Are Ordinary People Risking Life for Science?

"The money is for their giving up time they could be using for running their practice," said Plachetka. "If they don't spend the time discussing all the risks with their patients, we're not interested."

When Trials Work

Recently patients have begun bypassing doctors and seeking clinical trials on their own through Web sites such as CenterWatch.com and ClinicalTrials.gov. These sites serve to connect prospective patients directly to drug companies seeking subjects. Once patients find drug trials they think could help, they then seek advice from doctors and researchers about whether they qualify and might benefit.

The method worked for Ted Wiles, who used the Internet to find a clinical trial for his stepdaughter, Taylor Nicholson, last year. Nicholson was suffering from a rare childhood brain stem glioma cancer. Nicholson's mother explained the choice to enter her 6-year-old daughter in the drug trial was easy.

"We were willing to try everything," said Tina Wiles, Taylor's mother. "We had taken her to faith healers, we had tried natural herb medicines. Even if this treatment only prolonged her life by six months, we decided it was worth it."

Today Nicholson is back at school and her current tests show no signs of the cancer.

It's hopeful stories like Nicholson's that drive the drug trial process to begin with. As Plachetka says, "It's absolutely tragic when mishaps occur, but somebody somewhere has to be among the first to take a drug. Otherwise we'll never know what works and we'll never get new drugs."

But Helms, who recently lost touch with a friend who he says became mentally unstable after volunteering for a series of psychiatric drug trials, argues the risks don't need to be so high.

"We're offering ourselves to science, even though no one ever hears about our contributions when the papers are published," said Helms. "We deserve better protection."

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