Foster Children's Rights—Congressional Amnesia
With scant public notice Congress authorized the employment of foster children in medical research in 1989. This decision was based on HHS Secretary Bowen's recommendation that:
State and local child welfare agencies should create systems to manage the participation of children in foster care in special medical treatment and experimental trials. (HHS/ASPE, 1989, p. 60).Thus it came to be that foster children became exceptions to the informed consent rule and the research industry gained a valuable commodity. Supporters of the exception rule state that juvenile judges and welfare agencies are able to make consent decisions for their custodians but it can be argued under due process law that, excepting life-threatening situations, no wards of state may be enlisted in government-sponsored research experiments.
Lawmakers declare that they have established rules to protect children from clinical trial abuse but these assurances are suspect because Congress initiated and funds the foster children in medical research program. The Associated Press reported in 2005 that the majority of foster children utilized in AIDS research did not receive " basic legal protection ."
In 1974 Congress, by way of the National Research Act , mandated the creation of Institutional Review Boards to approve or decline medical research prospectuses based on the risk-benefit formula. The measure was passed to assuage public anger over the disclosed Tuskegee experiment.
A 2002 study found that fifty-eight percent of IRB chairpersons were fully knowledgeable of the child protection rules. Most importantly the inquiry showed that the evaluators could not agree on the risk levels of procedures common in clinical trial practices in healthy 11-year olds. There was no consensus on the part of the respondents on whether blood draws, MRIs, allergy skin tests, electromyography, pharmacokinetic studies and lumbar punctures were minimal risk, minor risk over minimal risk or more than minor risk over minimal risk. Results of the study may be found here .
There are more than 3,000 IRBs overseeing human clinical trials in 350,000 U.S. locations . Two-thirds of the research projects are privately-managed and 1% are reviewed by the FDA. HHS receives approximately 300 IRB registrations and 300 quality assurances each month. The GAO probe found that many of these filings are not reviewed. This is an unacceptable inspection record considering that Congress , the GAO and the DHHS inspector general have documented critical IRB operating deficiencies.
The 2009 GAO report determined that
The IRB system is vulnerable to unethical manipulation, which elevates the risk that experimental products are approved for human subject tests without full and appropriate review. Unfortunately the IRB system sometimes fails to protect research subjects. For example, in 2002, a 47-year-old man died after his heart stopped beating while participating in an experimental trial of antipsychotic medication at a Texas research center.Daniel Dueber, Coast IRB Chief Executive Officer, testified during the INSTITUTIONAL REVIEW BOARDS THAT OVERSEE EXPERIMENTAL HUMAN TESTING FOR PROFIT hearing that he did not understand why his company was being investigated for approving the counterfeit Adhesiabloc clinical trial:
we have never at Coast ever had a fraudulent study submitted to us. There is no economic reason for anybody to do such a thing.Mr. Dueber was equivocating because he certainly knows that money is the catalyst for misconduct.
The Fiddes faux research trials are another illustration of the ease of fraud within the IRB system. Family practitioner Fiddes, conductor of more than 170 clinical trials, deceived his pharmaceutical employers by substituting test samples. Dr. Fiddes' actions harmed test subjects and contaminated research results submitted to the FDA for new drug approvals. For these manipulations Dr. Fiddes was convicted of medical fraud and was sentenced to a fifteen-month prison term in 1998. The FDA did not initiate debarment proceedings against Dr. Fiddes and his accomplices until 2002.
More than seventy percent of clinical trials fail efficacy or safety markers by the close of phase II testing. The following two examples highlight the hazards of pharmacokinetic testing . In 2006 anti-inflammatory drug TGN1412 was tested on six volunteers. The experimental drug caused immediate organ failure in all drug recipients. A 1995 NIH-sponsored fialuridine phase II study caused the death of five participants. Post mortem investigation determined that fialuridine, a thymidine analog, caused mitochondrial injury.
The Taking of Justina Pelletier: A Sentinel Event
The Justina Pelletier case history, investigated by The Boston Globe, has brought unwelcome attention and perhaps congressional mitigation to the practice of using foster children in psychological and medical research. Justina Pelletier became a foster child as the result of an abuse complaint filed by Dr. Alice Newton of Boston Children's Hospital.
The Globe discovered that Justina was the sixth child whose parents were accused of medical abuse while their children were receiving treatment in BCH. In its successful state custody court petitions, Boston Children's Hospital was allowed to keep the children and proceed with parent-ectomy studies.
Dr. Newton and other professionals opine that taking questionably diagnosed children out of the parental sphere will improve their health. These severance studies were approved by the hospital's ethics committee. In a follow up article The Globe reported that some hospitals would cease these in-house decisions in view of the negative responses generated by Justina Pelletier's sixteen month psychiatric incarceration.
Parental medical child abuse complaints are profitable. BCH, for example, received more than $400,000 for Justina's confinement.
Some still believe that Dr. Newton's judgment in the Justina Pelletier affair was appropriate. The truth is Dr. Newton's medical child abuse allegations do not withstand scrutiny. The issue before Judge Joseph Johnston was whether Justina's entering mitochondrial diagnosis was valid and whether her Tufts cecostomy button surgery was a warranted procedure.
Dr. Newton, head of BCH's child protection team assured the court that she was certain that Justina's mitochondrial condition was induced by her parents' influence. Dr. Newton failed to advise the court that BCH treats mitochondrial conditions and performs cecostomy surgeries. Justina was referred to BCH to see her former gastroenterologist Dr. Alejandro Flores. Dr. Flores' opinion on the value of cecostomy surgery is positive .
Dr. Newton's court presentation was flawed but neither she nor her cohorts could not know that Justina's parents would violate the court's gag order and reveal the circumstances of their daughter's abduction.
Justina's Law, H.R. 4989, would reduce the use of foster children in medical research but the bill does not address the issue of consent.
Justina's Law as proposed:
Prohibits the use of federal funds to conduct or support treatment or research involving a ward of the state in which the individual's health is subjected to greater than minimal risk with no or minimal prospect of direct benefit.Clinical trials involve unexplored terrain and they expose subjects to unquantifiable immediate and long term health risks. For this reason research volunteers have expressed safeguards: they are apprised of the potential impairments and may depart the clinical trial at any time.
Foster children became research captives by congressional fiat but this action violates equal protection laws. The exceptions to the consent rule is ripe for judicial review.