Ten years after the suicide of Dan Markingson — a participant in an AstraZeneca-­sponsored drug trial run by University of Minnesota psychiatrist Stephen Olson, at least indirectly under the supervision of Psychiatry Department Chairman Charles Schulz — the university has decided to relieve Schulz of his chairmanship.

 

We at NAMI-Hennepin, the local chapter of a national organization that advocates for people with mental illness, have never taken a position on who should chair which departments at the university, and we don’t plan to start now. However, we would like to see the public debate that has swirled around the Markingson-Olson-Schulz-AstraZeneca controversy refocused in a more constructive direction.

Much of the debate has focused on the question of whether an academic institution like our beloved university ought to participate in drug trials sponsored by for-profit drug companies — but this seems a dumb question. Drug companies are the only ones who sponsor drug trials. If academic institutions do not partner with for-profit drug companies in such trials, the trials will either become entirely the product of proprietary interests or cease to exit all together. We do not see either as a positive direction.

And according to a recent Star Tribune article, another topic of criticism is the recruitment of Markingson, who has been publicly identified as having had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, for the trial, and the implication that any individual diagnosed with schizophrenia would be too “vulnerable” to participate in such a trial. Here again, if the trial involved a drug typically used to treat schizophrenia, what sort of folks ought to be recruited for the study?

University officials have expressed regret that “efforts to safeguard patients in psychiatric research remain inadequate and do not reflect the best efforts of” the university, and have pledged to “revisit our procedures, striving in all ways possible to improve and further minimize risk.” But remembering that after Markingson’s mother’s lawsuit against the university failed, the U sued her for court costs, we can’t help wondering if the risks university officials are really concerned about are those to the university.

At least for now, the U has placed some sort of moratorium on new psychiatric trials. Great — that should minimize the risk to the university. In the meantime, what about the “risks” faced by the thousands of Minnesotans suffering from — and indirectly dying from — schizophrenia? How does the moratorium mitigate their risks?

We at NAMI-Hennepin are 100 percent in favor of improving the ethical protocols related to human subjects in any field. But we are painfully aware that psychiatry lags other fields of medical study by decades, perhaps centuries, and we find this intolerable. Schulz’s last word on the subject was reported to be that “there is still a great deal of work still to be done.” No kidding!

 

John K. Trepp is chair of the advocacy committee for NAMI-Hennepin County, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.