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The Deadly Corruption of Clinical Trials

When you risk life and limb to help test a drug, are you helping science—or Big Pharma? One patient's tragic, and telling, story.

Keep your New Year's resolution to learn something new; read the story below. To see more of 2010's best long-form magazine pieces, click here. 

IT'S NOT EASY TO WORK UP a good feeling about the institution that destroyed your life, which may be why Mary Weiss initially seemed a little reluctant to meet me. "You can understand my hesitation to look other than with suspicion at anyone associated with the University of Minnesota," Mary wrote to me in an email. In 2003, Mary's 26-year-old son, Dan, was enrolled against her wishes in a psychiatric drug study at the University of Minnesota, where I teach medical ethics. Less than six months later, Dan was dead. I'd learned about his death from a deeply unsettling newspaper series by St. Paul Pioneer Press reporters Jeremy Olson and Paul Tosto that suggested he was coerced into a pharmaceutical-industry study from which the university stood to profit, but which provided him with inadequate care. Over the next few months, I talked to several university colleagues and administrators, trying to learn what had happened. Many of them dismissed the story as slanted and incomplete. Yet the more I examined the medical and court records, the more I became convinced that the problem was worse than the Pioneer Press had reported. The danger lies not just in the particular circumstances that led to Dan's death, but in a system of clinical research that has been thoroughly co-opted by market forces, so that many studies have become little more than covert instruments for promoting drugs. The study in which Dan died starkly illustrates the hazards of market-driven research and the inadequacy of our current oversight system to detect them.

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Mary Weiss is a slight, white-haired woman in her late sixties who smiles ruefully at any question, no matter how painful. She is the sort of Minnesota liberal who volunteers for political campaigns and signs her email with flowers. When we first met at a coffee shop in St. Paul, she was wearing an Obama pin on her sweater. Mary raised Dan alone, working a job at the postal service. Old photographs show Dan growing into his good looks; according to Mary, he was also a gifted student. In high school, Dan got a perfect score on the verbal portion of his SAT. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2000 with an English degree, and that fall he moved to Los Angeles, hoping to become a screenwriter or an actor. To support himself, he got a job as a celebrity-tour bus driver.

Dan and his mom, Mary WeissDan and his mom, Mary Weiss

When Mary went out to Los Angeles for a visit in the summer of 2003, it was clear Dan had changed. He'd adopted a new last name, Markingson. His behavior was bizarre. "He said, 'You haven't told me when the event is going to be,'" Mary said. She had no idea what he was talking about. The next day, he took her to his apartment. He'd encircled his bed with wooden posts, salt, candles, and money, which he said would protect him from evil spirits. He showed her a spot on the carpet that he said the aliens had burned.

I asked Mary how she'd reacted to all of this. "I panicked. I called 911," she replied. But when the police arrived, Dan was able to convince them she had overreacted. "He said, 'Oh, my mother just drove from Minnesota and she's very tired,'" she recalled. Worried that Dan was seriously ill, she tried to convince him to return to St. Paul. He visited her in August, returned briefly to California, and then came back to St. Paul in October.

Dan grew convinced that the Illuminati were orchestrating an event in Minnesota—a "storm" in which he would be called upon to murder his mother.

Dan grew convinced that the Illuminati were orchestrating an event in Duluth, Minnesota—a "storm" in which he would be called upon to murder people, including Mary. Some of his emails from late September 2003 suggest the extent of his delusions:

"I'm aware that people can cast spells that can hurt you at a distance.
I'm aware that some people can read minds.
I'm aware that some people might actually be 'hybrids' and not altogether human."

In another email, Dan wrote:

"I'm especially eager to attend this storm and SLAY those who deserve slaying.
I will choose victims immediately...
I HAVE NO EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENTS. I KILL FOR FUN!!"

On November 12, Dan said he would kill Mary if called upon to do so. She called the police. Dan was taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul. But the hospital had no psychiatric beds available, so after a few hours Dan was transferred to Fairview University Medical Center, a teaching hospital for the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center. He was treated by Dr. Stephen C. Olson, an associate professor in the university's psychiatry department, who prescribed Dan Risperdal (risperidone), an antipsychotic drug often prescribed for patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. (In Minnesota, doctors are allowed to give antipsychotic drugs to mentally incompetent patients without their consent for up to 14 days, but only to prevent serious, immediate physical harm to the patient or others.) Olson believed Dan was psychotic and dangerous, and lacked the ability to make decisions regarding his treatment; on November 14 he signed a document that recommended Dan be committed involuntarily to a state mental institution, noting that he "lacks the capacity to make decisions regarding such treatment." Three days later, a clinical psychologist also recommended involuntary commitment, reiterating that Dan had threatened to slit his mother's throat.

In Minnesota, patients who have been involuntarily committed are given another option: a "stay of commitment." Patients can avoid being confined to a mental institution as long as they agree to comply with the treatment program laid out by their psychiatrist. On November 20, Olson asked for a stay of commitment. The court granted the stay for six months, stipulating that Dan had to follow the recommendations of his treatment team. Olson, however, did not simply recommend standard medical treatment. Instead, he proposed that Dan take part in an industry-funded study of antipsychotic drugs. The university's study coordinator, Jean Kenney, had Dan sign a consent form when Mary wasn't present, and on November 21, he was enrolled in the study.

On the surface, the study appeared benign. Its purpose was to compare the effectiveness of three "atypical" antipsychotic drugs, each of which had already been approved by the FDA: Seroquel (quetiapine), Zyprexa (olanzapine), and Risperdal (risperidone.) The study was designed and funded by AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of Seroquel, and it called for 400 subjects experiencing their first psychotic episode to take one of the three drugs for a year. AstraZeneca called it the "CAFE" study, which stood for "Comparison of Atypicals in First Episode." The management of the CAFE study had been outsourced to Quintiles, a contract research organization, which was conducting it at 26 different sites, including the University of Minnesota. (For more on CROS, see "Trial by Hire.")

Yet the CAFE study was not without risks. It barred subjects from being taken off their assigned drug; it didn't allow them to be switched to another drug if their assigned drug was not working; and it restricted the number of additional drugs subjects could be given to manage side effects and symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or agitation. Like many clinical trials, the study was also randomized and double-blinded: Subjects were assigned a drug randomly by a computer, and neither the subjects nor the researchers knew which drug it was. These restrictions meant that subjects in the CAFE study had fewer therapeutic options than they would have had outside the study.

In fact, the CAFE study also contained a serious oversight that, if corrected, would have prevented patients like Dan from being enrolled. Like other patients with schizophrenia, patients experiencing their first psychotic episode are at higher risk of killing themselves or other people. For this reason, most studies of antipsychotic drugs specifically bar researchers from recruiting patients at risk of violence or suicide, for fear that they might kill themselves or someone else during the study. Conveniently, however, the CAFE study only prohibited patients at risk of suicide, not homicide. This meant that Dan—who had threatened to slit his mother's throat, but had not threatened to harm himself—was a legitimate target for recruitment.

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