Child Experiments on Everest -- Too High a Risk?

To hear British scientist Dr. Monty Mythen explain his upcoming experiment, it sounds more like a vacation than research.

Mythen is professor of anesthesia and critical care at the University College of London. In many ways, his upcoming expedition to Mount Everest defies the beakers-and-benches imagery of the typical lab setting.

But the route to the Everest Base Camp, more than 17,000 feet above sea level, will become Mythen's natural laboratory later this month.

And among his experimental subjects are nine children, aged 6 to 13, who will follow dozens of adult trekkers into the high-altitude, low-oxygen environment.

Four of the children are Mythen' own. And a respiratory pediatrician will be on hand in order to deal with any breathing difficulties the children may experience.

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"They're very, very excited, thrilled at the opportunity to travel into this new culture," Mythen says. "But they are also interested in the science of it."

However, the experiment is coming under fire from some medical ethicists who say that it puts its young participants -- all of whom are too young to consent on their own -- at unnecessary risk.

Is It Right to Experiment on Kids?

Mythen says his study intends to explore the effect of altitude and lack of oxygen on children. The findings, he says, will be of use to anesthesiologists and critical care physicians, and it may one day be used to help children whose breathing disorders put them at risk of brain damage and critical illness.

But despite the aims of the research, some bioethicists say the potential gains in knowledge are far outweighed by the possible risks of the journey.

"The fact that the experiment will lead to life-saving treatments does not militate against using children in an experiment," says Joan McGregor, director of the bioethics, policy, and law program at Arizona State University's Center for Biology and Society.

"This is showboating, not science," says Dr. Steven Miles of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota department of medicine. "Such research could be done in a lab which can precisely mimic the conditions of Mount Everest without risking being unable to access health care."

Rosamond Rhodes, professor of medical education at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, agrees.

"Although it may be important to study how children respond to high altitudes and low oxygen levels, taking children into this tremendously hazardous environment hardly seems justified," she says.

The experiment is also a contentious one because it involves healthy children who do not stand to benefit from the research in the way that young cancer patients might if they were given an experimental drug.

The Sticky Issue of Consent

The fact that Mythen's own children represent part of the study group also presents an ethical conundrum.

"The consent issue is also tricky, since parents usually consent for children, who are, if old enough, asked to assent to the research," says Dr. Susan Goold, director of the bioethics program at the University of Michigan Medical School.

"In this case, the children's parent is the investigator -- a clear conflict of commitment on his part, and also undoubtedly influencing the children's ability to dissent."

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