Dan Markingson's 2004 suicide: U of M faculty seek investigation
Dan Markingson wasn't himself.
Courtesy Mary Weiss Markingson committed suicide after volunteering for a Big Pharma-funded clinical study at the U of M.
He feared evil spirits were after him. He described experiences with aliens in his apartment. He was convinced that the Illuminati would soon call on him to murder people - perhaps even his own mother - and he was not afraid to do it.
In November 2003, Markingson's mother, Mary Weiss, committed him to the psychiatric wing of Fairview Medical Center on the University of Minnesota's campus. There, Markingson volunteered to participate in a clinical study for an experimental anti-psychotic drug funded by AstraZeneca, called a Cafe study.
On May 8, 2004, Markingson ended his own life at age 26.
Markingson's suicide may have been prevented if not for a pattern of serious potential ethical violations on part of U of M researchers, according to eight faculty members from the college's bioethics department. These alleged violations include a doctor recruiting a patient mentally unfit to volunteer for the study, conflict-of-interest relationships with U of M researchers conducting studies funded by Big Pharma, and clinical studies designed with an innate bias to churn out positive results.
The eight faculty members sent a letter to the U of M's Board of Regents last week calling for an independent investigation into the events surrounding Markingson's suicide.
"It's not a casual thing," says Leigh Turner, an associate professor who co-authored the letter. "Those of us who signed the letter are faculty members here, and I think if we thought this was handled in an effective, responsible way in-house, we wouldn't have sent it."
Carl Elliott, another co-author of the letter, first became interested in the Markingson case in 2008 after reading an investigative series about it in the Pioneer Press.
Elliott was shocked at what appeared to be a series of critical ethical issues that began as soon as Weiss checked her son into Fairview.
According to the article, Markingson's doctor -- the same person who urged him to volunteer for the AstraZeneca-funded study -- was also the study's principal investigator.
When Markingson signed up for the Cafe study, Weiss was not present. She attempted to remove her son from the study when she discovered what had happened -- the experimental drug was risky for Markingson, and Weiss wanted standard treatment -- but doctors refused to listen.
Fairview's Institutional Review Board, the in-house committee charged with looking out for the safety of patients involved in research studies, never intervened in the case. Instead, the board trusted that Markingson's doctors were operating with his best interest in mind.
Elliott was also surprised that very few of his colleagues at the U of M shared his dismay. When he started asking around, it seemed that most had not seen or even heard about the article. Senior faculty at the U told Elliott that the story was slanted, and shouldn't be taken seriously, he says.
But Elliott wasn't convinced. He began researching the case himself.
"The more I looked into it, the more I started to feel it was even worse than the Pioneer Press made it seem," says Elliott.
Courtesy Mary Weiss Markingson and his mother, Mary Weiss
Elliott wrote a follow-up article on his findings, "The Deadly Corruption of Clinical Trials," which appeared in Mother Jones earlier this year.
From the article:
The danger lies not just in the particular circumstances that led to Dan's death, but in a system of clinical research that has been thoroughly co-opted by market forces, so that many studies have become little more than covert instruments for promoting drugs. The study in which Dan died starkly illustrates the hazards of market-driven research and the inadequacy of our current oversight system to detect them.
Elliott thought the piece would direct the U of M's attention to what appeared to be many alarming questions that had so far gone unanswered.
Instead, the college's lead counsel, Mark Rotenberg, penned a response statement dismissing many of the article's allegations. Rotenberg pointed out that Markingson's death had been examined by federal and state entities already.
"None found fault with the University, none found fault with the involved faculty, and none found any causal link between the Café trial and the unfortunate death of Dan Markingson," wrote Rotenberg.