Human trial volunteers: Well-paid, but at what cost?

Would you put your body on the line in the name of science? Pop pills for money under the name of clinical trials?

Trials in New Zealand offer big money to eligible participants.

Huge biotechnology companies are seeking Kiwi clinical trial volunteers to help in creating disease-fighting drugs - drugs that could help millions worldwide.

Despite the risks, there is no shortage of humans guinea pigs in New Zealand because it's a lucrative job.

"I got reimbursed about $5000," says clinical trial paid volunteer Regan Kay. "And then my second one, where it was one three-night stay and multiple visits, was around $3000. Free board, new sheets, it’s pretty good."

However, making serious cash in a flash is often a risk versus reward equation.

Like study participant Regan, many Kiwis are using their bodies for science in clinical drug trials.

Medical director Dr Chris Wynne leads an internationally renowned research facility at the Christchurch Clinical Studies Trust.

Last year 500 participants, some with medical conditions, some perfect healthy, were locked in, dosed up and monitored for several days to test the safety of certain medications.

"Early phase clinical trials [can use] mice, monkeys... humans," says Dr Wynne.

Their results are published in international medical journals, and have improved the way breast cancer treatments are administered.

The pharmaceutical industry worldwide makes over a trillion dollars annually, and a big part of the drug trials industry is creating biosimilars: a cost-effective “copy” of a well-known branded drug with an expired patent.

"Copying expensive drugs, Pharmac will be able to afford more doses for more people," says Dr Wynne.

Each human study requires a specific type of person, taking into consideration weight, smoking habits and sometimes ethnicity.

For the right candidate, it can mean over $1000 a day - but be warned: some drugs have serious side effects.

"[In] France someone died. Poorly-done testing is dangerous. We have regulations, ethics committees. I wouldn't test anything my own kids wouldn’t be safe on. We’ve never used our insurance policy. We even say no to some tests," says Dr Wynne.

"There are restrictions - we don’t want to entice people to do dangerous things for the money."

The risks aren't lost on Regan.

"Of course it’s in the back of your mind."

This week’s participants are testing rheumatoid arthritis drugs. Becca lives with rheumatoid arthritis, a condition with "good days and bad days". For Becca, these medicines that labs can create make a world of difference.

Human trial volunteers can receive great pay, and know they are doing their bit to make the world a better place - but trials can pose risks, which each volunteer needs to be aware of.