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Drug Experiments That Went Horribly Wrong

Science experiments have a bit of a bad rap at times. When they go well, they’re ignored, but when they go badly, they are reported throughout the media. This hasn’t always been the case, though. Experiments with people could be hidden, and bad results could be suppressed.

The most recent story is of a clinical trial that ended badly for six men. The drug, TGN1412, had been tested in vivo before but only in animals. The drug was intended to treat a form of leukemia, known as B cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

The idea behind the drug was to activate T cells, which destroy other cells that are infected with viruses or are displaying signs of malfunction. Normally, T cells require antibodies to become active, otherwise they would permanently attack cells; this drug would partially remove this requirement. The drug might be able to force T cells to attack cancer cells, destroying the cancer with little need for radiation or other forms of chemotherapy.

The Phase I clinical trial recruited healthy volunteers who would have very low doses of the drug injected into them. Unfortunately, a reaction occurred where the T cells were overstimulated. Masses of T cells were activated, and they attacked the volunteers’ organs and then, paradoxically, destroyed their white blood cells. The men survived, although they remain immunosuppressed.

While animal experiments indicated that this drug was safe, other T cell activators had resulted in identical “storms.” The company insisted that this result was completely unexpected, although one immunologist rather scathingly stated: “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out what will happen if you nonspecifically activate every T cell in the body.” In his view, it was an avoidable incident.

Most modern experiments that are deemed reputable are double-blind trials with control groups. However, there are some that are just bizarre and seem to be based on trying something for the hell of it.

Tusko was an elephant who lived in a zoo in Oklahoma City. In 1962, a group of researchers decided to see how an elephant would react to LSD. Now elephants are around 90 tunes bigger than humans; instead the researchers gave the poor elephant 3,000 times the dose.

The idea was to induce the elephant into a proboscine rage (yes, proboscine is the general adjective relating to elephants). Unfortunately, instead of being angry, Tusko collapsed and died an hour later. The researchers initially blamed the LSD, but to revive him they gave him a load of antipsychotics. This is what likely killed the poor thing.

A later experiment tested the effects of LSD on two elephants, who emerged from the trip unscathed. However, the doses were slightly lower.

Not all experiments involve medication, however. Some of the oddest experiments involved psychological or behavioral tests, and some of these displayed the darker side of human nature.

One psychological experiment aimed to determine why prisons were such dank and horrible places when unregulated. Is it the fact that the inmates have little hope? Is it that prison guards turn into sadistic monsters?

An experiment called “Stanford prison experiment” that aimed to find out these answers was conducted in 1971 at Stanford University. It used 24 clinically sane volunteers who were divided into guards and prisoners. The “prisoners” were randomly “arrested” one morning and driven to the mock prison.

The researcher instructed the guards to use whatever means required to keep order, and they did. The prisoners at first were defiant, but the guards used intimidation and physical violence to restore order. The prisoners became cowed and depressed.

A rebellion occurred on the second day, and this was put down quite brutally, which surprised the researchers. Prisoners who had taken part in the rebellion were then punished, and those who had not were not. Relationships were discouraged and various punishments were assigned.

This was a fascinating experiment, although not necessarily a bad one. However, what made it a little ethically dubious is that the lead researcher was involved in the study, rather than merely observing. The experiment was ended early, with the researchers noting that a third of the guards had exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies.

While it’s clear that the experiment was started with good intensions, it got out of control rapidly. The use of fire extinguishers to control prisoners along with the fact that prisoners had to be let out early due to severe emotional and physical stress shows it wasn’t as well managed as it should’ve been.

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