The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (a Burness client) held a two-day hearing in Washington, D.C. where it revealed findings from its investigation into research abuses in Guatemala in the 1940s. The investigation is part of a larger inquiry by the Commission into whether current research standards adequately protect people participating in scientific studies from harm and unethical treatment.

Catching reporter’s attention were the horrific details of how researchers intentionally infected prisoners, mental patients, prostitutes and soldiers with syphilis and other STDs without their consent; the researchers’ blatant disregard for research standards of the time and efforts to keep the trials secret; and the need for a U.S. government system to compensate research subjects if they are injured in studies.

The Commission will convene again in November before delivering a report to President Obama on the effectiveness of contemporary protections for human subjects in scientific research. Any recommendations the Commission makes to strengthen existing rules and practices for federally-funded research will likely have consequences for private industry and global impact, as the number of public-private research partnerships grows and clinical trials are increasingly conducted overseas.