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Consumer advocacy group blasts U of M for handling of psychiatric drug research program

Dan Markingson and his mother, Mary Weiss, in 2004

Dan Markingson and his mother, Mary Weiss, in 2004

A Washington D.C.-based consumer advocacy group is calling on the University of Minnesota to revisit the events surrounding the suicide of Dan Markingson, a 26-year-old schizophrenic man who stabbed himself to death while participating in an experimental anti-psychotic drug study.

In a June 16 letter to president Eric Kaler's office, the director and founder of Public Citizen blasted the university for failing to conduct "an independent, transparent, and detailed inquiry" following Markingson's suicide. They say "serious ethical lapses in the conduct and oversight of the study remain" and have "cast a pall of suspicion" that undermines trust in the university.

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The story of Markingson's suicide was thrust into the light four years ago by Dr. Carl Elliott, a U of M bioethics professor. Writing for Mother Jones, Elliott documented the uncomfortably close relationship between certain university officials and Big Pharma and alleged that the two were pushing potentially dangerous drugs on the most vulnerable of patients. Markingson had been enrolled in a clinical study despite the repeated protest of his mother.

Earlier this month, the university announced that it would hire the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs Inc. to independently review its clinical trial practices -- a move that didn't exactly inspire confidence. The problem, as groups like Public Citizen see it, is that the association has been responsible for accrediting the university's psychiatric research programs. Criticism of the university would be tantamount to criticism of its own work.

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However, the association is vowing to hire its own outside experts -- including doctors from Harvard and Johns Hopkins -- and remove itself from the analysis and recommendation process of its upcoming report. There's just one problem: The faculty senate resolution that will guide the work requires that the association look at "current policies." The Markingson case is 10 years old. As Leigh Turner, another U of M professor of bioethics, has pointed out on his blog, the faculty senate gave the association the wrong mandate.

Chuck Tombarge, a university spokesman, says the Markingson case has undergone both internal and external investigations over the past decade, which cleared the university of wrongdoing. (Elliott has called at least one of those reports "misleading, remarkably uncritical, and often simply baffling.") Tombarge acknowledges that the association will not reopen the Markingson case, but reiterates that the work is being done "to ensure our current practices are sound."

If the university won't dig up the past, the state just might. On Monday, Minnesota's legislative auditor, Jim Nobles, announced that he's preparing to investigate the last 10 years of university drug trials because of media coverage of the Markingson case.

 -- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to [email protected]