What’s it like to take part in a clinical trial?

Drug trials can pay well, but they have their fair share of risks too. We caught up with a student who earned over £1,000 from a medical trial to find out just what it’s like to take part in one.

what is it like to do drug trial

Drug trials, clinical trials, medical trials – whatever you want to call them, they’re a surprisingly popular way of making money as a student.

In fact, according to our National Student Money Survey, 2% of students make money from clinical trials, with this figure rising to 7% when students are faced with a cash crisis.

But despite their popularity, many students still know very little about clinical trials, and as such there are plenty of urban myths and preconceptions about what they entail and how risky they are.

To help separate the fact from the fiction, we spoke to Sarah, an Engineering student at Imperial College London, who took part in a drug trial during her time at uni.

How to find and apply for a clinical trial

how to apply for clinical trials

Credit: South Park Studios

The fact that, when faced with a cash crisis, the proportion of students making money from drug trials rises from 2% to 7%, suggests that many of those taking part are in it for the money. Interestingly, however, this wasn’t the case for Sarah.

Although the money was a nice bonus, the trial wasn’t something I did because I needed money.

I was genuinely interested and thought it would be pretty cool if the drug (an HIV vaccine) ended up being used. Also, selling your body to science isn’t a bad story to tell at parties!

In terms of finding a drug trial to take part in, there are a couple of different ways to go about it. There are large companies, like Covance and Trials4Us, which run a huge range of clinical trials and are useful for applying for multiple schemes at once.

Alternatively you can take part at a university (perhaps even your own), and it’s this approach that Sarah took to find her trial.

I’d been looking at a few drug trials through sites like Trials4Us and Flucamp, and ended up finding the trial I took part in through an ad on Facebook.

It was run by the research part of uni (although participants didn’t have to be Imperial students), so I thought I might as well apply.

Unfortunately, you won’t be eligible for every clinical trial that you find – some will be seeking participants who fit specific criteria, while others may reject you if you fall into an ‘at-risk’ category.

In Sarah’s case, while she was eventually accepted onto the trial, there were a few boxes that she had to tick before she could take part.

I had to be tested to ensure I was HIV negative, and I couldn’t be part of an ‘at-risk’ group. I also had to be on hormonal contraception, have no long-term illnesses and couldn’t have antibodies to spread strains of the flu virus which were used in the trial.

Anyone living with an adult or child who was vulnerable (health-wise) was ineligible to take part too.

Are clinical trials safe?

risks of a clinical trial

As popular as they are, there are still some risks involved in clinical trials. Although the drugs will have been extensively tested on animals before reaching the human stage, the very nature of these experiments means that you can never be completely sure of the outcome.

As Sarah notes, the researchers will have a good idea of what the possible side effects could be (and they’ll tell you what they are before you take part), but they can’t be 100% sure until the drug has been tested on humans – which is where you come in.

They actually explained how they hoped the vaccine would work, which was really interesting.

They gave me a list of potential side effects but explained that not all of the drugs had been tested enough to know what side effects they could cause. The trial I took part in would help determine this for the future.

Sarah thankfully reports that she didn’t experience any side effects at all, but it’s important to note that clinical trials do very, very (very) occasionally go wrong.

In 2017, for example, two students taking part in a drug trial at Northumbria University were accidentally given a dose of caffeine that was equivalent to 300 cups of coffee at once. The mistake left the pair fighting for their lives in hospital, and the university was consequently fined £400,000 for the error.

However, as we said before, severe complications in clinical trials are extremely rare. Most of the time you’ll either experience no side effects at all, as Sarah did, or you’ll suffer minor issues like nausea, fainting and headaches – not ideal, but far preferable to the worst case scenario.

That said, bad news spreads like wildfire, and many people have somewhat understandable concerns about clinical trials. So much so, in fact, that Sarah felt she had to keep her participation a secret from some of her nearest and dearest.

I didn’t actually tell my parents because I knew they’d freak out!

But I told my friends who, after an initial reaction of ‘will you die?’, didn’t seem to find any particular issue with it.

What’s it like to take part in a drug trial?

what's it like to do a medical trial

Credit: 20th Century Fox

It sounds obvious, but different drug trials will involve different experiences.

For example, subjects taking part in Flucamp – arguably one of the most popular clinical trial companies for students – are usually required to live in a lab for a couple of weeks.

Not only does this ensure minimal impact from other variables, but it also stops the flu virus from spreading to the outside world (a necessary measure as it’s often a new strain with potentially unknown side effects).

However, not all clinical trials force you to stay in lab conditions for an extended period of time. In Sarah’s case, although the experiment lasted for several months, she was free to go about her life as normal.

The trial took place over seven months this year, but I didn’t have to live in a purpose-built lab – it was made up of 11 short visits (at most three hours) over the seven month period.

The sessions involved taking blood, taking nasal swabs and so on, as well as having all my vital signs checked. I also had to do a pregnancy test.

So, while you may hear stories of drug trial companies paying you to sit in a room for two weeks playing FIFA and watching Netflix, that’s certainly not the only way a trial can go down. Of course, if you’re not one for lazing around for days on end, this may come as a bit of welcome news!

Should you take part in a clinical trial?

should you do a drug trial

Credit: Warner Bros

If we’re talking about it in purely financial terms, clinical trials are certainly appealing.

At the end of Sarah’s clinical trial she was paid a lump sum of £1,350 plus travel expenses. Even if each of the 11 visits took three hours (and remember, Sarah said that this was the absolute maximum time that one would last for), it would still work out at over £40/hour – that’s the equivalent of over £50,000/year!

But, as we know, clinical trials aren’t quite as simple as visiting a lab a few times and picking up a nice cheque at the end. There are risks attached, and even if you don’t suffer severe side effects, you could still feel a little under the weather for a while.

Bearing all that in mind, would Sarah recommend drug trials as a way for students to make money?

For obvious reasons they don’t like you to do too many trials, and of course there is always the risk of getting ill.

I’d absolutely recommend it – but as a nice bit of spare cash, as opposed to making money for living.

Before you do anything, however, make sure you understand exactly what you’re signing yourself up for. Our guide to making money from drug trials has all the pros and cons you need to know, and even lists a few reputable companies to sign up with. Give it a read!

Have you taken part in a clinical trial? Get in touch or leave a comment, as we’d love to share your story (don’t worry, we can keep you anonymous!) and help students make informed decisions about drug trials.