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Commentary |

Biomedical Research Involving Prisoners:  Ethical Values and Legal Regulation

Lawrence O. Gostin, JD
JAMA. 2007;297(7):737-740. doi:10.1001/jama.297.7.737.
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Until the early 1970s, R. J. Reynolds, Dow Chemical, the US Army, major pharmaceutical companies, and other sponsors conducted a wide variety of research on prisoners—a captive, vulnerable, and easily accessible population.1,2 During that time, approximately 90% of all pharmaceutical research was conducted on prisoners, who also were subjected to biochemical research ranging from testing diet drinks and simple detergents to studies involving dioxin and chemical warfare agents.3 From 1962 to 1966, for example, 33 pharmaceutical companies tested 153 experimental drugs at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, including a Retin-A (tretinoin) study in which researchers did not seek informed consent and prisoners were not adequately treated for pain.4 By the mid-1970s, biomedical research in prisons sharply declined as knowledge of the exploitation of prisoners began to emerge and the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was formed.5

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