Charles Schulz under scrutiny for Seroquel study suicide

Is U of M department of psychiatry chair in the pocket of AstraZeneca?

Mary Weiss knew something wasn't right with her son.

Only a year before, Dan Markingson had seemed perfectly normal. But his latest letter from Los Angeles suggested a troubled mind.

He claimed he was about to become famous. He was at a crossroads in his life, and would soon have more free time. He even had a big movie premiere in the works.

Seven years after her son Dan Markingson's suicide, Mary Weiss still blames the University of Minnesota's psychiatry department
courtesy of Mary Weiss
Seven years after her son Dan Markingson's suicide, Mary Weiss still blames the University of Minnesota's psychiatry department
Charles Schulz admitted during a 2007 deposition that he'd earned more than $150,000 from drug companies
courtesy of Mill City Video Services
Charles Schulz admitted during a 2007 deposition that he'd earned more than $150,000 from drug companies

"I knew then that something was wrong," says Weiss. "I knew that there wasn't a premiere, and when he said he was going to have a lot more free time, I thought he was quitting his job."

Weiss immediately jumped in her car and drove to California. When she arrived, she found her son far worse off than she'd feared. He was talking nonsense and couldn't be reasoned with.

Weiss tried to convince Markingson to come back to Minnesota, where she could look after him. But he had a stipulation: He would only return home if his dead grandmother Daisy told him to.

Weiss went to an internet cafe down the street and created an email account under the name "GuardianAngelDaisy." Pretending to be her own deceased mother, she urged Markingson to return to Minnesota. Eventually, he agreed.

He was home for only 10 days before he decided to return to California. Weiss pleaded with him to stay, but he refused. She could either drive him to the airport, or never see him again.

Weiss followed him to Los Angeles, where she again tried to urge her son to go back to Minnesota. But this time, his grandmother's emails weren't enough. Markingson wanted to talk to a higher authority: Michael the Archangel.

Weiss created another fake email account as Archangel Michael. The two exchanged emails for more than a week before Markingson finally agreed to fly home.

Once he was back, Weiss called the South St. Paul police. An officer came to her home to evaluate her son. During the interview, Markingson casually mentioned he would soon be attending a devil-worshipping event in Duluth, and might be ordered to kill people.

That triggered a trip to Fairview University Medical Center, where Markingson was diagnosed with psychosis and placed on a 72-hour hold.

In order to be released, Markingson agreed to a stay of commitment, which would allow him to leave the hospital as long as he followed a treatment plan. The plan involved Markingson enrolling in a study called Comparison of Atypicals in First Episode, or CAFE. The research was sponsored by AstraZeneca, maker of Seroquel, one of the anti-psychotic drugs being investigated.

When Weiss found out her son was a human guinea pig, she was furious. She called the hospital and tried to pull her son out of the treatment plan, to no avail. Although Markingson was mentally unfit, he was somehow able to consent to the drug trial.

Over the next few months, Markingson's condition only worsened, Weiss says. His doctor wouldn't return her calls, so she tried writing a letter to the head of the department, Dr. S. Charles Schulz. He didn't reply.

It wasn't until April 28, after Weiss's third letter, that she received a cursory response, in which Schulz wrote, "it was not clear to me how you thought the treatment team should deal with this issue."

Ten days later, on May 8, Markingson sat in the bathtub of the halfway house where he was staying and stabbed himself to death with a box cutter.

"I left this experience smiling!" read the suicide note.

   

MARKINGSON'S SUICIDE HAS cast a harsh spotlight on the University of Minnesota psychiatry department. The Federal Drug Administration, the Attorney General's Office, and the college's Internal Review Board all wanted to know how a 26-year-old research subject ended up dead.

So did his mom. After a year of combing through studies and public records, Weiss filed a malpractice suit against Schulz and the U of M, accusing them of putting Big Pharma's bottom line ahead of her son's mental health.

In December, a group of eight bioethicists at the U of M wrote a letter to the college's Board of Regents, demanding the appointment of an independent board to investigate whether lapses in ethics and judgment led to Markingson's suicide.

"This goes beyond everything and anything, and this should have brought the house down on the university," says Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a patient-advocacy group. "There has to be zero tolerance, because a lot hangs on it, including lives."

The issue will soon come to a head. The U of M has been investigating a complaint about Schulz's connections to Big Pharma and is expected to issue the results in a matter of weeks.

"If there's any question that the investigation was superficial, it ought to be by an independent group that can determine what the facts are," says Jerome P. Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who is familiar with the circumstances surrounding the Markingson case. "It looks worrisome to me."

   

DR. SCHULZ DIDN'T start out on a traditional path to psychiatry. As an undergrad at the University of Southern California, he majored in history even though he planned on becoming a doctor.

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