Panel reveals new details of 1940's experiment
By MIKE STOBBE - AP Medical Writer AP 8/30/11 ATLANTA (AP)
A presidential panel on Monday disclosed shocking new details of U.S. medical experiments done in Guatemala in the 1940s, including a decision to re-infect a dying woman in a syphilis study.
The Guatemala experiments are already considered one of the darker episodes of medical research in U.S. history, but panel members say the new information indicates that the researchers were unusually unethical, even when placed into the historical context of a different era.
"The researchers put their own medical advancement first and human decency a far second," said Anita Allen, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
From 1946-48, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with several Guatemalan government agencies to do medical research — paid for by the U.S. government — that involved deliberately exposing people to sexually transmitted diseases.
The researchers apparently were trying to see if penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent infections in the 1,300 people exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. Those infected included soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis.
The commission revealed Monday that only about 700 of those infected received some sort of treatment. Also, 83 people died, although it's not clear if the deaths were directly due to the experiments.
The research came up with no useful medical information, according to some experts. It was hidden for decades but came to light last year, after a Wellesley College medical historian discovered records among the papers of Dr. John Cutler, who led the experiments.
President Barack Obama called Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom, to apologize. He also ordered his bioethics commission to review the Guatemala experiments. That work is nearly done. Though the final report is not due until next month, commission members discussed some of the findings at a meeting Monday in Washington.
They revealed that some of the experiments were more shocking than was previously known....
During that time, other researchers were also using people as human guinea pigs, in some cases infecting them with illnesses. Studies weren't as regulated then, and the planning-on-the-fly feel of Cutler's work was not unique, some experts have noted....