Clinical trials: how taking the pills may pay those bills | Money

Fancy a relaxing two-week getaway where you get your travel expenses paid, plus your own en suite room with all mod cons including a TV, PlayStation games console and free wifi? What’s more, it won’t cost you anything – in fact, they are so keen for you to come that you’ll be paid £4,200.

If that sounds appealing, then you might want to think about booking a stay at FluCamp. However, as the name suggests, there’s a catch to this “holiday”: FluCamp runs residential clinical trials in the UK to test potential treatments for colds and flu.

It is one of a number of companies and organizations offering sizeable payments – up to £7,000 in some cases – plus “restaurant-standard” meals and other perks to tempt people to take part in clinical drug trials.

As well as the money, you will also have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to advance medical science, just like the thousands who have taken part in Covid-19 vaccine trials.

Adverts appealing for volunteers for paid clinical trials have been appearing in newspapers such as Metro, and the websites of a number of healthcare organizations are currently recruiting people. Some are even offering “refer a friend” payments.

The trials are to test medicines and treatments for a wide range of diseases and conditions – from eczema and obsessive compulsive disorder to malaria, Parkinson’s disease and gout.

The organizations running the trials talk about how this can be a great opportunity for students and others to earn cash while catching up on their studies or sleep, or sitting around playing games consoles and watching Netflix.

But while the money will be tempting to some, many people will be wary – mainly because they would be worried about the risk of suffering an adverse reaction.

The notorious “Elephant Man” drug trial at Northwick Park hospital in north-west London in 2006, which left six healthy men (who were each paid £2,000) fighting for their lives, continues to cast a long shadow over the sector.

Who runs these paid trials?

There are a number of companies and organizations that either conduct medical research themselves or recruit volunteers. They include MAC Clinical Research, HMR (Hammersmith Medicines Research), Quotient Sciences, Trials4us, which is part of Richmond Pharmacology, Labcorp, and Parexel – the firm that ran that disastrous 2006 trial. These six all advertise current and upcoming trials on their websites.

Also, look out for the ads promoting FluCamp and others that often appear in newspapers.

FluCamp recruiting at Westfield Stratford shopping mall.
FluCamp recruiting at Westfield Stratford shopping mall. Photograph: FluCamp

How much can I earn?

It varies hugely. King’s College London recently advertised in Metro for volunteers for a study relating to exercise that was offering £100 (plus travel costs and a free health check), which arguably doesn’t sound like a lot.

However, many of the trials being advertised on the websites mentioned above are offering four-figure sums. Payments of £4,000 to £6,000-plus are not uncommon.

FluCamp’s ads say it will pay people £4,200, and that an average trial lasts 11-14 days.

In some cases you will get travel expenses on top; in others this is included in the payment.

Who can take part?

Some trials involve healthy volunteers; others are looking for people with a specific illness or condition. Usually there is a minimum and maximum age. Some trials only want men or women, and some don’t want people who currently smoke.

Traditionally this is something that has been popular with students. A survey carried out last year by the website Save the Student indicated that 2% of students make money from drug trials. However, Quotient Sciences says its recent volunteers come “from all sorts of backgrounds – from firefighters and accountants to students, social workers, nurses and cabin crew.”

Overhead view of a student studying
Traditionally, clinical trials have been popular with students. Photograph: Sergio Azenha/Alamy

Sometimes there are quite specific requirements. If you have previously dabbled with LSD or ecstasy, for example, HMR is currently seeking healthy men aged 18-55 who must have taken at least one hallucinogenic drug in the past. It is for a trial to test a potential new medicine for treating the symptoms of drug withdrawal, and the payment is £3,000.

Meanwhile, MAC Clinical Research has a couple of trials looking for men experiencing erectile dysfunction (the payment is a little under £700), and one for people with OCD (£490).

So what is involved? Will I have to stay in overnight?

Again, this will vary hugely. Needless to say, the better-paying trials involve a lot more than having some blood tests and a physical examination.

The trials involve a vast array of medicines and treatments. Some involve psychedelic drugs such as ibogaine, psilocybin and ayahuasca.

In some cases, in addition to taking the study drug (or a placebo dummy medication), you might have to undergo a medical procedure. There may also be rules covering what you can eat, contraception and so on.

And, yes, to get the big bucks you can expect a number of overnight stays.

For example, HMR is advertising a trial for healthy men paying £5,000 to test a potential medicine for Parkinson’s disease that involves seven nights’ residence on its wards, six outpatient visits, two MRI scans and two lumbar punctures (where a thin needle is inserted between the bones in your lower spine).

MAC Clinical Research is running a trial for healthy men and women to assess a potential new treatment for pain that pays up to £6,060, although receiving that sum involves an 18-night stay.

The highest-paying trial we could find was one that Parexel is running soon for healthy men aged 28-55 to test a new medicine for osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones. The payment is £7,475, and participants will receive the drug as an injection given under the skin in the stomach. This trial involves one screening visit, two nights in the unit and 25 follow-up visits.

Backpacker with tablets and medication
Some clinical trials involve healthy volunteers, while others are looking for people with a specific illness or condition. Photograph: Demkat/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The NHS says it is important for people considering doing a trial to find out about the inconvenience and risks involved before they sign up, and “carefully weigh up whether it’s worth it”.

Where are the tests done?

All over the country. MAC Clinical Research has clinics in Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside, south Staffordshire, South Yorkshire, Teesside and West Yorkshire. HMR has a big base in Park Royal, west London, while Trials4us is located in London Bridge, and Parexel is at Northwick Park hospital. The Quotient Sciences trials base is just outside Nottingham, while Labcorp has a clinic in Leeds. FluCamp has facilities in London and Manchester.

Do payments count as income, and are they taxed?

This will vary depending on your circumstances. The payment could well count as “miscellaneous income” and you might be liable for income tax on it if the sum received is greater than your “reasonable costs” associated with taking part in the trial (which it often will be). But remember that everyone, including students, has a tax-free personal allowance – the amount of income you don’t have to pay income tax on. For 2022-23 this is £12,570. Also, you get a £1,000-a-year tax-free allowance for “trading income”, which includes money earned from side hustles or odd jobs such as clinical trials. If your annual income from these is more than £1,000, or if in any doubt, talk to HM Revenue and Customs. The Low Income Tax Reform Group website has a useful section on this area.

If you are on benefits, speak to your benefit office or HMRC to find out what effect any payments you might have.

Are the trials that pay more money more risky?

According to industry guidelines, payment amounts should not be related to the perceived risk. HMR says payment amounts are based on the length of the trials, adding: “It doesn’t change according to the type of study medicine. Payment is for your time and inconvenience and is never a reward for risk.”

Pills on old wooden background.
The clinical trials involve an array of medicines and treatments. Photograph: Mukhina1/Getty Images/iStockphoto

So are clinical trials safe?

It is possible you will experience unexpected side-effects, according to the NHS. Of course, it is possible for any medication to cause side-effects.

Trials4us says this may be the first time the trial medication has been given to humans, “so there may not be any direct knowledge of its side-effect profile.” But it it adds that the risks involved will have been carefully assessed in animal studies using doses that greatly exceed those given to volunteers.

In 2015 the Mirror published data released after a freedom of information request showing that 7,187 Britons who took part in clinical trials between 2010 and 2014 suffered serious and unexpected adverse reactions, of which 493 were immediately life-threatening. More recent data does not appear to be available.

What about meals and other perks?

Meals and access to leisure facilities are typically included.

HMR’s website talks about its “outstanding” facilities for volunteers including restaurant-standard meals, free wifi, widescreen TVs with Sky and games consoles, books, newspapers and board games.

Similarly, Quotient Sciences says you can watch TV or DVDs, play on its Xboxes, read or surf the net and take part in pool tournaments.

Some companies including FluCamp offer private en suite rooms but with many trials you will be on an open ward.

Cropped hand of man playing pool
With Quotient Sciences you can take part in pool tournaments. Photograph: Sorin Rechitan/Getty Images/EyeEm

Will doing a trial affect my life insurancetravel insurance, etc?

Insurers are unlikely to ask about any participation in clinical trials, says the Association of British Insurers. “If they do, then, as with all questions, you should answer honestly and fully.” If in any doubt, check with your insurer.

How are clinical trials regulated in the UK?

Before a trial of a new medicine can begin, a government agency called the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has to review and authorise it. And all medical research involving people has to be approved by an independent research ethics committee.

Will I get compensation if things go wrong?

Yes, almost certainly. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has guidelines on this area. The compensation policy should be clearly spelled out at the outset.

How do I find out more?

Check out the previously mentioned websites, plus press ads and noticeboards at GP practices, universities, etc. The Be Part of Research website has information about clinical trials, while many charity websites highlight trials.

The NHS says you can ask your doctor or a patient organization if they know of any that you may be eligible to join.

To hear other people’s experiences of taking part in a clinical trial, visit healthtalk.org/clinical-trials/overview.

‘The staff were discreet, professional and very knowledgable’

A man in his 30s from Manchester told us he was paid £730 plus expenses to take part in a trial for a potential treatment for erectile dysfunction. He signed up after seeing an advert on Facebook from MAC Clinical Research.

Asked what was involved, he said: “Health checks involving blood pressure, ECG, blood samples and repeat visits to the clinic. Some participants self-applied a RigiScan device in private, which was used to measure their erections.”

He added: “While I would describe the trial as unusual, the MAC staff brought normality and care; they were all discreet, professional and very knowledgable. The RigiScan device was simple and easy to use. I felt at ease throughout the study. It is great to know that work like this goes on to improve the lives of people suffering.”

The man said the staff “looked after me really well”. He has since returned to take part in another study, and said he may do more in the future.

At the time of writing, MAC Clinical Research was advertising a couple of erectile dysfunction trials on its website. One pays up to £680 and the other up to £690, plus travel expenses. The first one is a study that will run over two months, with participants required to visit the clinic seven times. The second one requires six outpatient visits to the clinics for check-ups.

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