The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 45.0°F | Overcast

MIT Named in Lawsuit Over Radiation Deaths

Adriane Chapman--The Tech
Today, the fourth patient is slated to begin testing a new radiation treatment in this facility at the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. MIT is named in a lawsuit filed on behalf of brain tumor patients treated with an experimental radiation treatment at the reactor in the 1960s.

By Stacey E. Blau
News Editor

MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed last Thursday by relatives of brain tumor patients treated with nuclear medicine at MIT and MGH in the 1960s.

Evelyn Heinrich and Henry M. Sienkewicz filed the suit on behalf of 140 patients who underwent experimental nuclear medicine treatment that killed at least 10 of them, including Heinrich's husband and Sienkewicz's mother. The treatment was administered at MIT's Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, MGH, and the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

MGH neurosurgeon William Sweet, who still practices medicine and holds an unsalaried position at Brookhaven, is charged along with others at MGH, MIT, and Brookhaven with using patients as guinea pigs for radiation experiments that were known not to work. Sweet conducted some of his work at the MIT reactor.

Patients and families were misled

Heinrich said that she and other patients' relatives were not properly informed and sometimes misled about what was being done to patients. The procedure used to treat patients, called boron neutron capture therapy, involved "excruciating pain" and did not succeed in prolonging the lives of patients, Heinrich said.

The procedure consisted of surgery coupled with injections of a boron drug and exposure to a beam of neutrons intended to kill tumors. The patients treated suffered from highly malignant tumors like glioblastoma and melanoma.

Heinrich said that her husband, who was treated at MIT in 1960, died of necrosis after the tissue in his brain was burnt from the nuclear treatment. The treatment he received was administered irresponsibly, she said.

James White, another neurosurgeon at MGH, warned Sweet that it would be "unbelievable, inconceivable to go to the reactor to treat patients," but Sweet proceeded with the treatment anyway, Heinrich said.

"I hold the government responsible" because the government licenses the nuclear reactors, she said. "But MITwas the recipient of funds from the Department of Energy" to do research at the reactor and also responsible for the experiments, Heinrich said.

MIT is prepared to defend itself

MIT has not yet been served in the suit, said Vice President and Dean for Research J. David Litster PhD '65. The paperwork should arrive within the next few days.

"I haven't seen the lawsuit," he said, but "if the suit accuses MIT of doing something we didn't do, we'll defend ourselves."

The brain tumor therapy tested did not work, but "can you come back 35 years later and sue for it? It remains to be seen if that will stand up in court," Litster said.

The studies done at Brookhaven "were done ethically, in accordance with standards that existed at the time for research involving human subjects,"Brookhaven Public Affairs Representative Kara Villamil said.

Sweet has held unsalaried research collaborator appointments at Brookhaven since 1954, and currently holds such a position in the laboratory's medical department, Villamil said.

Heinrich said that MGH's records on her husband have been available for a number of years but that she did not look them because of the emotional trauma involved.

Last year, Heinrich decided to look into the records. "Reading them proved to be a nightmare," she said. "Dr. Sweet was extremely deceitful," she said.

Heinrich said that Sweet performed other "grisly scientific experiments" on her husband at MGH, one of which caused abscesses to form underneath his eyes. "It is the most grotesque situation," she said.

At her husband's funeral, Heinrich said Sweet asked the family to donate George Heinrich's brain for further research that could provide insight into glioblastoma, the type of cancer George Heinrich suffered from. Evelynn Heinrich said Sweet claimed that her husband's brain could solve the mystery behind the cause of the same cancer that ran in Napoleon's family.

Heinrich said she later found out that Sweet's claim about Napoleon's family was untrue. Sweet is "an absolute madman," she said.

In the past two years, MIT has come under scrutiny for its researchers' roles in various radiation experiments conducted decades ago. Details of many experiments came to light following Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's 1993 declassification of thousands of documents about government-sponsored radiation experiments.

MIT begins new new tests

Last year, work began on testing a new potential brain cancer treatment using boron neutron capture therapy at the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory based on the tests done during the 1950s and 1960s.

The study, which is in its first phase, was mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate that the treatment will not cause harm, Bernard said.

The new tests are completely different from the old ones, Bernard said. "But we've built on what [Sweet] learned," Bernard said.

The standards of safety that Sweet used in his tests were in accordance with regulations at the time, Bernard said. "I don't think the suit is justified," he said. The current testing will not be affected by the suit.

The procedure used in the new tests involve a epithermal beam, a medium-level energy beam that unlike the 1960s low-energy beam, is strong enough to penetrate bone and tissue to kill tumors, eliminating the need for surgery, Bernard said.

The current tests also use a better boron drug that increases the treatment's efficiency, Bernard said. The tests during the 1960s were not as effective.

Testing is being conducted at MIT and at Brookhaven. So far, three people have participated in tests at MIT, and a fourth is slated to start today, Bernard said. All three "are doing fine at the moment, but they're all terminal, and that doesn't change."

Around 10 people have participated at Brookhaven, two of whom have died, although their deaths were unrelated to the test, Villamil said.

Two of the people who have participated in tests at MIT have shown regression of their tumors, but the tests are intended not as therapy but as a way of showing that the treatment is not harmful, Bernard said.