A scathing report has led to the sudden removal of a well-known British epilepsy researcher as the director of the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) in Singapore. Simon Shorvon, 54, was fired from the institute on 4 April after an investigation found he had compromised patients' safety and well-being during a clinical trial involving patients with Parkinson's disease.
"This shows that people can't get away with shortcuts in Singapore," says Lim Pin, a member of the investigative panel and chair of Singapore's Bioethics Advisory Committee. "We're very protective and jealous about our reputation." Shorvon, while acknowledging he made mistakes, says the panel used some extraordinary tactics, such as locking him out of his office and going through years of e-mails, and that its overall conclusion was too harsh.
The $5.6 million study was funded by the Singaporean government and aimed at elucidating the genetic basis of Parkinson's disease and two other disorders. When recruitment for the trial was lagging, the panel says, Shorvon and his colleague, Ramachandran Viswanathan, obtained lists of Parkinson's patients from two hospitals and started contacting patients directly. That was a breach of confidentiality, the panel concluded. Equally serious was Shorvon's failure to inform the ethical oversight committee and the patients themselves that participation would require them not only to donate blood but also to briefly halt their medication and undergo extensive tests. Neither step was mentioned in the consent forms signed by patients. Although the procedures weren't life-threatening, the panel says, the assessment caused severe discomfort in some patients and put them at risk of complications. The 127 patients involved "were treated like experimental subjects, without any rights," the panel concludes.
Shorvon concedes that it "might be wrong" not to seek ethical approval for the testing procedure and not to fully inform patients ahead of time. But he says that it's not uncommon for researchers to obtain medical records and approach patients directly. The panel also produced a "supplementary report" implicating him in alleged tampering with patient files during the investigation, and it filed a police report. Shorvon "absolutely" denies the tampering and says that he accepted the main report only to forestall a further inquiry and to be allowed to leave Singapore.
Shorvon has returned to his position at University College London (UCL), where he led an epilepsy study group before coming to Singapore 3 years ago. Robert Walker, the secretary of UCL's Institute of Neurology, says the university will do its own investigation of the allegations.
With reporting by Dennis Normile in Tokyo.