Three researchers who experiment on themselves

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It’s not always easy finding people to take part in research. Sometimes it’s most simple to conduct the testing on yourself, in fact. Learning about everything from the trial participant’s perspective can also be a way of identifying possible sources of errors and issues.

Kerstin Brismar: “Taking the opportunity to test myself while my husband was away”

Name: Kerstin Brismar

Title: Professor at Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery

Conducts research into: prevention of complications during diabetes.

“In order to understand how the patients in my studies are going to feel, I usually do experiments on myself first. I have tested fasting, done different meal studies, eaten a lot of sweets and, most recently, got the chance to eat a breakfast consisting of either coca cola or a blueberry drink plus pizza. Another time I ate loads of liquorice to see what effect it had on my potassium levels, but nothing changed. Very soon I’m going to be starting a study that will see people eating an anti-oxidant that will increase insulin sensitivity in the fat tissue.

I have been researching a protein, IGFBP-1, a marker for insulin production and a risk marker for insulin production, as well as a risk marker for future type 2 diabetes, for a long time now. One time back in the 1980s, when my husband was away, I took the opportunity to test how fasting affects this protein. For six days, I drank just vegetable juice to get my 300-calorie-a-day allowance. My IGFBP-1 protein level went up from 20 to 500, while my blood sugar level went down to 1.8, which wasn’t so pleasant. Although I became sweaty and irritable, I believe I functioned well otherwise. I then did a study in which overweight people, those of a normal weight and people with type 2 diabetes were required to fast in the same way, but for slightly fewer days.

A few years ago, I was also one of hundreds of participants in my own 5:2 study and fasted for two days a week. People often drop out of these kinds of studies, so I thought it would be interesting to test it out and see what difficulties are faced. Although the diet was quite easy for me to monitor, writing everything down in a food diary – the one I created myself – proved quite tricky!”

Gunnar Johanson: “I expose myself to chemical vapours”

Name: Gunnar Johanson

Title: Professor at the Institute of Environmental Medicine

Conducts research into: How chemical substances in the work environment are absorbed and excreted by the body.

“My research group has a chamber where we expose healthy trial participants to chemical vapours that might potentially be found in the work environment. I tend to go into the exposure chamber and expose myself to the vapours before the trial participants arrive, as a kind of dress rehearsal procedure, which enables me to see whether everything is working from a practical perspective.

One of the things I research is how the chemical vapours are taken in and secreted by the trial participants’ bodies. The outcomes of these studies provide a basis for hygiene limits both in Sweden and internationally. The other people in my research group do not go into the exposure chamber, not because it poses any risks to them, but because I am the head of the unit and people in positions of dependence must never be used as trial participants; the ethics of that would be questionable.

Ethical requirements were not as stringent 25 years ago. At that time, I was somewhat curious about what happens if you exert yourself physically after being exposed to toluene vapours, toluene being an organic solvent that was previously used a lot in ink. I was exposed to the vapours for five days, during which time I also exerted myself physically. I then had to live as usual for a week, while also collecting samples of my own blood. I can confidently say I took 150 capillary samples from my fingers that week. I had to carry my case of special equipment around with me every day during this time. It came with me to the restaurant, to the sauna and to badminton. At the end, my fingers were in quite a sorry state from all the punctures, but there were no obvious signs of exertion after the exposure, so the research outcomes never led to any kind of scientific report.”

Mats Lekander: “A nice feeling”

Name: Mats Lekander

Title: Professor of Department of Clinical Neuroscience

Conducts research into: the effect of inflammation on the brain, pain perception and social behaviour.

“After studying how inflammation affects the brain for many years, I decided to be a trial participant myself ahead of one experiment. If you inject endotoxin fragments of bacteria into the body, that person will feel unwell for a few hours; we wanted to see whether our dose was right. I try to understand the ways in which you feel depressed, tired and more sensitive to pain when you are sick and what the brain does with these signals.

An hour after the endotoxin entered my body, I noticed that something was afoot. I started to feel unwell and almost felt a bit stressed. At the same time, I thought it was quite nice and exciting to be sick at work. That’s not a normal reaction I realise, but I was so interested in the experiment, got fired up and came up with lots of ideas for research. I didn’t seem to become more sensitive to pain to begin with either. I reacted so little to the pain my colleagues exposed me to that they thought I had fallen asleep. The ‘nice state of hypochondria sickness’ I had ended up in definitely disappeared when I had to put my hand in iced water – that was very painful!

The extent to which the brain allows a feeling of malaise to force its way through and take over the behaviour is influenced by what is important at that moment. A study of motivation we have done recently provides clear evidence of this. I am now in the process of planning a ‘group inflammation experiment’ in which we and some like-minded German colleagues will try to solve a scientific problem encountered following injections of endotoxin. These disease signals aim to reduce activity in the brain, so we want to see whether we can use our willpower to suppress the malaise. We will also see what effect the inflammation has on us socially.”

As told to Maja Lundbäck, first published in the magazine "Medicinsk Vetenskap", no 3, 2017.