Friday, April 13, 2007

Killing people in Research: Would you approve?

An absolutely fascinating article from Wired on the research being funded by DARPA the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on human enhancement is available here: Be more than you can be

While all the research covered is fascinating, I want to briefly discuss one particular research project:

Roth knew that some animals hibernate — slowing their metabolisms until environmental conditions improve. He also knew that some cells can enter a kind of dormancy and then spring back to life — essentially, they go into suspended animation. Roth wanted to better understand this “metabolic flexibility.” He started testing various chemicals that slowed metabolism, like heavy water and tetrodotoxin (puffer fish poison, used in Haiti to turn people into zombies). Nothing worked. But then Roth found a loophole in one of nature’s seemingly absolute rules: Animals need oxygen. But some creatures, like nematodes, fruit flies, and zebra fish, don’t die if oxygen levels drop. Instead the critters suspend. Their hearts stop beating for up to 24 hours. They don’t breathe. And they don’t die. Wounds stop bleeding; nearly any injury becomes survivable, and the brain shuts down without damage. “If you were shot, this is exactly what you would want,” Roth says.

In his first tests, he lowered the oxygen content in his mouse enclosures to just 5 percent — and watched his lab mice drop dead in 15 minutes. He gave the second group a whiff of hydrogen sulfide first. They survived in the 5 percent oxygen environment for six hours — unconscious but alive. Roth was ecstatic. In March 2005, the money from Darpa finally came through. The agency was looking for techniques that would keep animals alive for three hours with 60 percent of their blood gone — a lethal wound. Roth tried his hydrogen sulfide approach: He knocked rats out with a blast of the gas and drained 60 percent of their blood. They lived for 10 hours or more. Now Roth is considering going to the IRBs for permission to suspend human beings.

The question is under what circumstances should an IRB approve such research? And what would be the most ethical way for such a project to be carried out?


Kenny said...

Presumably, they should only allow these tests with people who are already gravely injured and probably won't make it to the hospital. Of course, those situations are exactly the situations where it's tough to have a research team around too. But maybe they can send this to battlefields to test it or something? Or a city with a high murder rate?

David Hunter said...

That seems sensible Kenny. But on the other hand these are also cases where getting informed consent either from the research participant or their proxy is almost impossible.

So there seems a trade off, if what we value is autonomy and informed consent then we are probably going to go for volunteers. If we value not inflicting harm or risk of harm in research then we may go with something like you have suggested.