The Sacramento Bee is reporting on a complicated story about last-ditch treatments and the ethics of human experimentation.
Glioblastomas are incredibly deadly brain cancers that usually kill the people diagnosed with them within 15 months. Two neurosurgeons at UC Davis ran across anecdotal evidence suggesting that glioblastoma patients who accidentally picked up infections after surgery sometimes lived much longer — one of the surgeons claims that a patient he knew of survived another 20 years.
Eventually, the two surgeons tried infecting three glioblastoma patients intentionally, withholding antibiotics in the hopes that the body's immune system would attack both the infection and the tumor and lead to a longer life. In order to do this, they classified their work as a "treatment" rather than an "experiment", a decision that allowed them to operate without FDA approval or oversight from the ethics review board at UC Davis. All three patients died, two of them from untreated sepsis — that is, a severe infection that's spread to the whole body. Now, while the neurosurgeons say they had patient approval to try the procedures, UC Davis officials say that approval was poorly done — that the patients had misunderstood the surgeons and vice versa — leading to a situation where the volunteers can't really be said to be truly volunteering.
This is interesting to me because the surgeons involved really seem to think they were doing the right thing for their patients. One of them told the Bee he'd want the procedure done to himself if he were ever diagnosed with a glioblastoma. But, at the same time, they seem to have made some serious ethics violations in their pursuit of something they thought was good. To say the least, it's a bit of a heartbreaking mess.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.