- Associated Press - Friday, October 1, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — American scientists deliberately infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphilis 60 years ago, a recently unearthed experiment that prompted U.S. officials to apologize Friday and declare outrage over “such reprehensible research.”

The U.S. government-funded experiment, which ran from 1946 to 1948, was discovered by a Wellesley College medical historian. It apparently was conducted to test if penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent infection with sexually transmitted diseases. The study came up with no useful information and was hidden for decades.

The government researcher who led the work in Guatemala also was involved in this country’s infamous Tuskegee experiment, where from 1932 to 1972 scientists tracked 600 black men in Alabama who had syphilis but didn’t know it, without ever offering them treatment.

“We are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said of the Guatemalan project Friday.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama had been briefed about the situation and planned to call Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom.

“Obviously this is shocking, it’s tragic, it’s reprehensible,” Mr. Gibbs said. “It’s tragic and the U.S. by all means apologizes to all those who were impacted.”

Strict regulations today make clear that it is unethical to experiment on people without their consent and require special steps for any work with such vulnerable populations as prisoners. But such regulations didn’t exist in the 1940s.

The U.S. government ordered two independent investigations to uncover exactly what happened in Guatemala and to make sure current bioethics rules are adequate. They will be led by the prestigious Institute of Medicine and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

And while deliberately trying to infect people with serious diseases is abhorrent today, the Guatemalan experiment isn’t the only example from what National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins on Friday called “a dark chapter in the history of medicine.” Forty similar deliberate-infection studies were conducted in the United States during that period, Dr. Collins said.

In Guatemala, 696 men and women were exposed to syphilis or in some cases gonorrhea, through jail visits by prostitutes or, when that didn’t infect enough people, by deliberately inoculating them, reported Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby. Those who were infected were all offered penicillin, but it wasn’t clear how many were infected and how many were successfully treated.

She reported that the U.S. had gained permission from Guatemalan officials to conduct the study, but did not inform the experimental subjects.

Ms. Reverby’s work was first reported by NBC News. She uncovered the records of Dr. John Cutler, a prominent government scientist of the 1940s, while researching the Tuskegee experiment for a recent book. She posted on her website a copy of an article about the findings that is to be published in January in an academic journal. A speech she gave on her findings last spring alerted government health officials to her findings, resulting in Friday’s apology.

The revelation of abuses by a U.S. medical research program is only the latest chapter in the U.S.’ troubled history with the impoverished Central American nation, which has a per capita gross domestic product about half of that of the rest of Central America and the Caribbean.

The U.S. helped topple the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and backed several hardline governments during a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and cost 200,000 lives.

Associated Press writer Luis Alonso contributed to this report.

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