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Ethics: Experimenting on People August 16, 2006

Posted by cmac in Science and Technology.
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Drugs, the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) requires that all drugs be “fully evaluated” before being placed on the market. “Full evaluation” means that the drug must be tested. However, drugs intended to treat medical disorders can only be tested through controlled experiments. Sounds okay… get people with the specified disorder, have some take the placebo and the others take the drug, record results and side-effects. In theory, it should all be fine… except it’s gotten out of hand.

On May 1, 2006, an article in the New York Times reported the following

In recent years, psychiatric researchers have been experimenting with a bold and controversial treatment strategy: they are prescribing drugs to young people at risk for schizophrenia who have not yet developed the full-blown disorder.

This is where the ethics of psychiatric experiments is questioned. The treatment prescribed drugs for people “at risk of schizophrenia” yet have not developed it. These drugs have only been tested on patients with the disorder, not potential patients. What is to say that these treatments will not cause schizophrenia or a more severe mental disorder. If the product was only tested for one purpose, then it should not be used for any other purposed (i.e. a product tested to reduce severity of schizophrenia should not be used to prevent schizophrenia).

However, it is impossible to test a product’s ability to prevent a mental disorder such as schizophrenia. There is no possible controlled variable. Schizophrenia is cause by environments, by experiences, by brain structure. In order have a controlled experiment to support a claim that a medication prevents schizophrenia, all the above conditions must be met for all subjects. A condition that is impossible to meet.

Also, the experiment exposes subjects to risks. Unforeseen risks. If the drug in questions, say, actually caused schizophrenia rather than prevent it, then what is to happen? Can the test administrators truly justify causing schizophrenia in subjects? The ethics of experiments are certainly to be questioned in situations like this. What comes first: the furtherance of science or the wellbeing of people?

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