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US university apologises for unethical medical experiments

A prominent California medical school has apologised for conducting dozens of unethical medical experiments on at least 2,600 incarcerated men in the 1960s and 1970s, including putting pesticides and herbicides on the men’s skin and injecting it into their veins.

Two dermatologists at the University of California, San Francisco — one of whom remains at the university — conducted the experiments on men at the California Medical Facility, a prison hospital in Vacaville that’s about 50 miles (80.47 kilometres) northeast of San Francisco. The practice was halted in 1977.

The university’s Program for Historical Reconciliation issued a report about the experiments earlier this month, writing that the doctors engaged in “questionable informed consent practices” and performed procedures on men who did not have any of the diseases or conditions that the research aimed to treat. The San Francisco Chronicle first reported the programme’s findings Wednesday.

“UCSF apologises for its explicit role in the harm caused to the subjects, their families and our community by facilitating this research, and acknowledges the institution’s implicit role in perpetuating unethical treatment of vulnerable and underserved populations — regardless of the legal or perceptual standards of the time,” Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dan Lowenstein said in a statement.

The report said further analysis is needed to determine the extent of harms caused to the prisoners as a result of the experiments and what the university should do in response.

Doses of pesticides and herbicides

“We are still in the process of considering the recommendations and determining appropriate next steps,” the university said in a statement Thursday. “As we do so, it will be with humility and an ongoing commitment to a more just, equitable and ethical future.”

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Dana Simas, said officials had not yet read the report. However, the agency and California Correctional Health Care Services “strive to ensure the incarcerated population receive appropriate health care that meets the community standard of care and ethics,” Simas wrote.

The report focused on research by Dr. Howard Maibach and Dr. William Epstein. Maibach continues to work at the university, and Epstein died in 2006. It was not immediately clear whether Maibach would face any discipline in light of the report.

The experiments involved administering doses of pesticides and herbicides to the incarcerated men, who volunteered for the studies and were paid $30 a month for their participation — among the highest-paid roles at the prison and in high demand, according to a 1977 article in the university’s student newspaper, The Synapse.

Other experiments included placing small cages with mosquitos close to the participants’ arms or directly on their skin to determine “host attractiveness of humans to mosquitos,” the report stated.

The research ended in 1977 when California prohibited human subject research in state prisons, a year after the federal government halted the practice.

But Epstein, in 1977, testified in state hearings in support of biomedical experimentation at prisons, the report found, and investigators could not find any evidence that he changed his opinion before he died.

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Unethical and disrespectful

While Maibach wrote that he regrets having participated in research that does not meet current standards in a letter to the university’s dermatology department, he said he believed the experiments had offered benefits to some of the patients.

The university says there is no evidence that the doctors’ research was directed specifically at Black men, although they were trained by a now-deceased Philadelphia doctor whose research at a Pennsylvania prison was unethical and disrespectful toward the subjects, many of whom were incarcerated Black men.

The report also found that many of Maibach’s publications during his career perpetuate the biologisation of race — which he addressed in his letter by saying he has now “come to the understanding that race has always been a social and not a biological construct, something not appreciated by so many of us in a prior era.”

READ MORE: Seven times the medical establishment got it wrong

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