President Barack Obama on Wednesday ordered a vast review to ensure that those who take part in U.S.-backed research are treated ethically, a response to the revelation that American scientists intentionally infected people at a Guatemalan mental hospital with syphilis in the 1940s.
In a memo released by the White House, Obama announced a review of both federal and international standards to guard the health and well-being of research participants, known as human subjects. He also ordered a fresh investigation into what happened in the widely condemned Guatemalan experiment.
In that case, as revealed earlier this year, American scientists deliberately infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphilis from 1946 to 1948. It was an apparent effort to test if penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent some sexually transmitted infections. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in October that it was "reprehensible research," and both she and Obama called Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom, to apologize.
"While I believe the research community has made tremendous progress in the area of human subjects protection, what took place in Guatemala is a sobering reminder of past abuses," Obama said in the memo to Amy Gutmann, the chairwoman of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
Obama said the commission must use its expertise across the fields of science, policy, ethics and religion to protect those who take part in medical research. The president added: "We owe it to the people of Guatemala and future generations of volunteers."
Obama ordered Gutmann to form a panel, starting in January, to begin the reviews and to provide him with a report and recommendations within nine months. He said the members must get input from experts in Guatemala and around the world and convene at least one of its meetings outside the United States.