An American scientist growing flies inside his skin, an Australian doctor swallowing ulcer-causing bacteria, and an American medical officer performing crash tests. Six scientists advancing science using their own body
Dermatobia hominis is a fly species that lays its eggs on the bodies of female mosquitoes. When the mosquito sucks human blood, the skin is penetrated and the eggs enter the body and hatch inside. Developing larvae feed on the skin for eight weeks. They then dig their way out, fall to the ground, and pupate for at least a week. After this the adult fly emerges, and the cycle continues.
There are some effective ways, if not particularly pleasant, to kill the larvae in the skin or extract them. But Peter Naskercki, a biologist from Harvard University who was stung on a trip to Belize in Central America, decided not to remove them. He allowed them to develop in his skin for the sake of an experiment, and filmed them emerging from the skin, although it is not easy to watch if you are squeamish. You have been warned!
Naskercki wasn’t alone. Quite a few scientists throughout history have tested different things on the nearest available object - themselves.
New drugs undergoing clinical testing
Youyou Tu is a Chinese biologist and doctor who developed an antimalarial drug. For any new drug, the first phase of clinical trials aims to test whether it is safe for humans and find any adverse effects it may have. Sometimes it's hard to find volunteers who agree to test a drug's side effects, since some can be serious, and even dangerous.
To speed up results Tu volunteered to try the drug she developed herself, to see if it was safe to use. Fortunately it turned out that the drug was very safe and had no side effects. From there, it was easy to convince malaria patients to try the new drug. The drug was found to be not only safe but also very effective against the disease. The development of the drug (in the 1970’s) won Tu the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015.
Tried a drug on herself and won the Nobel Prize, Youyou Tu | Photograph: Wikipedia
Barry Marshall, Australian physician and microbiologist, decided to also investigate on himself. In the early 1980’s he studied stomach bacteria, and came to a far-reaching conclusion; a stomach ulcer is not caused by nervousness, stress or spicy food as was thought at the time, but in actual fact by bacteria, a particular bacteria called Helicobacter pylori.
To prove his point, Marshall drank the culture of bacteria that he grew in his lab to prove these bacteria can live in the stomach. Finally he stopped the experiment by taking antibiotics before developing actual ulcers, showing he already had inflammation in the area. In 2005 he won, in conjunction with his partner Robin Warren, the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery that Helicobacter pylori is the real cause of ulcers and gastritis.
Not all scientists accept a Nobel Prize for experiments they do on themselves, and not all get away with the self-experimentation either. There are also those that end up in worse circumstances. In the 1940’s, John Stapp, a medical officer in the US Air Force, wanted to test the influence of sudden deceleration on the human body to examine how the body copes with a plane crash. His reasoning was to help develop effective protective measures for pilots. To test his hypothesis he used a rocket sled that was able to develop tremendous acceleration, and he often volunteered to sit in it himself.
Up until his experiments, the conventional understanding was that the human body could withstand an acceleration of 18g, i.e. 18 times the acceleration of a free fall, but Stapp proved it was actually possible to survive an acceleration of 46g. But his many experiments not only shattered the conventional theory – they also shattered his bones… He suffered serious injuries including broken ribs and limbs, and severely damaged his vision as a result of an explosion of blood vessels in the eye.
Eventually Stapp recovered from most of his injuries and lived until the ripe old age of 89. His experiments did help in the development of safety measures for pilots, as well as seatbelts for drivers.