New gig for Vietnam's college students: medical guinea pig

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College students in Hanoi are agreeing to be guinea pigs for pharmaceutical companies to earn extra money, saying "the job" pays well.

Hundreds of students have volunteered to have pharmaceutical products tested on them at the National Institute of Drug Quality Control at the Health Ministry, Tuoi Tre reported last week.

The students must sign a statement of commitment and are provided information about the medicines they are paid to take, including potential side effects.

Strict examinations are required to make sure that the students do not have tuberculosis or liver, kidney or heart conditions.

Volunteers remain at the laboratory for one or two days before the testing begins. They are instructed to get enough sleep, eat healthily and refrain from addictive substances.

One of the volunteers, Pham Duc Sinh, 21, a senior at the Hanoi University of Pharmacy, said students are given medicine and then have their blood drawn for testing several times within the first 24 hours.

Each volunteer ends up having about 150 cc of blood drawn.

The volunteers said they have suffered side effects that have been unpleasant, such as fatigue and appetite loss that lasted for several days, after taking heart, diabetes or endocrine system medications.

Nguyen Tuan Anh, from the same university in Hanoi, said curiosity motivated him to become a pharmaceutical guinea pig.

After that first time, he became "hooked" and has since become a regular volunteer.

"The first time was very scary. I had a lot of questions going through my head about whether the medicines would cause any changes to my health or give me diseases," Anh said.

"But there's nothing to worry about when you really know about this job. It has taught me more about assessing drug quality, which will help my career later."

Like many other volunteers, Anh is motivated by the cost of tuition, rent, food and necessary furniture.

The institute provides meals for volunteers during testing sessions, which tend to last between two and four days each, paying them VND2-3 million (US$96-144).

Ta Manh Hung, director of the center in charge testing new medicines at the institute, said the tests are safe, as they are not clinical trials to see the effects of the medicine, but rather test products' bioequivalence whether two medications are ostensibly the same.

Hung said certain medicines have 20 year patents, during which time no other company is allowed to produce similar drugs.

After 20 years, imitations may be produced and tests are necessary to make sure the new drug replicates the effects of the original.

Hung said there are no specific laws concerning the compensation the center must pay volunteers who suffer severe complications or to the families of those that die as a result of participating in the program.

But he said the center lets the volunteers stop anytime they want for any reason.

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