What Happens When Scientists Experiment on Themselves?

Regina Nuzzo

Methodical minds apparently share a compulsive need to discover the truth—personal comfort be damned. When Sir Isaac Newton had a theory about how the eye perceives color, he tested it by sticking a darning needle into the back of his eye socket and poking around until he saw colored circles. German Nobel Prize winner Werner Forssmann performed the first cardiac catheterization surgery—on himself. Here, the wacky self-experiments of six modern researchers and how their findings might change our medical care. If you want a glimpse into what doctors see, take a look at the craziest medical cases doctors have seen on the job.

Stomachful of bacteria

As a young doctor in Australia in the 1980s, Barry Marshall was convinced that stomach ulcers were caused not by stress or spicy food but by bacteria. To prove his point to the skeptical medical establishment, Marshall gulped down a cup of cloudy broth teeming with Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Within a week, he was vomiting daily. Tests showed that his stomach lining was inflamed, which indicated an ulcer could be developing. After a round of anti­biotics (his wife insisted he stop the experiment early), the infection disappeared. Today, ulcers are routinely treated with antibiotics, and in 2005, Marshall shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work.

Flea infestation in the foot

When German PhD student Marlene Thielecke was in Madagascar, she noticed that a sand flea had burrowed into the bottom of her foot. She decided to leave it there to document its growth with photos and videos. Researchers were puzzled over how these parasites, known as chiggers, reproduce. Usually, female chiggers release fertile eggs after they burrow into a person's skin, but Thielecke noticed that her chigger, always covered by shoes—unlike the custom of the barefoot locals—never released eggs. Thielecke's adventurous spirit solved the puzzle: Footwear disrupts the chigger mating process—knowledge that could help those infected forestall complications.

Skin-crawling worms

In 2004, Britain's national bioethics committee was less than thrilled with immunologist David Pritchard's plans for an asthma therapy. That's because it involved applying a bandage teeming with hookworm larvae. So Pritchard tried it on himself. As the tiny infant worms burrowed into his arm and entered his bloodstream, they caused excruciating itching. But the hope was that they would also "turn down the volume" of patients' immune systems, easing symptoms. By showing the treatment was safe, Pritchard's research opened the door to getting permission to study it further. Current trials are testing the effectiveness of using worms as immune-system therapy. Researchers around the world are studying parasitic worms to treat multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, celiac disease, and autism. On the other hand, these crazy medical ideas did more harm than good.

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Billions of body measurements

Geneticist Michael Snyder had a big dream: to prove the power of personalized medicine. It was controversial, both ethically and technically, and too daunting for a typical volunteer. So for more than four years, Snyder and his Stanford team have taken billions of measurements on Snyder's own body. They've analyzed everything in his blood as well as his saliva, mucus, urine, and feces. They've sequenced his entire genome and continue to take regular snapshots of his DNA activity. Snyder was surprised to learn of a genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes—no one in his family had the disease. But after he contracted a cold virus, he watched in shock as his blood sugar climbed so high that he developed a full-blown case of diabetes. Snyder believes that his genes predisposed him, but the viral infection triggered it—a link that researchers continue to study.

Feast for malarial mosquitoes

It took a bold move for researcher Stephen Hoffman to develop immunity to malaria, which kills at least half a million people worldwide every year. He let a batch of 3,000 malarial mosquitoes feast on his arm. But the mosquitoes had been bathed in radiation, which weakened the parasite that causes malaria (just like the polio vaccine carries a weakened form of the virus), enabling him to develop immunity without falling ill. The first wave of trials showed that an injectable, bite-free version of the vaccine completely protected volunteers against malaria. The vaccine is now going through final tests in the United States, Europe, and Africa.

Computer virus in the hand

Are medical devices we put inside our bodies vulnerable to hackers? What would happen if a terrorist wrote a virus program that could stop all heart pacemakers? To find out, British engineer Mark Gasson implanted into his hand a tiny radio frequency identification chip, not unlike the electronic tags used to track pets. Then he infected the chip with a computer virus. Sure enough, his chip not only contaminated its parent computer system but also tried to spread its virus to other chips connected to the system. In other words, our implanted devices might indeed be vulnerable. Although Gasson was not in any physical danger, in a real-life scenario, a heart patient could have been. His work paves the way to make medical devices safer for everyone. Self-experimentation may have even helped with the coolest scientific discoveries of 2018.