* Research may have violated human rights
* National Institute on Drug Abuse involved
NEW YORK, Aug 2 (Reuters) - A medical study published in the
weekly journal Science and partially funded by the U.S.
government was conducted at detention centers in China that
engage in severe violations of human rights, according to a
letter published by the journal Thursday.
The study, in Science's April 13 issue, tested an
experimental treatment for addiction on 66 former heroin users
confined at two facilities in Beijing.
Joseph Amon, director of the health and human rights
division at Human Rights Watch, charged in the letter that in
both places addicts are "detained without due process" and, he
told Reuters, "held in a closed institution where monitoring of
human rights abuses is not allowed." It is not clear from the
study whether the addicts "were voluntary patients" at the
facilities or forcibly held, Amon said in his letter.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed detainees recently
released from the centers as well as a former guard and Chinese
government officials who have been inside others.
Under American law, federally funded research on inmates
must be approved by a panel that includes at least one prisoner
who volunteers to serve, said bioethicist Karen Maschke of The
Hastings Center, a think tank in Garrison, New York, who is not
involved in the controversy.
The authors of the study include 11 scientists at Peking
University, led by Yan-Xue Xue, and two at the National
Institute on Drug Abuse (part of the U.S. National Institutes of
Health). NIDA provided financial support for the paper in the
form of salaries to co-authors David Epstein and Yavin Shaham,
who advised on the experiment's design, among other
contributions. NIDA declined to make them available to speak
about the study.
In a reply to Amon, also published in Science on Thursday,
eight of the Peking scientists said they "saw no indication of
the abuses" he described, which would violate Chinese law.
Beijing's drug treatment centers "provide comprehensive
care," they wrote, including methadone for heroin addicts,
"psychological counseling" and "regular medical treatment."
The two NIDA researchers did not sign the response, nor did
three of the Peking University scientists. Lead authors Ping Wu
and Lin Lu told Reuters by email, "All authors are fine with the
letter but only authors on human experiments were on the letter;
the other authors only did rats experiments."
"The NIDA investigators did not sign the letter because they
were not engaged in the human studies," NIDA said in a statement
The institute did not respond to a question about the
discrepancy between that assertion and a written statement in
April, obtained by Reuters, saying its scientists were "involved
in the data analyses and the preparation of the manuscript."
Drug detention centers in Beijing have been the subject of
reports by Chinese and Western news organizations, human rights
groups, scientists, and the United Nations. A 2010 article in
China Daily said drug users at Ankang Hospital, one of the
facilities where addicts were studied by Xue and colleagues, are
typically confined involuntarily for two years. Therapies
include boxing, playing in sand, and crossing rope bridges, none
of which have been shown to be effective against addiction.
Ankang is staffed by 20 psychologists and 30 policemen, China
Daily reported, and houses hundreds of detainees, according to
Human Rights Watch.
A 2010 investigation by the New York Times found that drug
users are confined to the facilities by police without trials or
the possibility of appeal and endure "an unremitting gantlet of
physical abuse and forced labor without any drug treatment."
In what it called a "landmark" statement, the UN in March
called on member countries to close compulsory drug detention
Amon brought Human Rights Watch's concerns to NIDA in April,
asking it to "conduct an independent investigation of the
research and denounce the arbitrary detention of the roughly
200,000 people currently in compulsory drug detention centers in
China." The figure is based on HRW's research.
NIDA has not responded to that request, though it told
Reuters it is not currently funding research in drug detention
centers in Asia.
The institute and its scientists "seem to have dismissed
their own ethical obligation as both funders and authors," said
Amon, who is also an associate in the department of epidemiology
at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins
University and a lecturer in public and international affairs at
In the study, the Beijing scientists tested a technique
called "memory retrieval-extinction" to prevent drug cravings in
heroin users. Other research had shown that presenting addicts
with a reminder of their addiction, such as the sight of a crack
pipe, without letting them experience the drug's effects can
make the cue less likely to trigger craving. But that effect
fades within weeks or even days.
The study concluded that the technique works longer, up to
six months, if the addict's memories of the drug are first
triggered ("retrieved," via a five-minute video about the drug)
before the link between the reminder and the drug is
The scientists concluded that memory retrieval-extinction
offers "a promising nonpharmacological method" for fighting
As concerns about research ethics have grown in recent
years, top journals have retracted studies that did not adhere
to standards protective of human subjects.
Studies published by Science must have approval from an
ethics board; the Chinese scientists say their study had such
approval from Peking University.
"The journal is not an investigative body," a spokeswoman
for Science told Reuters. "On the basis of the authors' response
as well as (the editors') own internal review, which included a
science ethicist, the concerns about human rights seem to have
been addressed, and the paper remains in good standing at this
(Edited by Michele Gershberg and Prudence Crowther)