Monday, 23 June 2008

The Clinical Trials "Torture Economy"

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Two recent commentaries in major medical journals on the same topic failed to get the recognition they deserved. Both were about exploitation of the poor in clinical research, usually in Phase I drug trials conducted by contract research organizations (CROs), supervised by for-profit institutional review boards (IRBs), and both paid by pharmaceutical, biotechnology or device companies.

The first article was by Carl Elliott and Roberto Abadie. [ Elliott C, Abadie R. Exploiting a research underclass in phase I clinical trials. N Engl J Med 2008; 358: 2316-7. Link here.] Per Elliott and Abadie, the context is:


Over the past decade, clinical trials have moved from universities to private testing sites, the pressure to recruit subjects quickly has intensified, and ethical oversight has been outsourced to for-profit institutional review boards (IRBs). Payment to subjects has escalated, creating 'shadow economies' in cities throughout North America and elsewhere.

The authors then cited several misadventures that we have discussed on Health Care Renewal: the trials by SFBC International (now PharmaNet Development Group) in Miami that enrolled immigrants, often undocumented, under questionable circumstances and in Montreal that resulted in the transmission of active tuberculosis (see post here and links backward); and the trial by Parexel International in London that put most of the subjects in intensive care (see post here, with links backward).

Elliott and Abadie concluded "there are good reasons to believe that poor subjects are being exploited," and cited several justifications for this belief:

  • "Poor people are less likely than wealthier ones to get access to the drugs in question." This "appears to contravene article 19 of the Declaration of Helsinki, which states that medical research is ethically justified only if there is a reasonable chance that the population in which it is conducted will benefit from the results."
  • "The U.S. oversight system is not well equipped to monitor a highly competitive, market-based, multinational research industry." The Office for Human Research Protection "has no jurisdiction over privately sponsored studies," the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has insufficient funds to monitor all but a tiny minority of trials. The institutional review boards (IRBs) that are supposed to supervise trials are ill-equipped to protect against the sort of abuses that are likely. Furthermore, for-profit IRBs that are dependent on research sponsors for repeat business may be loathe to upset the apple-cart.
  • "Most sponsors apparently do not provide free care or treatment when subjects are injured."

Elliott and Abadie observed that most subjects in such trials see their participation as a job, rather than as a voluntary activity to promote science and human welfare. As the authors point out, if so, it is a poorly paid, risky job with few benefits and protections. Their conclusion is troubling,


The result is what one Philadelphia trial subject describes as 'a mild torture economy.' 'You are not being paid to do something,' he explains. 'You are being paid to endure.'

The only addition I can make is not only does the treatment of some patients in such trials appear inhumane, it amounts to bad science. Results from "professional trial subjects," who are likely to conceal characteristics which might have excluded them from this line of work, who may undergo one trial while still recovering from the effects of a previous, undisclosed trial, and who may be prone not to follow study protocols likely will not generalize to the patients who might actually be candidates for the drugs and devices assessed.

An editorial in the American Journal of Medicine was based on an article by Carl Elliott on the same topic published in the New Yorker. [Alpert JS. Dealing with ethical conflicts in clinical research. Am J Med 2008; 121: 457. Link here.]

His main conclusions were:

The ethical failure of such activities is obvious. The Nuremburg and Helsinki codes, developed following the human experimental atrocities of World War II, strongly advocate for voluntary participation on the part of research subjects. The substantial sums of money paid to the human 'guinea pigs' described by Elliott clearly obfuscate any volunteerism on the part of the individuals involved in these clinical experiments.

Lives saved and disease suffering lessened at the expense of individuals who are lured and perhaps even coerced into clinical trial participation cannot be allowed to continue in an open and equitable democracy. Clearly, the article by Elliott should be widely disseminated among academic and community physicians and governmental authorities. The topic should be openly discussed leading to corrective actions. Steps must be taken in the near future to protect the lives and the civil rights of individuals participating in clinical research studies.

Despite this call, I found no news coverage, and so far, no public discussion of any kind of the issues raised by these articles.

I hope that the charges that many current trials violate international ethical standards might get some peoples' attention, and maybe even inspire some action. I am not optimistic that anything will be done too hastily. After all, a lot of people are benefiting financially by the current scandalous status quo. They will not give up their ill-gotten gains gracefully. But this "mild torture economy" signals the approaching moral bankruptcy of our current health care system.



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