Did Ark. Veteran Hospitals Cover Up Fatal Human Experiments?

LITTLE ROCK (AP) -- The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System faces accusations that it destroyed documents from human experiments and failed to report the deaths of more than 100 study subjects, a charge a top state official describes as overblown.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that a report by the Veterans Affairs Administration's inspector general's office outlined the problems at the hospitals. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson told The Associated Press that some of those studies involved researchers on the faculty of the state's medical school, but denied the newspaper's claim that there was no oversight.

Most of the studies "were low risk. I honestly don't believe a single patient died because of this," Wilson said Tuesday. "This doesn't make sense."

The newspaper said the investigation began last year and reviewed human experiments involving the study of colon, breast and prostate cancer that had been conducted since 2006.

The newspaper said the investigation found that researchers had failed to report "serious adverse events" during the experiments, including the deaths of 105 veterans. The researchers were required to report such events to UAMS' Internal Review Board, regardless of whether they were accidental or linked to the experiments, according to the Times.

Wilson said the tests on those with breast cancer involved giving a patient a strong caffeine pill to find out how they metabolized the stimulant. Those tested gave urine samples several hours later, Wilson said.

The researcher heading the study later got permission to destroy documents identifying those involved in the study, the chancellor said.

"The investigator was worried (that), if the names ever got out, it would be a shame for the participating people," Wilson said.

Those with prostate cancer underwent a second biopsy as part of their study, Wilson said. Only one participant in a study on people who underwent heart surgery ever suffered a "serious event," he said.

The newspaper said the report found that some consent forms were missing, that others were missing signatures, that HIV testing was conducted without evidence of consent, and that research officials failed to obtain witness signatures in a study involving patients with dementia.

Wilson said the HIV testing only affected two participants in a study involving exercise and amino acids. Wilson said those conducting the survey didn't realize they couldn't do the test and were told to no longer do them.

The dementia study, involving videotaping those with the ailment as they walked around, failed to get signatures from 22 of the 26 involved, Wilson said. He said the study was immediately stopped and those involved "have lost their ability to do research."

"It was just bad form," Wilson said.

Wilson declined to release the university's response to the inspector general Tuesday, saying he would wait for the report to be given to Congress. Wilson said he believed that report would be released Wednesday.

A statement released by officials at the VA Central Arkansas Healthcare System said it had suspended questionable studies, put new studies on hold and set stricter rules on overseeing such projects beginning in August 2007. The system said it lifted the ban on new studies in December 2007.

System spokeswoman Laurie Driver did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. A VA spokeswoman based in Washington declined to comment.

U.S. Rep Vic Snyder, D-Ark., whose district includes Little Rock, said in a prepared statement that he hadn't yet read the VA inspector general's report.

"Hopefully any deficiencies noted by the inspector general have been or will be corrected in a prompt manner so that the many fine researchers at the Little Rock VA and UAMS may continue their work on behalf of our nation's veterans," Snyder said.