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MIT Not Liable in ’60s Deaths

Jury Rules MGH, Doctor at Fault in Nuclear Medicine Experiment

By Matthew Palmer

A federal jury found Friday that MIT is not responsible for the deaths of two patients who underwent experimental radiation treatment for cancer in the 1960s.

Massachusetts General Hospital and retired neurosurgeon Dr. William Sweet were held liable, however, and were ordered to pay the victims’ families a total of eight million dollars.

George Heinrich and Eileen Siekewicz underwent experimental boron neutron capture therapy from a nuclear reactor at MIT. The suit alleged that MGH and Sweet were negligent in their attempts to treat brain cancer. The Heinrich family was awarded $2.5 million and the Sienkewicz family $5.5 million.

MIT was named in the suit for providing the use of the reactor facilities, but the doctors were all from MGH.

Questions raised recently

The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, a body of the Department of Energy, mentioned the deaths in its final report in 1994.

According to Anthony Z. Roisman, attorney for the victims’ families, the families did not think that what the doctors had done was harmful prior to the ACHRE report. This is why the suit was not made for 38 years, he said.

MIT spokesman Kenneth D. Campbell said the Institute is “pleased that the jury upheld MIT’s position that it acted appropriately.”

Roisman said he was “sorry that MIT got off the hook.” However, he was pleased with the families’ awards.

Roisman said he hoped that the verdict would send a message that “doctors can’t take terminal patients and do anything.” The jury’s decision could lead to a class-action suit of patients who were also harmed by undergoing experimental treatments in the 1950s and ’60s, he said.

Treatment experimental

MIT attorney Owen Gallagher said the Institute “had the best of intentions. They hoped for a medical breakthrough.”

“There wasn’t a reliable basis for any therapeutic value,” Roisman said of the treatment. “There were several warning signs for problems.”

Gallagher commended MIT’s openness with human experimentation and allowing the use of reactor facilities. He argues with the idea the treatments were done recklessly, he said.

“If it was a success, MIT wouldn’t have gotten the credit, so they shouldn’t get the blame.”

The patients were treated with Boron Neutron Capture Therapy. A beam of neutrons produced by the reactor core was directed toward a patient’s head. The neutrons are absorbed by Boron atoms inside a tumor. The tumor cells are then killed by the alpha particles generated by the neutron-Boron interaction. Unfortunately, the treatment also kills other, healthy brain cells.

MGH and Dr. Sweet are expected to appeal the verdict. Their attorney, Joseph L. Doherty, was unavailable for comment.