Dec. 18, 2008— -- Americans across the country are finding ways to adapt to the economic times, increasingly making money by putting their bodies at risk.
Maria Finkbeiner was hit hard by the economic crisis. After being laid off as an auto parts worker, she has spent the past year trying to get a new job, while eventually losing her home to foreclosure.
That's when Finkbeiner, a perfectly healthy mother of two from Edwardsburg, Mich., spotted an ad seeking volunteers who were willing to take experimental prescription drugs for pay, despite unknown long-term risks and short-term side effects that can include nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramping.
"When I first read about it, I thought people must be crazy to do that," Finkbeiner said.
But Finkbeiner inquired, met the criteria for a clinical medical trial and signed up.
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"It's like you're being a guinea pig," she said. "You're taking medication they're testing on people -- medication that hasn't been approved yet."
In two weeks, she earned nearly $3,000. It would have taken her six weeks in her old job to make the same pay.
"During these challenging economic times, people are resorting to extraordinary and some might characterize it as extreme means, in order to generate income, like participating in clinical trials that can have serious consequences for your health down the road," said Jean Mitchell, healthcare economics expert and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Research facilities in North Carolina and New Jersey report an uptick in the number of people wanting to take part in medical experiments for pay.
The director of Just Another Lab Rat, a Web site offering information about clinical trials, says he has seen 30 percent more inquiries in the past year alone.
Some fertility clinics are also reporting a significant rise in the number of women inquiring about becoming egg donors or surrogate mothers, like at Agency for Solutions in North Hollywod, Calif., run by Lauri Berger de Brito and Kathryn Kaycoff Manos.
"We've seen our surrogate applications rise from about 40 per month to well over 100 per month," Berger De Brito said.
Recession Pushes Some to Surrogacy
Charlene Clymore of Fresno, Calif., a surrogate mother through the agency, says if it wasn't for the $25,000 she is receiving for her services, her two children would be in a devastating situation.
"We would lose our car," she said. "We would lose the roof over our head."
But, for Clymore, the decision to become a surrogate mother is about more than money; it makes her feel good to help an infertile couple have a baby.
Finkbeiner also believes that she is making a contribution by helping advance medical research. "There are people that may need this medication and it cannot be on the market until it has been tested by people like myself," she said.
Indeed, according to Gary Zammit, CEO of Clinilabs, a New York City-based clinical research center, most people who participate in clinical studies do it for more than the money.
"The majority of people who participate in our studies do so because they like the idea of contributing to medical science and at the same time have the opportunity to supplement their income," Zammit said. "Every medication that is available to consumers today -- both prescription and over-the-counter -- was evaluated in clinical studies that involved volunteers."
Zammit says that some participants also receive medical examinations and quality health care during the trials because of the close monitoring that studies require.
But critics say that it's too dangerous for patients to enroll in clinical trials for the money.
"It's reasonable for people to be paid modest amounts to enroll in clinical trials for any time lost or cost incurred to get to the site, but that should be all that they get, " said Peter Lurie, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, a Ralph Nader-founded advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "Any amount of money that acts as an incentive and allows people to take risks that they would otherwise not take is an incentive that is too large."
While medical experiments are supervised by licensed professionals, researchers say that there might be long-term side effects from taking medication that has yet to be approved -- risks that more Americans are apparently willing to take to survive these difficult times.