Would you be willing to potentially endure a week’s worth of diarrhea for some cold hard cash? If you said yes, then you’re in luck. Researchers at Emory University are now recruiting healthy volunteers to take part in a trial that will test an experimental oral vaccine against Shigella bacteria, which cause a common and sometimes deadly stomach bug. If eligible, volunteers could make thousands of dollars for their trouble.
Shigella is no picnic, with typical infections causing symptoms like stomach pain, fever, and diarrhea for 5 to 7 days on average. It’s also the primary cause of dysentery, a blanket term for gut infections that cause bloody diarrhea. Most cases clear up on their own, with people generally only needing fluids and rest. But it can rarely cause severe, even fatal complications, especially in people with weakened or underdeveloped immune systems, such as very young children. These complications include seizures, sepsis, and hemolytic-uremic syndrome (a condition that can lead to kidney failure). It can spread through food, water, handling diapers, and even sex.
Though dysentery isn’t as dangerous as it was during the days of the Oregon Trail, it remains a major public health threat, particularly in parts of the world with poor sanitation and healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, Shigella is the leading cause of bacterial diarrhea worldwide and the second leading cause of diarrhea-related deaths, accounting for over 200,000 deaths annually. In the U.S., Shigella still causes nearly a half-million infections a year.
Antibiotics are used to treat severe Shigella infections or to keep infections under control in those at higher risk of illness. But in recent years, there’s been a growing emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of Shigella. Given this worrying trend and the ongoing harm that the bacteria causes, it’s no surprise that many scientists are trying to develop a vaccine against Shigella—including a team at the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
The team’s vaccine uses a weakened version of Shigella bacteria, which is taken orally. The Phase II trial officially began last October, though it’s still actively recruiting participants. They plan to enroll 120 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 49 with no past known history of Shigella or irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a human challenge study, meaning that people will be deliberately exposed to the bacteria and the possibility of illness.
More specifically, volunteers will be randomly divided into three groups. One group will drink two doses of the vaccine; another will drink one vaccine dose and a placebo; and the third will only drink placebo. Afterward, all three groups will chug down a drink containing Shigella bacteria. The participants will then be admitted to a hospital for up to 11 days so they can be monitored. And they’ll have to be available for up to 14 outpatient study visits and a phone call. As for the incentive, the volunteers will be able to earn up to $4,250 for completing the study over an eight-month period.
Human challenge trials are an important but sometimes controversial form of research. They offer a unique way to study infectious diseases and potential treatments and vaccines for them in a controlled setting. They’re often only used to study diseases that are self-limiting or can be managed with existing treatments if needed—criteria that Shigella does seem to fit. (There have been notable exceptions to that rule, though, such as covid-19 early in the pandemic.) Even so, who could be blamed for not wanting to intentionally gulp down a diarrhea drink, no matter the financial reward?
But for those a little braver and in the right area, here’s your chance. According to the study’s registration data on clinicaltrials.gov, the trial will be run at Emory’s Hope Clinic in Georgia and at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. Those curious for more information can call 404-712-1371 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.