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Radiation Lawsuits Against MIT Loom

By Dudley W. Lamming
Staff Reporter

Two lawsuits filed last year against the Institute regarding tests on radiation exposure are slowly moving forward.

One of them involved an experimental medical treatment for cancer tested in the 1950s that went awry. In the other case, MIT and Harvard researchers, backed by government sponsorship, fed radioactive tracers to mentally retarded children at the Fernald School without receiving consent from their parents.

Jurisdiction for the cancer case is still being decided because the experiments were performed in both New York and Massachusetts.

The suit for the case was filed last year by Evelyn Heinrich and Henry M.Sienkewicz, two relatives of deceased patients, who claimed that they had not been informed of the treatment process, which involved techniques that entailed "excruciating pain."

The cancer treatments took place during the 1950s when William Sweet, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, decided to begin testing a new technique.

For the treatment, patients were given a drug that contained an isotope of the element boron. Theoretically, only cancerous cells would incorporate the drug and then a stream of neutrons would induce the boron atoms to release energy, thereby killing those cells, thus killing tumors easily and efficiently.

Sweet performed his initial work at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. When the MIT reactor came online in 1958, Sweet began working at MIT as well.

Of the 140 or so cancer patients treated with the radiation experiments, none were aided by the procedure and at least 10 people died because of it, said Vice President and Dean for Research J. David Litster PhD '65.

A new set of experiments using boron neutron capture therapy began last year, and a clinical trial is expected to begin this week. The experiment is using a new drug, which is expected to work more effectively.

Researchers "are proceeding cautiously. We don't want a new lawsuit," said Litster. The work, proceeding at MIT and at Brookhaven, is being performed on patients with malignant melanoma, a life-threatening form of cancer.

Children exposed to radiation

A class-action lawsuit was filed last fall against the Institute by former Fernald School member Ronald Beaulieu, who claimed that the radiation tests performed on him and other children at the school without their parents' consent constituted a violation of their rights.

From 1946 to 1957, radioactive tracing experiments were performed by MIT researchers on children at the Fernald School, an institute operated by the state of Massachusetts for mentally retarded children, although not all of the test subjects were retarded.

Researchers fed the children radioactive iron, calcium, and iodine in their cereal without consent from the children or their parents.

The purpose of the experiments was to study the uptake of iron and calcium for nutritional information, and radioactive iodine was used as a tracer to study the function of the thyroid.

Quaker Oats co-funded the iron experiment, which studied the uptake of iron from cereals.

The highest exposure for any subject was 330 millirems, less than the yearly background radiation in Denver. The doses were all below the standards of the time, as well as today's more stringent standards, Litster said.

In the lawsuit, Beaulieu claims that he has suffered from sleeplessness, upset stomach, and fear of illness since he found out about the radiation tests.

The lawsuit may be settled out of court, Litster said. "Nothing has been done in the way of government compensation," which is still pending in Congress, Litster said.

Although the research itself was probably harmless, "these people obviously deserve compensation. Feeding radioactive substances without consent is just not right," Litster said.

"Of course, we have an election going on, so nothing is going to be done by the government for a while," he said.