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Compliance In Focus
Posted by Natalie Jarmusik on Mon, Jan 19, 2015

The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment

You may be familiar with IMARC Research’s History of Clinical Research (HCR). We recently The Guatemala Syphilis Experimentreleased an eBook about it that briefly describes all of the images that currently make up the timeline. If you have visited our office, you may have also been given a guided tour of one of our most renowned resources. Due to the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have received, we will be highlighting each time point with a series of blogs that we plan to release over the course of the 2014-2015 calendar year.

In 1946, the United States initiated one of its darkest secrets in clinical research history.  In the country of Guatemala, a thousand miles away from where US Citizens eagerly awaited justice for the Nazi atrocities of WWII, researchers were beginning to introduce a deadly bacterium to Guatemalan citizens without any forewarning or consent. The bacterium of interest, Treponema pallidum, or more commonly known as Syphilis, was spread to 1500 subjects along with several other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In order to covertly inflict the Guatemalan people without their knowledge, United States surgeon John Charles Cutler and his team of scientists hired prostitutes already infected with the disease as their primary mode of transmission. The majority of the targeted subjects included vulnerable populations, such as patients from insane asylums, prison inmates, and Guatemalan soldiers.  These efforts were supported by organizations including the Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau as well as the Guatemalan government.

The goal of the Guatemala Syphilis Study was ultimately to determine the effectiveness of penicillin. However, in the process of performing this illegitimate clinical trial, Cutler and the other scientists violated some of the very principles the United States fought so hard for after discovering previous incidents of unconstitutional research, ones specifically designed to defend human subjects. In fact, when asked why he chose to perform these experiments in Guatemala, Cutler admitted that he would have never been permitted to do so in the United States. Cutler also took part in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which lasted for forty years.

Of the 1500 uniformed, involuntary subjects that participated in the Guatemala Syphilis experiment, 83 eventually died from improper control of the disease. Not until 2005, however, when Susan Reverby of Wellesley College was researching the Tuskegee study were the experiments at Guatemala discovered. Her uncovering of these unfortunate events led to the publishing of “Ethically Impossible,” a report by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues which was released in 2011. In October of 2010, President Obama issued a formal public apology on behalf of the United States Government for the happenings in Guatemala.

The Guatemala Syphilis experiment marks an example in clinical research history when the United States failed to follow its own policies for human subjects’ protection. Do you think the US has improved its own standards for ethical clinical research? Why or why not? Please leave your thoughts below?

Photo Credit: szeke

The History of Clinical Research

Topics: History of Clinical Research, Guatemala Syphilis Experiment, John Charles Cutler, IMARC Research

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