Dachau Redux: German researchers violate Nuremberg Code in new high altitude human experiment

You would think that 70 years after the high altitude experiments at Dachau, that researchers (especially German ones) would be more aware of the ethics of human research. And what about the Journal of American Medical Association publishing this ethical abomination?

In a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, German researchers report exposing human study subjects to high altitude (almost 15,000 feet) to see that would happen to them. Saving that these subjects were volunteers, the Nazi’s did similar work at Dachau.

The new research violates the Nuremberg Code at least as follows:

  • The experiment was very dangerous and could have resulted in cerebral or pulmonary edema (i.e., see first sentence in media release below). Harm, albeit reversible, was in fact experienced by the study subjects.
  • The experiment is not of any scientific value as it involved only 14 human guinea pigs.
  • The experiment was non-therapeutic in nature and offered no medical benefit to the study subjects.
  • The potential results (apparently limited to satisfying morbid scientific curiosity) did not justify the risks.

The researchers claimed to have obtained informed consent from the study subjects. But even if the subjects did sign a consent form, it would be interesting to see what the consent form disclosed.

The media release is below.

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Research finds retinal vessel leakage during high altitude exposure

“Exposure to high altitude can cause acute mountain sickness (AMS) and, in severe cases, cerebral or pulmonary edema. Capillary leakage has been hypothesized to play a role in the pathogenesis of AMS, although the mechanism of altitude-related illnesses remains largely unknown,” writes Gabriel Willmann, M.D., of the University of Tubingen, Germany, and colleagues. “Vessel leakage in the retinal periphery has not been investigated. Our objective was to assess retinal vessel integrity at high altitude using fluorescein angiography.”

As reported in a Researcher Letter, the study included 14 healthy, unacclimatized volunteers (7 male and 7 female participants, average age, 35 years) who were studied at baseline (1,119 feet), after ascent to 14,957 feet within 24 hours, and more than 14 days after return by fluorescein angiography. Photographs were independently graded in random order by 4 ophthalmologists for presence and location of leakage.

Retinal abnormalities were not noted at baseline in any of the participants. At high altitude, marked bilateral leakage of peripheral retinal vessels was observed in 7 of 14 participants (50 percent). All findings completely reversed after descent. “Retinal capillary leakage should be considered a part of the spectrum of high-altitude retinopathy,” the authors write.

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3 responses to “Dachau Redux: German researchers violate Nuremberg Code in new high altitude human experiment

  1. Westchester Bill

    I am at a loss at to the logic of the experiment. The retina is completely covered by a fluid. Unless outside pressure is low enough to literally pull out an eyeball, how can outside pressure affect the fluid pressure against the retina?

  2. I was exposed to air pressure equivalent to 18,000 feet altitude in an altitude chamber during pilot training. The purpose was to familiarize cadets with the symptoms of altitude sickness (anoxia) so that proper measures could be taken during an inadvertent exposure. Since then my most extreme case has been a couple hours spent atop Pike’s Peak in Colorado – 14,115 feet.

  3. IF the study subjects were going up anyway (i.e. were on some sort of Mountain Adventure and the Doctors just asked to study the situation they were going into), that might not be unethical. IF, however, the sole purpose of the exposure was to “see what happens…” then we are seeing a violation of the ethics rules.

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