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Under the microscope: self-experimentation

This month: Self-experimentation

This looks like quite a self-explanatory one.

Yes, it does exactly what it says on the tin – self-experimentation is when people experiment on themselves.

Has it been in the news recently?

There have been a couple of stories. First, a team of six doctors from the UK and Australia swallowed Lego and timed how long it took to pass through their systems.

Why on earth did they do that?

They said it was to provide reassurance for concerned parents whose children have swallowed Lego and they published their findings in the Christmas edition of the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health.

And how long did it take?

It ranged from 1.1 days to three days, with an average of 1.7 days. They also noted that there was no correlation between a looser stool and a quicker retrieval time.

You mentioned that there were a couple of stories...

That’s right – the other piece is a feature entitled “Adventures in self-experimentation” in the BMJ. It explores the history of scientists using themselves as guinea pigs, including a 71-year-old emeritus neurologist who indulged in inadvertent (and subsequently deliberate) self-experimentation with Urtica ferox, a stinging nettle endemic to New Zealand. His notes of the neurological manifestations after exposure provide clues to the toxin’s mechanism of action.

What about a historic example?

In 1901, Nicholas Senn investigated whether cancer was contagious by surgically inserting under his skin a piece of cancerous lymph node from a patient with cancer of the lip. 

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