Eight bioethicists at the University of Minnesota are charging that their own institution has committed an "alarming series of ethical violations" in a clinical trial where a young man committed suicide in 2004. The eight, who include roughly half of the university's bioethics core faculty members, yesterday released a letter to the university's Board of Regents, asking the board to set up an external investigation into the death of Daniel Markingson. He committed suicide violently while enrolled in a trial of antipsychotic medications through the university's psychiatry department. The letter alleges that his death wasn't adequately investigated earlier.
"Bioethicists should not ignore disaster in their own backyard," says Mary Faith Marshall, one of the signers. Marshall came to the University of Minnesota in 2005 after serving in the federal bioethics policy arena. Among other things, she chaired a committee investigating the 1999 death of 19-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania.
The bioethicists' letter was spearheaded by Carl Elliott, a tenured faculty member in the department who studies conflicts of interest in the pharmaceutical industry. Elliott wrote a scathing article about the case in Mother Jones magazine this fall. As he documented there, Markingson was enrolled in a clinical trial while severely mentally ill and against his mother's wishes; he also alleges that the university's psychiatry department stood to gain financially by enrolling and retaining him in the trial. In an investigation after Markingson's death, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the university of any misconduct and said there was no evidence that Markingson could not voluntarily consent to the study.