October 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

From HG Wells’s Invisible Man to Sir Isaac Newton, what motivates scientists to become their own experimental guinea pigs? ...


What do HG Wells’s Invisible Man, Spider-Man’s foe The Lizard and Sir Isaac Newton all have in common? Despite sounding like the start of a bad joke, there is a serious answer – self-experimentation.

Sir Isaac Newton is famous for his work on gravity and mathematics, but he was also interested in optics and the workings of the eye. In one of the earliest recorded examples of self-experimentation, he “tooke a bodkin [sewing needle] and put it betwixt my eye and ye bone as neare to ye backside of my eye as I could.” It’s unclear exactly what he hoped to achieve with this, but it goes without saying that this shouldn’t be tried at home!

In medical sciences, one way of proving that a disease is caused by a certain virus is to infect an animal with that virus and see if it develops the disease. Alternatively, if there are no animals available, you could use yourself. At least, that seems to have been the mentality of some scientists, such as the wonderfully named Stubbins Ffirth. He was determined to prove his theory that yellow fever could not be transmitted between people. He breathed in fumes from the vomit of infected patients, smeared it into cuts in his skin, poured it into his eyes and even drank it. Shockingly, despite being wrong, he didn’t develop yellow fever, perhaps because the patients were past the infectious stage of the disease.

In 1984, Barry Marshall also went to great lengths to investigate a disease. Working as a gastroenterologist at Royal Perth Hospital, Australia, Marshall was investigating the cause of stomach ulcers. At the time, most people believed that ulcers were caused by stress or spicy food, and anti-ulcer drugs, which only treated the symptoms, were a real money-spinner for pharmaceutical companies.

However Marshall and his co-worker Robin Warren believed it was in fact a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) that caused these ulcers, as well as gastritis (stomach inflammation). They extracted H. pylori bacteria from the stomachs of ulcer sufferers and then grew cultures of the bacterium to use in tests. Unfortunately, they were unable to infect piglets with the bacteria to prove their theory, so Marshall took the direct approach and swallowed a sample of H. pylori himself. Within three days, he was nauseous. An examination just eight days after his noxious drink showed he had developed gastritis. This discovery was fantastic news as it meant gastritis and ulcers could be cured simply using antibiotics.

It isn’t just medical doctors who do weird and wonderful things to themselves in the name of science. In 2002, Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University W of Reading, had an implant inserted into a nerve in his arm. This implant enabled electronic signals to be sent between him and a computer. When the computer was connected to a robotic arm, he was able to control its movement, even when the arm was the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In a later experiment, his wife also had electrodes inserted and they were able to send signals between one another in a form of non-verbal, electronic communication.

Warwick views these experiments as the first step towards creating cyborgs – humans with electronic improvements. He envisages implants allowing communication with computers and each other, potentially giving humans amazing new abilities.

So why do people submit themselves to these experiments? In his autobiography – I, Cyborg – Kevin Warwick describes his emotions going into the experiment as a mixture of fear and excitement, but also talks about his strong desire to be the first person to take the plunge and become a cyborg. Others, such as Stubbins Ffirth, have done it to prove a point, whereas Barry Marshall did it because he needed experiments on a human in order to make people pay attention and ultimately help develop effective treatments.

Ralph Steinman had a more pressing reason for experimenting on himself. In the 1970s, he discovered dendritic cells, which are involved in recognition and targeting of infections for attack by the immune system. Because of the important role of dendritic cells in aiming the immune system, experimental vaccines have been developed which cause them to target cancer cells or cells infected with HIV.

In 2007, Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The survival rate for pancreatic cancer is very low, with just 20% of patients surviving for a year after diagnosis. However, he was able to use the experimental vaccines developed by his colleagues and survived for a further four years. Sadly, he died in September 2011, just three days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Although it makes for exciting science, there are a few problems with self-experimentation. In addition to the many legal and ethical issues if the experiment goes wrong, results in only one patient could be down to chance. This is why medical experiments are usually performed on larger groups of people, because by repeating the experiment on a large group of people any differences are more likely to be relevant.

Another problem is due to the placebo effect. When developing a drug, it is compared to either a sugar-pill placebo or the best current alternative. Subjects are randomly divided into two groups and assigned a treatment. If the subject knows they have not been given the drug, they are less likely to show effects than someone given the placebo without knowing. Because of this, experiments are usually ‘double-blind’, with neither the experimenter nor the subject knowing who is in each group. If the experimenter is also the subject, they will know exactly what they are taking. On the other hand, a self-experiment may help convince people to allow a larger-scale experiment to take place.

Throughout history, many scientists have put their well-being on the line for the greater good. Even in the modern world, where most experiments on humans are carried out on large groups, there is often a need for someone to go first. Who should that be? If a scientist isn’t willing to put themselves through an experiment, perhaps they should think twice about asking others to do the same.


IMAGE: JD Hancock