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10 Clinical Trials That Went Horribly Wrong

OMG September 25, 2017 By Hugo

For those strapped for cash, signing up for a clinical trial can be an attractive option. You do little work, and more often than not the scientists will assure you that any arising complications are very unlikely. But being observed for weeks and sometimes even months-on-end can have its drawbacks. Just take these cases. 

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Each one appeared like any other, with a pharmaceutical company usually following procedures and asking suitable humans to take part in an experiment for a drug that had no doubt been tested many times before. But like with everything in life, there are exceptions to the norm.

Here are ten frightening examples.

1. Dan Markingson's suicide 

When AstraZeneca's scientists used the University of Minnesota's research labs to conduct a human clinical trial for the experimental antipsychotic drug 'Seroquel' it was deemed safe. After all, similar variants of the drug had been on the market for 10 years so little did they know that one of their subjects- a known sufferer of the condition the drug was believed to cure- would turn suicidal. 

But that's what happened to Dan Markingson who killed himself after his involvement in the trial two months prior. It later transpired that Marinkingson believed he was being told to murder people and took his life as a result.

2. The death of Jesse Gelsinger

When Jessie Gelsinger turned 18, he participated in a trial he hoped would find a treatment for the genetic disorder in his liver.

However, Jessie would later die of organ failure following a massive reaction to the treatment. It is the first case where a human died from a human gene trial.

3. Wikileaks exposes Pfizer

In 2011, Wikileaks released delicate information revealing illicit and immoral practices attributed to many American corporations and government agencies. The American pharmaceutical company Pfizer was one such organisation, who, as the papers showed, were hoping to expose the 'corrupt practices' of the Nigerian District Attorney in an attempt to cover-up news that he was suing them for their experimental drug 'Trovan'. 

Trovan was a drug given to Nigerian children by Pfizer in the Northern state of Kano during the 1990s meningitis outbreak. 

Killing 11 children, Pfizer had long argued it was meningitis and not their drug which caused said casualties, but the deaths were later attributed to the drug.  Moreover, the investigation that Wikileaks exposed discovered that Pfizer had not disclosed to parents that the drug was experimental and even assured them it was tried and tested. 

4. The Gardasil vaccine controversy

How do you get willing humans to partake in experiments involving an untested drug? Go to India and find people in more need of money than in your homeland. At least, that was the strategy employed by the American pharmaceutical company Gardasil. And while the vaccine was designed to combat the cancer-inducing strands of HBBV, the drug resulted in the deaths of several children while injuring many others. As a consequence, the Indian government suspended all such trials.

5. Duncan Macdougall's soul theory

Duncan Macdougall's 1901 experiment attempted to prove that the human soul existed by measuring and comparing a person's weight shortly before their death and then immediately after. At first glance, the results seemed to prove Macdougall's theory. The subject's weight after death had indeed decreased compared to when they were dying and the New York Times even wrote a piece on the test entitled, 'Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks." 

But after the results in the Journal of the American Society for Physical Research were released, scientists dispelled Macdougall's theory by arguing that weight loss in humans after death is relatively common because of rapid sweating at the point of mortality.

6. The Britsh Army undertook sarin tests in the 1950s

Port Down in Wilshere, England is home to one of the British Army's most secretive testing facilities, but in the 1950s it opened up its doors to test the drug Sarin on servicemen. For their services, they were offered 15 Shillings, (around $50 in today's money) and one of those volunteers was Ronald Madison.

But after being exposed to a small dose of the drug he quickly lost consciousness and was declared dead hours later. The death led to some inquests many years later, and the court of appeal eventually found the British Army guilty of the unlawful killing and was ordered to pay his family £100,000 in compensation. 

7. Project MKUltra

A covert government programme run by America's C.I.A from the early 1950s made humans take mind-altering drugs (including LSD) in the hope that confessions from future interrogations and torture methods would be easier to attain. But the barbaric practices, which included recruiting Nazi scientists to work on their programme and bribing heroin addicts to become subjects eventually led to the programme's termination twenty years later.

Because CIA agents destroyed nearly all files relating to the programme, it is impossible to determine how many people died from the project.

8. Thalidomide tragedy

When the drug Thalidomide- a drug mainly marketed toward pregnant women suffering from morning sickness- was tested on rats, it was determined that even an overdose wouldn't kill the rats and because of that, it was rushed onto the market. 

At one point, during its release in the 1960s, the drug was almost as popular as aspirin, but because of the shortsightedness of scientists, the side-effects of the drug were wide-reaching and even to this day, birth defects attributed to the drug continue to make headlines. 

9. A French drug trial goes disturbingly wrong

In January 2016, a French drug trial in Rennes left one person dead and six critically ill after taking part in a drug trial for the Portuguese pharmaceutical company, Biotrail. 

Explaining the death, a group of experts working for the company emphasised “the astonishing and unprecedented nature” of the reaction the deceased man experienced, even though reports later surfaced that several dogs and died from the same trial.

10. The Elephant Trial

In 2006, a trial in England made international news when subjects of the experiment began to feel swelling and pain akin to what many jointly described as having their eyes gouged.

Ryan Wilson, pictured above, even lost some of his fingers and toes and had to give up his lucrative job as a plumber because of the side-effects. Though not as severe, the victim's deformities have been likened to those of Joseph Merit, who became known as The Elephant Man.

The company that presided over the trial and who paid subjects £2,000 to test the drug TGN1412, (described in the past as a miracle cure for arthritis, multiple sclerosis and leukaemia) eventually compensated Ryan to the tune of £2m.


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