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Patients Used as Drug Guinea Pigs

In a startling expose published in the February 9, 2003 Guardian Unlimited comes the revelation that humans are being used as unwilling test subjects for experimental drugs. The article starts off with the story of how Italia Sudano was astonished to discover that her trusted GP who she had been seeing for modest high blood pressure had been using her as a guinea pig by giving her tablets which had not been medically approved. Worse still, he was being paid to do so by a pharmaceutical company.

The story reported that Sudano's ordeal began when her MD, Dr. Adams took a blood test and asked her to return the next week. On one of her visits, Dr. Adams took a bottle of pills from the top drawer of his desk and suggested Sudano take one a day. While she thought it strange she wasn't being given a prescription, she trusted her doctor. Within hours of swallowing the pill, she could hardly walk because she was so dazed. Her face had swollen up badly and she was in considerable pain. She stopped taking the tablets and complained to Hertfordshire Health Authority. This started an investigation that led to one of the largest cases of medical research fraud ever uncovered in Britain.

The subsequent investigation revealed that over the previous five years Adams had earned a considerable amount of money from drug companies, including the European giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer. These companies were all paying Adams to test their new drugs on his patients. Like Sudano, many of his patients had never given their consent and had no knowledge they were being used as human guinea pigs. Patients with no symptoms were also given drugs and others who needed proper medication were given placebos. Adams was receiving a fee for each patient he used in these unwilling human studies. Eventually, Adams was found guilty by the General Medical Council (GMC) of serious professional misconduct and suspended for 12 months.

The drug companies responded Guardian Unlimitedby blaming the controversy on some bad apples and the odd errant doctor milking the system. They insist that human trials using GPs are essential for medical advances and that payment to doctors for the extra work involved is ethically correct.

An investigation by The Observer also revealed that many British doctors are risking their patients' health by subjecting them to medical trials without their knowledge. The investigation by The Observer suggests the problem of GPs using patients as guinea pigs without their consent is more widespread. Some 3,000 doctors each year are paid by drug firms to sign up their patients to tests and on average 15 patients are needed for each trial. The article states that Medical fraud experts estimate that one per cent of all drug trials involve fraud, including failure to get proper consent from patients. This means hundreds of patients a year are being given unapproved and potentially dangerous drugs without their knowledge.

David Hinchcliffe, the Labour chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, described the situation as bordering on 'scandalous' and said his committee would look into the issue. He said: "The relationship between the drug firms and the medical profession is one that needs to be thoroughly investigated. It is extremely worrying that patients' trust is being abused by doctors who are more interested in making money from the pharmaceutical industry."