U’s bioethics center shrivels under influence of Big Pharma dollars

In the race for scientific progress, human ethics can be a drag.

In the race for scientific progress, human ethics can be a drag.

When Steven Miles, an endowed chair and full professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics announced his retirement last week, he humbly reflected on his many accomplishments, which include designing MinnesotaCare and investigating the U.S. military’s use of torture during the war on terror.

After 35 years, he told the Minnesota Daily that he had Voltairian dreams of quietly cultivating his garden.

Miles also left a bittersweet admonition for the U’s administration.

Over the last 15 years, the U “has experienced a series of damaging ethics scandals including: ALG, Anafranil, GHB, INFUSE, MCL, Caremark recent issues in psychiatry and others,” he wrote. “All of these have arisen at the nexus of powerful faculty, commercial funding and advances in research. These scandals have led to government hearings, criminal trials, huge university allocations of staff time and [National Institutes of Health] sanctions.”

Meanwhile, the U slashed the Center for Bioethics’ budget year after year. Faculty who retired or resigned from the center were not replaced. Now, there are only five bioethicists on staff at what was once regarded as one of the best programs for the study of ethics in biomedical research. Ten years ago, there were three times that many.

“The University needs much more robust programming in bioethics situated proximately but independently of its research enterprise,” Miles pleaded in the letter. “The attrition of the depth and breadth of Bioethics expertise … is counter to the University’s interests.”

Miles declined to say any more about the future of bioethics at the U. But his colleague, Prof. Carl Elliott, says that while researchers in the medical school dash toward the blinding lure of lucrative new drug studies funded by Big Pharma, the Center for Bioethics has become a nuisance for the University.

Elliott admits that he and fellow bioethicist Leigh Turner have been huge nuisances for the U ever since they put up a stink over the suicide of Dan Markingson. In need of intensive treatment for his schizophrenia, Markingson was instead drafted into an experimental drug study for AstraZeneca in 2003 by his treating psychiatrist, U researcher Stephen Olson. Markingson killed himself six months into the study. The U denied responsibility for more than 10 years until the Legislative Auditor forced President Eric Kaler to reckon last year.

In the heat of that fight, the U has been punishing the Center for Bioethics, Elliott says. “The University administration has decided to starve the Bioethics Center as punishment for the sins of Leigh and me,” he says. 

Miles stayed neutral about the U’s failings in the Markingson case. While doctors from all over the country urged the U to acknowledge fault, he declined to sign any petitions callings for independent investigations into the young patient’s death. He said nothing critical of the U publicly. When Kaler appeared at a press conference last spring to announce patient protection reforms at the U, Miles flanked him in support.

“I think a lot of this is not an issue that's uniquely problematic for the University of Minnesota,” Elliott says. “You can look at scandals that have happened in a lot of other places, and look at the way that the bioethics centers that are located in the institutions themselves, and generally they respond by doing very little. I think the reasons are obvious. Bioethicists realize this is not going to go well for me if I do the right thing, essentially.”