When Dan Markingson, a severely mentally ill 26-year-old, began to have schizophrenic visions of aliens in his apartment in November 2003, his mother Mary Weiss tried to get him help.
Markingson's psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Olson of the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center recommended locking Markingson up in a mental asylum because he was a danger to himself and others.
Markingson was willing to do anything to avoid it. Olson provided an alternative -- he could be the guinea pig in a U of M drug study funded by pharma giant AstraZeneca instead.
Markingson agreed, but the drug trials backfired. His mother noticed he was getting tense, eating little and sleeping less. She pleaded with the school to release him from the study, but no one listened. Six months later, Markingson stabbed himself to death with a boxcutter in his bathtub.
The university was quick to absolve itself of any blame for Markingson's death, citing a bunch of state and federal agencies that have cleared it of wrongdoing. There was no connection between this mentally ill man's suicide and assigning him to drug experimentation, U of M claimed.
When Weiss sued the school, the school sued back, charging her for court costs.
Believing the U of M's investigation into the death to be more or less a sham, Markingson's friends and family have been calling for an external review of the psychiatry department's human experimentation ever since 2004. In December 2013 following a brutal trial-by-media, the university agreed.
U of M asked the investigators to only look at current human research protections, but the investigators disagreed. They had to talk about Markingson, they said, because what happened to him was the real reason anybody would want to dig into the university's human research program.
If U of M expected a pat on the back for all the precautions they've put in place over the years, the external review spared it no hard truths about how far it still has to go.
According to the report, the university continues to use subjects facing court-ordered commitment, even though the point of hospitalizing people against their will is to protect patients who can't protect themselves. U of M also doesn't have rules about letting psychiatrist researchers experiment on their own patients. The internal investigators that the university tasks with probing complaints about the psychiatry department don't publish their findings.
Those who work in the psychiatry department described their work climate as a "culture of fear," where lower-ranking researchers are asked to peer review the work of department chairs. Staff say that researchers in turn intimidate them into suppressing their concerns about scientific ethics. Whistleblowers told the external review team tales of retaliatory firings and faculty's tendency to care more about the threat of lawsuits than the safety of their human subjects.
The university responded to the report with a show of candor -- "This is an opportunity for the University of Minnesota to move toward a human research protection program that is beyond reproach," said President Eric Kaler in a statement. "We strive to be a university whose human research protection program becomes the model for the world to respect and follow."
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