Ethical Dilemmas in Scientific Experiments on Humans
Medical researchers who use human subjects face ethical dilemmas. A key to ethical experiments involving humans is informed consent, a condition that ensures that participants understand what the study will involve.
This principle evolved after the Nazi medical atrocities during World War II. It introduces principles like respect for persons, beneficence and non-maleficience into research ethics.
Physician Galen of Pergamon, a second-century Greek, wrote many texts that informed medical practice for more than 1300 years. However, his anatomical work contained numerous errors. Vesalius’ new observations, drawn from dissections of animals and human bodies, corrected these mistakes.
Galen advocated dissection as a way to learn anatomy. He conducted a great deal of dissections, especially on pigs and barbary apes. He regarded these species as closest to humans in terms of their physiologies.
During these dissections, Galen was often able to observe how the heart and blood flowed in the body. He also learned the differences between arteries and veins, a distinction that was not widely known at the time. He based his work on these observations, along with the theories of Aristotle and Mondino de Liuzzi, to develop a scientific system of anatomy that replaced the empiricist approach to medicine. This approach was based on observation and reasoning instead of traditional beliefs in the four humours of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.
Nazi Germany’s Concentration Camps
Many of the most disturbing cases of coerced experimentation were conducted under National Socialism. They were a product of racial ideology that eroded legal protections for human beings and gave scientists unlimited access to a population defined as biologically inferior.
The most prominent experimenter was SS physician Josef Mengele, who focused his efforts on hereditary pathology (i.e., genetics) and worked in collaboration with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology to study twins. He also experimented with ‘Gypsy’ children, in an attempt to determine whether eye color was inherited, by injecting serum into their eyes and then killing them.
He also used typhus prisoners to test various therapies for the disease including the administration of rutenol, plaster casts of women’s genital organs and electrical shocks. These experiments were part of a wider effort to develop vaccines for malaria, typhoid fever, cholera and diphtheria. They were considered of such importance to the war effort that it was argued that the medical needs of the prisoners were secondary to the experiments’ purposes.
Research on humans is often unavoidable, mainly because the risks associated with taking new drugs cannot be accurately assessed by testing on animals. Even so, there are still concerns about ethical practices in such experiments.
There is no one answer to this question, but researchers can try to ensure that the ends do not justify the means. Despite such precautions, there will always be cases where it is impossible to avoid doing harm. This is where the ethics committee and other such processes come in, as they can be used to resolve conflicting issues.
Medical ethicists generally agree that there are seven general rules for an experiment involving human participants. These include that people need to be selected fairly and respected; the risks and benefits of the research must be weighed against those of the participants, as well as society; and there needs to be forceful sanctions in case an experiment is found to have been unethical.
Human Growth Hormone Injections
The hormones produced by the pituitary gland control nearly every function of the body, including growth. For those with genetic syndromes resulting in short stature, or who have undergone surgery for tumors in the pituitary gland, human growth hormone injections are often recommended by doctors.
Recombinant human growth hormone (abbreviated hGH) has been shown to stimulate tissue and linear growth, and promote protein, carbohydrate, and lipid metabolism. It is used to treat patients with idiopathic growth hormone deficiency, Turner syndrome, Noonan syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and children small for gestational age.
Recently, the National Institutes of Health resumed recruiting extremely short children for growth hormone studies that had been halted a year ago after being challenged by genetics watchdog Jeremy Rifkin and his foundation on the grounds that they were unethical. Rifkin argued that the research exploits these healthy children, and exposes them to unnecessary risk of an experiment with uncertain benefits. In addition, the hormone can also cause a host of health problems and may even result in death in rare cases.