He was being paid to participate in a study to test the absorption of a pill, a test that involved providing feces samples and abstaining from the use of alcohol or drugs. Those conditions were typical, but a problem arose when the scientists conducting the study abruptly changed the schedule. Rather than concluding before Christmas, leaving the guinea pigs with money in hand to celebrate the holidays and debauch as they saw fit, the new schedule required the subjects to lead their monastic lives through the new year.
As rumblings of discontent reverberated through the group of roughly 20 test subjects, the idea took hold to petition the doctors for an increase in pay — or else. Faced with the prospect of an inconclusive study if the guinea pigs walked, the doctors folded and gave each one an additional $800.
In most professions, such an event would be unremarkable. But in more than 20 years of guinea pigging and advocating for the rights of medical test subjects, it is Helms’ proudest moment. “I was just walking on air,” he recalled. “You can write all the cool little anecdotal stories you want, but when you get a raise for 20 guys, it’s much more substantial.”
The incident is particularly clear in his mind because it’s one of the few occurrences of successful organizing that he can recall. That’s because no union exists for guinea pigs, no organization that can advocate for their needs or see to their protection.
Professional guinea pigs, those who participate in multiple studies (sometimes at the same time), are a faceless class of workers. No one even knows precisely how many there are. While the site eHow now has a page on how to become a test subject, it wasn’t until Helms started a zine, a type of newsletter that became popular in the mid ’90s, that guinea pigs began to consider themselves professionals at all.
Helms started the zine, which was called Guinea Pig Zero, in 1995 after friends with similar types of low skill jobs began circulating their own tales of discontent. “This was all part of the culture of west Philly at the time,” he said.
There was Dishwasher Pete who turned the experience of being a dishwasher into something funny. There was Tempslave Jeff Kelly who mused on life as a temp worker. “I decided that being a guinea pig was another crummy occupation that had its own culture and its own history,” Helms said.
Sixteen years later, having allowed Guinea Pig Zero to cease production with the release of an anthology in 2002, Helms’ idea of guinea pigs as a more formally recognized occupation has still not come to pass. But the issues that piqued his interest have not disappeared, and he still does what he can for the cause, speaking at conferences and conducting interviews.
Part of the failure to organize has been legal: It is difficult for the guinea pigs to form a union because they work for disparate laboratories on short-term, nonemployee contracts. They could form an association, but these are typically ineffective, according to Marshall Babson, a labor lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and former member of the National Labor Relations Board.
“There are federations or associations who bind together, without an obligation for the employer, but without a union and collective bargaining it’s very difficult for them to control terms,” he said.
Without a union, greater risk is heaped on medical test subjects, who are already dangerously exposed. “After the hamster, it’s you,” said Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a group that focuses on educating guinea pigs and research scientists alike about the risks. “The person doing it is a gambler for sure,” she said.
Those risks are especially significant given what Sharav calls the federal Food and Drug Administration’s poor record of protecting guinea pigs. “It seems that the F.D.A. is only capable of hiring blind people who are incapable of lifting a blanket, looking underneath and seeing the chicanery,” she said.
Worse yet, there is limited accountability for the laboratories that conduct the tests. “With animal subjects, the industry provides a report to Congress, an exact number of how many hamsters died, or were made ill etc., but there’s no requirement with human beings,” she added.
While France has a central registration system that tracks human test subjects to prevent their involvement in too many studies, the United States has no such system. This means that guinea pigs can easily hide their past work and sign up for numerous studies.
“People will travel from state to state, from Madison, Wis., to Illinois, swapping stories about how to clean your blood so that you can pass out of one study into another,” Helms said.
Jeff Ventura, a spokesman for the FDA, pointed to the more than 1,000 inspections of research laboratories conducted annually by the organization.
“Oversight of clinical trials involving FDA-regulated products includes the sponsor, monitor, clinical investigator, IRB and FDA,” he said, referring to the Institutional Review Board. “Under FDA’s regulations, each party is assigned various responsibilities in the clinical trials process to help ensure human subjects are protected and the resulting data is accurate and reliable.”
The essential contradiction of Helms’ vision is that while it aims to increase oversight and offer greater protection for medical test subjects it would also end the rogue culture that has made guinea pigging such an appealing profession to so many. “When you’re a guinea pig, you can do one big study that will take you three weeks or a month and a half, and then you have some money and you can do anything you want,” Helms said.