Children in Clinical Research: A Conflict of Moral Values

April 2003.

American Journal of Bioethics. Children in Clinical Research: A Conflict of Moral Values. Vera Hassner Sharav

ABSTRACT (attached & below) This paper examines the culture, the dynamics and the financial underpinnings that determine how medical research is being conducted on children in the United States. Children have increasingly become the subject of experiments that offer them no potential direct benefit but expose them to risks of harm and pain. A wide range of such experiments will be examined, including a lethal heartburn drug test, the experimental insertion of a pacemaker, an invasive insulin infusion experiment, and a fenfluramine "violence prediction" experiment. Emphasis, however, is given to psychoactive drug tests because of the inherent ethical and diagnostic problems involved in the absence of any objective, verifiable diagnostic tool. Effort is made to provide readers comprehensive reference sources to evidence-based reports about the serious risks these drugs pose for adults and children so that the reader may judge whether the benefits (if any) outweigh the risks for children.

The first ethical issue raised by these experiments is: did the severity of illness in these children justify their exposure to short and long-term risks? The ethics of the experiments will be evaluated by referring to existing codes of medical research ethics – the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and the federal Code of Regulations. The thirteen cases presented will demonstrate that children are being used in ever more speculative experiments, often in the absence of a therapeutic intent, but a significant chance for causing harm and / or discomfort. Some of the experiments were designed to explore the mechanisms of pathology and pharmacological interventions, or the response of neurological brain receptors to chemical provocation ("challenge"). Others were designed to test the safety or efficacy of new drugs, even to test these drugs on healthy children who were hypothesized to be "at risk." Children and adolescents have been subjected to "forced dose titration" experiments that induced a spectrum of severe adverse effects, including insomnia, extreme restlessness, agitation, (akathisia) and self-injurious behavior. FDA reports show that suicide is a significant issue in psychotropic drug trials – in pediatric trials the problem is even greater. The paper aims to demonstrate how the enactment of the Better Pharmaceuticals for Children Act (incorporated into the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act, FDAMA), set in motion a radical shift in public policy by providing huge financial incentives to pharmaceutical companies to test new or patented drugs in children.

Federal policy shifted from one aimed at protecting children by setting limits on permissible research risks, to a policy aimed at broadening the inclusion of children as test subjects. It will be shown how the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services lifted regulatory restrictions to permit research involving greater than minimal risk to be conducted on healthy children, claiming that all children are potentially “at risk” of a future condition. Children were in this way deprived of regulatory protections. An argument will be made that the approval of nontherapeutic, harmful experiments – such as exposure of toddlers to lead poison – under the current gate keeping system raises serious doubts about the sustainability of institutional review boards (IRBs) as protectors of human research subjects. Children, who are precluded from exercising the adult human’s right to informed consent, are being exploited as commodities for commercial ends. It is the position of the author that nothing less than the enactment of a federal law mandating a radical overhaul of the current research review system, with independent checks and balances, will provide children the legal protections they need. Ten specific recommendations are offered to protect children from harmful experiments.

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