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MIT Investigates Involvement In Past Radiation Experiments

By Jeremy Hylton
Editor in Chief

A continuing investigation into human radiation experiments done by MIT and Harvard University researchers in the late 1940s and early 1950s has shown that subjects in at least two of the experiments were not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Professor of Physics J. David Litster PhD '65, vice president and dean for research, studied experiments performed on as many as 125 retarded residents of the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass., by the late Professor of Nutrition Robert S. Harris.

"So far I think we can make the statement that no one was harmed. Whether we would do those experiments today is a different question. My guess is probably not," Litster said.

Litster is still studying the results of two other experiments. In one experiment, pregnant women were given radioactive iodine. In the other experiment, subjects were given radioactive isotopes of iodine.

The experiments, and similar ones done across the country at about the same time, have received much public attention and criticism recently because much of the research was performed on subjects who had little understanding of the risks involved.

Subjects apparently unaware

In a statement issued last week, President Charles M. Vest said, "I was sorry to hear that at least some of the young people who participated in this research and their parents apparently were unaware that the study involved radioactive tracers."

Though Vest and Litster are concerned by the ethical implications of the research, they both emphasized that the research aided scientists' understanding of nutritional processes.

"It is important to recognize that the purpose of these studies was to improve understanding of nutritional processes in order to promote health of young people, and that the radiation exposure appears to have been well within today's limits," Vest said.

Litster has two goals for his investigation, which he hopes to conclude within a week. First, he wants to "ascertain what risk people were exposed to, so we can determine if there was any harm done," he said.

Information from MIT's records will also be used to help identify the people used as subjects in experiments and to determine exactly what exposure to radiation they had. "If we can at least tell people, `We don't know who you are, but clearly this is the worst that could possibly have happened to you' and it turns out not to be that bad -- that will help people," Litster explained.

A Massachusetts state task force is also investigating several radiation experiments, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) will hold a hearing at the Fernald school tomorrow.

Litster is cooperating with the other investigations, but believes that most of the information that could help identify subjects will be found in Fernald school records.

Studies of calcium, iron

The two experiments conducted by Harris at the Fernald school investigated the way the body absorbs calcium and iron. Litster calculated the level of radiation exposure in the experiments from four papers and a PhD thesis written about the experiments.

To understand how the body picks up iron from food, a radioactive iron tracer was placed in the breakfasts of 17 residents over a period of 40 months. The residents ranged in age from 12 to 17.

The radiation the subjects were exposed to varied with their body weights, in the same way that blood alcohol levels is a function of weight. The smallest of the youths in the experiment, who weighed 70 pounds, received a 330 millirem dose, slightly higher than the 300 millirems Boston residents receive each year from background radiation. (See box for explanation of radiation exposure measurements.)

The average dose for the youths was 230 millirems. The largest subject, who weighed 135 pounds, was exposed to 170 millirems. All the doses were well below both guidelines at the time and today's guidelines for radiation exposure.

The second experiment studied the way calcium is absorbed from milk. The researchers gave 45 youths small doses of radioactive calcium that ranged from about 4 to 12 millirems.

The results of the experiments provided valuable insights into nutrition, Litster said. "They did learn some interesting things from these experiments. ... Certainly the calcium studies laid the groundwork for all kinds of follow-up studies involving calcium, metabolism, trying to understand osteoperosis."

Control of diet necessary

In published reports, the Fernald school experiments have been criticized because they were performed on a segregated population of mentally ill or deficient subjects. One Massachusetts mental health official described them as "barbaric."

Litster said he thought that characterization was unfair. He said he doubted that anyone involved placed a lower value on the lives of the subjects because they were retarded.

The choice of the Fernald school as site of the experiment was rather one of convenience, Litster suggested. "You needed to have people whose diet was carefully controlled, and you needed to collect all their waste products. And people who were all living together in an institution made a very convenient set of subjects," he said.

Still, Litster said that the research would be more seriously questioned today. "People's attitude towards radiation has changed and I think people's attitudes towards medical experimentation involving especially children and mentally defective people has also changed," he said.

Litster explained that all experiments on human subjects carried out at MIT today are reviewed by the Committee of the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects. The Committee and other government and medical bodies enforce more stringent standards for radiation experiments and experiments involving children than were in place in the 1940s and 1950s.

Consent procedures different

Securing the informed consent of subjects was "up to the ethics of the individual investigator" at the time the experiments were carried out, Litster explained.

"None of our MIT people were medical people, so that ... they would naturally collaborate in some way with a medical person," Litster said. "The procedure in those days was that the medical person who provided access to the patients was the one who was responsible for the informed consent process."

According to a report published in The Boston Globe, parents of the youths at the Fernald school were probably not told that the nutritional experiments their children would be participating in involved radioactive tracers.