics, thus proving his point and earning himself a Nobel prize into the bargain.
My own experience of aiding and abetting the scientific community has thankfully been less adventurous.
I had only recently started as a PhD student when I was first asked to “help out” with an experiment; and in my department, that means one thing and one thing only – blood. Before you start wondering if my department is science’s answer to Twilight, let me explain that I work in Immunology and Infectious Diseases. We basically study how your body fights infection, and what happens in autoimmune diseases like Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis, where your body starts to attack itself.
This means that the majority of our work is carried out on white blood cells. And what’s the best source of white blood cells? Nice fresh blood of course!
Every time we want to do an experiment, someone has to get stabbed with a needle and drained of a hundred ml or so. This is probably less damaging than having to snort cocaine, but it does lead to interesting questions when, having donated at work every other week for 3 years, you end up having to explain why you have the scarred-up veins of a drug addict. But what are a few scars when you know you’re helping to discover new ways to diagnose Diabetes, or why some people can be infected with HIV, but show no signs of disease.
Research would simply grind to a halt if it weren’t for the “healthy volunteers” of this world. I feel like they deserve so much more than the vague pat on the back and maybe a biscuit (if they’re lucky) that they currently get. So, on behalf of all researchers everywhere: