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Rochester Death Halts MIT-Funded Study

By Dan McGuire
Associate News Editor

A University of Rochester research project funded by an MIT grant has been suspended following the death of a student participant in the study.

The student's family plans to file a $100 million lawsuit, according to Reuters. MIT has not been named as a defendant.

Rochester sophomore Hoiyan (Nicole) Wan, 19, died on the morning of March 31 apparently due to a fatal dose of the anesthetic lidocane.

The drug was being administered as part of testing for a pollution research project. Wan had been taken to the emergency room at Rochester University's Strong Memorial Hospital on March 29 after suffering cardiac arrest.

"This is a tragic loss. I am devastated by the news," said the study's principal investigator, MITProfessor William G. Thilly, director for the Center for Environmental Health Sciences. "I want to express my profound condolences to the family of Ms. Wan," he said. Thilly also serves on the MITCommittee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects.

The Wan family lawyer, Salvatore Aspromonte, said that the family was going to sue the doctors and the hospital. "Anyone else beyond that is just speculation," he said. He was unaware that MIT was involved in the research.

Lung tests cited in death

Wan was one of 200 participants involved in the Rochester branch of the research study, which was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The project is researching how environmental air quality affects lung cancer.

MIT "did a lot of the research and analysis" with the grant money, said Robert Loeb, public information director of the University of Rochester Medical Center. MIT "turned to [the University of Rochester] and several other universities to do the clinical work," he said.

Researchers at Rochester paid participants $150 for submitting themselves to a bronchoscopy, a procedure that involves the insertion of a flexible tube to gather lung cells. Lidocane is administered to keep the subjects from gagging. "Bronchosopy is a well-used, well-established procedure conducted virtually daily," Loeb said.

But the level of the drug Wan received was "obviously too much," said Rochester Senior Vice President Jay Stein, according to The Boston Globe. Information released Wednesday showed that 9 milligrams per milliliter of lidocane had been present in Wan's blood; the typical level administered during such procedures is usually under 5 milligrams per milliliter.

This and other research involving bronchosopy have been suspended at Rochester, Loeb said. "This death completely blindsided us; it was so unusual, isolated and totally unexpected," he added.

"The medical school is reviewing all procedures bearing on protocols involving human subjects - even though such protocols have all received prior internal and governmental approval," said Rochester President Thomas H. Jackson.

Family threatens suit

While officials at the Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office said that it would be "some time" before the results of the autopsy on Wan was complete, lawyers for Wan's family said that a preliminary report indicated that Rochester officials should have known that the doctor preforming the bronchoscopy was not experienced.

"There was definitely a trauma to Nicole's lung [and] there was bleeding so that we know during the procedure she not only coughed but was coughing blood," Aspromonte said.

Aspromonte said that Wan's father was unaware of his daughter's participation in the project. "He's extremely upset over the fact that this could have been done without his knowledge [although] legally there was no prohibition over using her," Aspromonte said.

Aspromonte said that Wan's family was lobbying for legislation that would require researchers to get parental permission before using people under the age of 21 in experiments.

Wan graduated Brooklyn Tech nical High School with honors and wanted to become a doctor. Her funeral will be held this afternoon.