Human Experimentation: Pa. Inmate Recounts ‘Guinea Pig’ Tests/Fat-Melting Injections

Pa. Inmate Recounts 'Guinea Pig' Tests
December 3, 2007

PHILADELPHIA – As an inmate test subject for medical experiments being conducted at Holmesburg State Prison, Edward "Butch" Anthony says he had mysterious substances dabbed on his skin and injected in his veins.

Then came faintness, painful rashes, hands ballooning to the size of boxing gloves, nails so thick and rough they required a wood file, pus-filled blisters that left him in agony.

But it wasn't until he was handed a little cup of clear liquid to drink that things got so strange, he says, the inmates gave him a new name: Outer Limits.

"I was paranoid, I thought everybody was plotting and whispering about me," he said in an interview. "I laid in my cell and hallucinated, I don't know if it was days or weeks. I thought I went to hell."

Anthony's recollections as a paid test subject during the mid-1960s -- and of struggling with the physical and psychological troubles that followed -- are the subjects of "Sentenced to Science," a book just released by Penn State Press.

"For 25 years, Holmesburg was a department store of human experimentation for private- or public-sector entities who wanted something tested," said "Sentenced to Science" author Allen Hornblum, a Temple University professor who first wrote more broadly about the Holmesburg tests in his 1998 book "Acres of Skin."

Medical testing at Holmesburg took place from 1951 until 1974, when it was banned by the city of Philadelphia. Congressional hearings were under way into allegedly coerced medical experimentation, including Tuskegee University tests that infected black men with syphilis.

In the late 1970s, a federal medical research panel took an official stand against virtually all medical tests on inmates except for those found to pose only "minimal" risk, concluding that prisoners are incontestably subordinates so they cannot give informed consent. By the early 1980s, prison testing largely was history.

Inmates doing experiments could make hundreds of dollars a month, lucrative compared with regular prison jobs paying 25 cents a day and essential money that provided a level of protection from sexual predators on the cellblock.

"I signed myself away as a guinea pig, a lab rat," Anthony said. "But they told us the tests were safe, we didn't have nothing to worry about. They paid good money, but we wouldn't have done them if we were told they were dangerous."

Anthony, now 64, was among dozens of former Holmesburg inmates who contacted Hornblum after his 1998 book was released.

In 2002, Anthony testified under oath to a city council committee about the experiments, and was one of nearly 300 former Holmesburg inmates who failed in a bid to sue the city, the University of Pennsylvania and a doctor involved in the experiments. Courts ruled that the statute of limitations had expired.

His account and others' are supported by multiple federal investigations in the 1970s and records from Penn and elsewhere acquired by Hornblum through the Freedom of Information Act.

"Eddie was particularly good at the way he presented the story of what happened to him," said Hornblum, who now brings Anthony to speak to his urban studies classes. "My students' jaws would just drop."

A 2006 report by the Institute of Medicine branch of the National Academy of Sciences said that allowing the resumption of some riskier biomedical experiments in prisons could benefit inmates and society, if done under stringent standards.

The report calls for an independent oversight panel; says test subjects should get no payment or special treatment; advises barring cosmetic toxicity tests; and specifies that trials should be in the final U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval phase.

State and local entities could implement their own prison testing bans if the report's recommendations ever got approved, but Hornblum is skeptical.

"The history of this practice is that local governments tend to be less sophisticated and end up allowing such ventures because of outright payments or quid pro quo relationships," Hornblum said.

The report's recommendations are undergoing a complex multi-agency review and it's unclear when any regulatory changes might occur, said Ivor Pritchard of the Office for Human Research Protections, the Health and Human Services Department committee that requested the study.

In "Sentenced to Science," Anthony's chilling story begins with when he first entered his Holmesburg cellblock.

"I got there and all these guys were walking around with patches all over their heads, their bodies," he said. "I didn't know yet about the tests. I thought, 'My God, they must be killing each other."'

Within a week, Anthony himself became a test subject. He said patches of skin on his back were abraded and what he was told was baby shampoo was dabbed on; the substance caused such painful blisters that he was quickly taken off the test. He was paid $37.

It was the first of five tests Anthony said he underwent during his time at "the Burg" from 1964 to 1966 on drug charges.

For decades, the University of Pennsylvania and dermatologists led by Dr. Albert M. Kligman, who is credited with developing the acne and wrinkle treatment Retin A, performed experiments on inmates for pharmaceutical and chemical companies, cosmetics firms and the military.

Tests ranged from relatively innocuous (perfume, eye wash, hair dye, baby shampoo) to nightmarish (dioxin, hallucinogens, chemical warfare agents, radioactive isotopes).

Kligman, 91, emeritus professor of dermatology at Penn, "is retired and no longer gives interviews," the university said. He has staunchly defended his experiments at Holmesburg and maintained that they should not have been halted.

Penn bioethics professor Art Caplan disagrees.

"What took place in Holmesburg would not take place today," he said. "We've all come a long way from saying we should experiment on marginal people with or without their consent."

But research entities like universities and the military are loath to acknowledge wrongdoing for many reasons, including fear of lawsuits, a desire to not revisit a shameful past and a "circle-the-wagons culture" among doctors, he said.

"Should we all apologize for the abuses? Yes, we should," he said.

But Caplan said more would be accomplished by expanding bioethics programs in medical schools.

New York dermatologist A. Bernard Ackerman conducted tests in 1966 and 1967 under Kligman at Holmesburg as a second-year dermatology resident. Virtually alone in the medical community for his outspoken criticism of Kligman and Penn, Ackerman said incomplete and missing documentation makes it impossible to ascertain today what was tested on whom.

"You ask, 'How could this happen?' The answer is money," he said in an interview.

"The experiments made Kligman and Penn millions and millions from cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies," he said. "It became a business. No regulations can prevent that from happening again."

Anthony, who was in and out of prison from 1964 to 1983 for drug-related crimes, said the Institute of Medicine report's suggestions of external review boards and other safeguards are well-intentioned but won't work behind prison walls.

He was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. He credits his wife and his Muslim faith -- he now uses the name Yusef Anthony -- with turning his life around. But he said his poor health, including unexplained, tormentingly itchy rashes he calls "Holmesburg bumps," never allows him to forget the bad times.

"When people tell me I look good for my age, I say 'Man, that's the cover of the book. If you saw what was going on inside my body you wouldn't say that."'
" ... An investigation by Allure magazine charged that the injections constitute 'human experimentation' ... "

Melting Fat

It sounds too good to be true: a non-surgical cosmetic treatment that can melt away fat. The verdict is still out on whether or not it is. Mesotherapy treatments like LipoDissolve involve the injection of a customized chemical cocktail just under the skin, with the aim of reducing fat by causing the cells to explode and be released through feces and urine. But the treatments are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this use, which also means they aren't standardized.

They were outlawed in Kansas this year, with the exception of clinical trials, though the state then decided to regulate use of the injections instead. They are not allowed in Canada or Brazil. St. Louis-based fat-injection chain Fig recently filed for bankruptcy, but the FDA is studying the treatment's safety and effectiveness, with results expected this year.

An investigation by Allure magazine charged that the injections constitute "human experimentation" and featured interviews from patients who say they experienced serious side effects, such as swelling, numbness and nodule formation, from the treatments. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery has warned against them. But rumors about celebrities slimming down quickly with fat-melting injections will likely keep interest high while the wait for the FDA's results continues.

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