msnbc.com news services
updated 5/13/2005 1:22:22 PM ET 2005-05-13T17:22:22

A Wisconsin researcher has removed Taser International’s medical director as an adviser to a study of the safety of stun guns after critics said his involvement with the manufacturer tainted the research.

University of Wisconsin-Madison professor John Webster had described his two-year, $500,000 study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice as the first to look at the safety of stun guns independent of Taser, the Arizona-based company that makes the weapons.

But documents uncovered this week show Robert Stratbucker, an Omaha physician who is Taser’s top medical officer, is one of four consultants to the study, which will look at how pigs’ hearts react to electric shocks from the devices.

Reacting to the connection on Thursday, Webster told The Associated Press: “In view of this potential conflict of interest, I can make the statement that I have not received advice or paid Stratbucker and I will not use him in the future.”

Adviser got Taser stock
Stratbucker’s studies are often cited by the company as evidence the weapons are a safe way to subdue unruly suspects. He has acknowledged receiving cash and stock options from Taser.

Tasers are used by more than 7,000 police agencies but blamed by Amnesty International in the deaths of more than 100 people in the United States and Canada since 1999.

USA Today first reported Stratbucker’s link to Taser and the research Thursday. Stratbucker did not immediately return a phone call from the AP.

Webster said he listed the Taser official as a consultant to show he would have experts available for advice on the study, which is just getting underway.

“I’m acting independently and forming my own conclusions,” said Webster, a professor emeritus of biomedical engineering.

Justice Dept. still backs project
In a statement, the Justice Department said the agency was aware of the Taser connection when granting the project. The department said Stratbucker had a small role that “would not influence the research goals, scientific measurement, data collection or conclusions.”

In March, both Webster and a Taser spokesman told the AP the company had no ties to the research.

In his grant proposal, Webster proposed Stratbucker receive $18,000 in salary and travel expenses for his advice. Stratbucker’s resume was included but did not mention his work for Taser, and Webster checked a box to deny any conflict of interest.

Amnesty International and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which calls the research cruel and unnecessary, called for an end to the study on Thursday.

“This is not independent and there’s an appearance that there was an attempt to hide the conflict,” said Edward Jackson, a spokesman for Amnesty International, which says more independent studies are needed to determine whether Tasers are safe.

Eric Sandgren, a UW-Madison professor who leads a committee overseeing animal research, had previously defended the study but said he was troubled by the revelations. He said removing Stratbucker was appropriate.

“I saw one of the strengths of this study as being that it is distanced from Taser,” he said. “To the extent that this calls that into question, we have to address that as a university.”

Separate study reported
In a related development, Taser International on Friday welcomed a small, pilot study that showed its stun guns had no ill effects on heart rhythms of healthy people.

The study measured cardiac changes in 24 volunteers hit by Taser’s X26 civilian stun gun.

The study, conducted by a group of independent physicians, is now taking on more volunteers to continue its tests.

Physicians used electrocardiographic monitoring immediately before and after volunteers were hit by a charge from a Taser weapon.

“We found no significant cardiac dysrhythmias in 24 healthy human subjects immediately following an electrical exposure from the Taser X26,” said Ted Chan, one of the physicians who conducted the test. Chan is the medical director of the emergency department at the University of California, San Diego-Hillcrest Medical Center in San Diego.

The study leaves open the question of how Tasers affect people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or with heart conditions, which Amnesty International said were more likely to be injured or die after being hit by a Taser.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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