Published: Saturday 15 December 2001

The prestigious Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, US , has admitted that one of its researchers used patients at the Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) in Kerala as human guinea pigs to test experimental cancer drugs. The internal investigation conducted by the varsity has found that its faculty member carried out the trials "without required federal or university approvals and without adequate preliminary tests in animals".

Though the JHU spokesperson has refused to divulge the name of the scientist, the name of biologist Ru Chih C Huang of the varsity's school of arts and sciences is doing the rounds. She was collaborating with rcc director M Krishnan Nair to test an unapproved cancer drug that had been smuggled into India. The researcher has been banned from serving as principal investigator in any future project involving humans.

In India, a central committee set up by Union health minister C P Thakur in September also found irregularities in the drug test. Consequently, all human trials at RCC were suspended for six months and a show-cause notice served on the premier oncology institute. However, the Purvish Parikh Commission, which was appointed by the Kerala government to probe the incident, has found that no banned drug was used in the clinical tests. At the same time, it has pulled up RCC for violating procedural norms and medical ethics.

The trials at the Thiruvananthapuram-based RCC took place between November 1999 and April 2000. They involved 26 oral cancer patients who were given the drug, M4N, a methylated extract of American bush creosote, which has antiseptic properties (see 'Malignant trials', Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 7, August 31, 2001). Fortunately, no patient was harmed by the drug, nor was their conventional treatment hampered.

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