Ethics of medical research forced into light of day
A clash between two academics at the University of Ulster, which will be aired at an industrial tribunal in Belfast next week, involves issues far beyond the immediate dispute.
Professor Christian Holscher will allege that he was unfairly treated in his post as a professor of neuroscience – where he was conducting research aimed at developing drugs for Alzheimer's disease – after making a complaint against a fellow academic, Professor Charles Vyvyan Howard.
The university says that it was Prof Holscher who acted in an unacceptable way and that it was this which resulted in the disciplinary action that saw him demoted to the status of senior lecturer.
Prof Holscher left the University of Ulster and is now director of drugs development at Lancaster University, where his status as a professor has been restored.
The case raises issues to do with the limits of ethical practice in the pursuit of medical knowledge.
Before joining UU in 2005, Prof Howard had a role in events at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, where controversy had erupted in 1999 when it was revealed that body parts from foetuses and children who had died in the hospital had been "harvested" for research without anyone outside the hospital, including the parents, being informed.
The retention of organs at Alder Hey had come to light as part of a chain-reaction after a story broke that the organs of 170 children who had died at Bristol Royal Infirmary had been kept in storage.
Alder Hey was discovered to have stored organs from children and 1,500 foetuses that had been miscarried, stillborn, or aborted.
The distress and uproar that greeted the revelations fixed the scandal in the public mind. Alder Hey figured prominently on account of the scale of its "harvesting" and the centrality to the affair of a doctor at the hospital, pathologist Professor Dick van Velzen, accused in an inquiry set up by the House of Commons of "unethical and illegal stripping of every organ from every child who had had a post-mortem".
Dubbed "Dr Frankenstein" by the tabloid Press, van Velzen was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council for gross professional misconduct.
During his time at Alder Hey, Prof Howard had been among the co-authors with van Velzen of 10 published research papers. The inquiry described the 10 papers as "fundamentally flawed".
Nine doctors, including Dr Howard, were identified by the GMC as guilty of "inappropriate" conduct. No sanction was imposed, but seven of the group, including Dr Howard, were instructed to "note" recommendations from the inquiry in their future practice.
Prof Holscher says, in documents submitted to the tribunal, that when he discovered that Prof Howard, with whom he was now working, had had an association with events at Alder Hey, he went to the university authorities to suggest that it was inappropriate for Prof Howard to be involved in research work at the university.
He says he was told that the university had been aware of Prof Howard's previous employment when appointing him in 2005 and that the matter was closed.
Prof Holscher campaigned with little success for the retraction of the "fundamentally flawed" papers co-authored with van Velzen from the publications in which they had appeared. In 2011, Prof Howard told the scientific journal Nature that, in spite of the circumstances surrounding the research, the results remained valid.
"We think we have made a contribution there. The outcome of that research has affected clinical practice," he said. He instanced the delivery of growth-retarded foetuses as soon as possible to improve their chances of survival.
Nature commented: "The lack of action, even in what seems to be a clear-cut case, highlights the reluctance of institutions and journals to retract papers when the authors stand by the results."
Prof Holscher says that, after he raised his concerns, he was isolated and "harassed". The university suggests, to the contrary, that, having failed to achieve the removal of his colleague, Prof Holscher had harassed Howard and unfairly impugned his scientific reputation.
The tribunal case will turn on whether Prof Holscher was denied his rights under industrial law. But it will also resurrect painful memories of the organ-retention scandal and again put a spotlight on the underlying question of whether ethical considerations – and what ethical considerations – can render medical research unacceptable, even if the results of the research turn out to be scientifically valid and have a potential to benefit patients.