In the interest of science, Christopher Gussis has ingested an extract of muscle fiber; worked out while wearing a weighted vest; guzzled gallons of black tea; walked around on vibrating insoles; stretched, tilted, and balanced on one foot; and allowed himself to be tested for all manner of conditions, from cognitive decline to seasonal affective disorder. And he’s pretty much loved every minute of it. 

For the past 18 years, Gussis RC’53, GSE’56, a former high school and college health science teacher, has spent the better part of his retirement as a participant in nearly 300 clinical trials in the Boston area, which is his home, for institutions such as Harvard, Boston University, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Tufts University, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and many others. For his trouble, Gussis, age 86, usually receives a modest stipend—anywhere from $25 to $2,000, depending on the amount of time put in—but he clearly isn’t in it for the money. Asked to enumerate the benefits of working as a research subject, he says, “You learn more about your physical and mental health, preventing future health problems for yourself, and helping others live longer, happier, more productive lives. You also meet some interesting people and have some fun experiences.”

Gussis didn’t set out to be a human guinea pig. He was looking for something interesting to fill his days, postretirement, and signed on at Harvard and MIT as a volunteer in their health services departments. It was in that capacity that he stumbled on literature about participating in clinical trials, an idea that appealed to the health scientist in him. “It seems natural that someone who spent an enjoyable life helping others in the field of education would seek something similar to occupy himself during retirement,” he reflects. He signed up for a few trials, found them, he says, “fun and very interesting,” and a second career was born.

Christopher Gussis has taken part in close to 300 clinical trials


“You learn more about your physical and mental health, preventing future health problems for yourself, and helping others live longer, happier, more productive lives. You also meet some interesting people and have some fun experiences,” says Christopher Gussis.

Nick Romanenko

Thanks, in part, to Gussis’s desire to give back and his willingness to be measured, prodded, and scrutinized, researchers have learned that caffeine can inhibit skin cancer (a 2011 Rutgers study strengthened the theory that indeed caffeine guards against certain skin cancers at the molecular level by inhibiting a protein enzyme in the skin, known as ATR); cigar smoking can cause gum disease; language ability doesn’t decline markedly in the aging brain; and rechargeable toothbrushes may remove more plaque than those powered by batteries. One of Gussis’s favorite studies determined that drinking cocoa improved cognition and blood flow in the brain. Offering examples that illustrate the breadth of his experience, he says, “I’ve participated in studies on slips and falls, forgetfulness, sleep apnea, and the effect of protein on depression.”

Not all of the studies have been pleasurable. For a trial that tested the effects of high-fat meals on blood cholesterol, he faithfully downed a week’s worth of fatty ground meat mixed with other mysterious, barely palatable ingredients. “I hated it—the food wasn’t at all tasty—and I was happy when the study ended,” he says. He draws the line at clinical trials that strike him as potentially uncomfortable. He declined to participate in a trial that required him to undergo a spinal tap. And he withdrew from another that involved taking large doses of cholesterol-lowering medicine. “I thought,” he recalls, “ ‘I’m not going to fool with this,’ and I just backed away from it.” Luckily, before beginning a clinical trial, participants sign an agreement that allows them to pull out at any time without recourse.

Many of the trials that he’s taken part in have directly benefited Gussis. One taught him how to walk properly. Another periodically put him through a stress test, offering valuable information about his cardiovascular health (he discovered that two of his heart valves are leaking but don’t pose any significant health threat). And one trial to ascertain whether he was genetically predisposed to develop Alzheimer’s indicated that he was in the clear. A study for NASA taught him how to balance in the dark, and a trial sponsored by a pharmaceutical company helped whiten his teeth. He’s involved in an ongoing study about memory and aging that has revealed some cognitive strengths and weaknesses: during the study’s initial session, he was told a story and given a series of numbers to remember; now he returns yearly to see how many of the numbers, and how much of the story, he still recalls. “I found out,” he says, “that I’m more inclined to remember numbers than stories.” The trial brings out his competitive streak. “I know that some people can look at a page in a book and, bingo, they have it; it sticks,” he says. “I have to admire them. I’m an overachiever—I’ve had to work at it.”   

Still, the results have reassured him that he hasn’t lost much in the way of mental acuity. “Yes,” he says, “I’m going to lose keys, pens, pencils, but it’s not a dangerous thing at this point, and I’m able to drive and do normal things that a person does in his mid-80s.” In fact, Gussis—who played first base for the Rutgers baseball team, from 1951 to 1953, and was a high school coach and athletic director—is often used as the healthy control in trials involving older subjects. Some of the trials require a certain level of good health in participants. A study on macular degeneration, for example, would only enlist people who didn’t smoke, had no family history of eye disease, and who didn’t take insulin, cholesterol medication, or hormone replacement.

For a man who’s spent much of the past two decades in a hospital room, Gussis is remarkably upbeat. “I enjoy getting on the subway and going to universities and hospitals; it’s like you’re still working,” he says. He has an almost missionary zeal for the work he does, wholeheartedly encouraging others to get involved. His only concern is that he may soon be too old to participate in clinical trials, most of which don’t include subjects over the age of 85. “A lot of people are living longer,” he says. “I hope the trial directors take that into account and raise the age limit.”

If they do, Gussis could be helping to shed light on the mechanics of aging and human health for years to come. •