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A Godsend, Till a Life Unravels

Traci Johnson joined a clinical trial of an antidepressant to pay for college. The devout woman ended up taking her own life.

By Alan Zarembo and Benedict Carey

Times Staff Writers

April 2, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS - Traci Johnson believed it was God's plan for her to leave home to attend a tiny Bible college here - and she prayed every day for the Lord to provide for her tuition.

Then an unusual opportunity presented itself.

Eli Lilly & Co., the pharmaceutical giant headquartered a few miles from Indiana Bible College, was seeking healthy subjects for a live-in clinical drug trial. The 19-year-old freshman told her friends back home in Pennsylvania that the study was her best hope to stay in school.

"Trace, that don't sound right," her friend Colleen Jacoby told her. "I never heard of a human guinea pig."

But the students at the Bible college knew all about the trials. They made perfect subjects for studies requiring healthy people - and they were used often, receiving hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a few weeks work.

If accepted into the study, she could make $150 a day for 49 days - more than a year's worth of her school expenses - for taking a drug known as duloxetine, an antidepressant that had already been given to thousands of people and was on the verge of approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

She had faith that God would find a way. "It was in his hands," she wrote in her diary.

Just before the new semester, a Lilly representative called. Her prayers were answered.

A month later, she was dead.