The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declined to take further action against a group of investigators at Hennepin County Medical Center/Hennepin Healthcare (HCMC), who conducted controversial studies involving ketamine and other sedatives in agitated persons without their consent.
A citizen petition filed by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, had asked the FDA to initiate clinical-investigator disqualification proceedings against Jon Cole, MD, and Lauren Klein, MD, along with other researchers who participated in the studies, for “repeatedly and deliberately initiating and conducting clinical investigations of investigational drug products” without having submitted or having in effect the investigational new drug applications (INDs) required by the FDA.
In certain situations, wherein the FDA alleges that a clinical investigator has violated applicable regulations, the agency may initiate clinical investigator disqualification proceedings. The names of the disqualified researchers are then added to a federal database.
The petition, which was filed in November 2021, also requested that the FDA initiate disqualification proceedings against the institutional review board (IRB) at HCMC for repeatedly failing to comply with federal regulations that adversely affected the rights and welfare of the individuals who were enrolled in the study without their consent.
Of note, Public Citizen stated that the FDA should have required the hospital to contact the more than 1700 patients who “were unwittingly enrolled in unethical experiments” and inform them that their rights had been violated and that their health potentially endangered by the research team.
Michael A. Carome, MD, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, told Medscape Medical News that it is uncommon for the FDA to disqualify researchers. “It should be more common than it is,” he said. “I think that FDA is just reluctant to take more action.”
The actions of the Hennepin investigators were “repetitive and appeared to be in deliberate violation of regulations,” he added. “”The case for the FDA disqualifying the HCMC researchers is overwhelming. The FDA’s slap-on-the-wrist approach to such appalling regulatory and ethical violations risks emboldening other researchers to disregard the rights and welfare of human subjects.”
Carl Elliott, MD, PhD, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, agrees that the researcher from HCMC should be disqualified. “They didn’t just conduct risky, exploitative studies — they conducted them after the FDA had warned them not to proceed,” he said. “The message sent by this slap on the wrist is that investigators can do whatever they want to nonconsenting subjects and the FDA will look the other way.”
Public Citizen initially filed a complaint with the FDA in 2018, after learning that researchers affiliated with HCMC were conducting high-risk clinical trials involving ketamine to control agitation outside of the hospital setting. The complaint was cosigned by 64 doctors, bioethicists, and academic researchers and was also submitted to the Office for Human Research Protections.
The FDA typically allows investigational drugs to be used in emergency situation without obtaining informed consent if the therapies are known to carry a minimal risk. The IRB at HCMC had determined that this was the case with ketamine and approved the trials.
But according to Public Citizen’s complaint, prior research had suggested that ketamine could cause more complications and severe adverse events as compared with other sedatives.
The trials were conducted between 2014 and 2018, and in its letter, Public Citizen alleged that the investigators and the IRB had allowed these trials to proceed without obtaining informed consent from patients. The goal was to evaluate how well ketamine worked compared with other drugs in calming agitated individuals: “The patients were given either ketamine or haloperidol for agitation by paramedics who responded to medical emergencies, and the goal was to see which drug worked faster,” said Carome. “Patients were only notified afterwards that they had received a sedative. Informed consent had been waived by IRB.”
In the first clinical trial conducted by HCMC, published in 2016, the researchers had hypothesized that 5 mg/kg of intramuscular ketamine would be superior to 10 mg of intramuscular haloperidol for severe prehospital agitation. Time to adequate sedation was the primary outcome measure. The study included 146 people; 64 received ketamine and 82 received haloperidol. They found that ketamine worked far more quickly than haloperidol (5 minutes vs 17 minutes) but that the risk for complications was much higher. Complications occurred in 49% of patients receiving ketamine compared with 5%.
“There was a 10-fold risk of adverse events,” said Carome. “And 39% of patients given ketamine had respiratory problems requiring intubation, compared to 4% who received haloperidol.”
A second study was launched in 2017, wherein ketamine was compared with midazolam in agitated patients. During the first 6-month period of the study, individuals would receive a ketamine-based protocol for prehospital agitation, and during the second 6 months, that would switch to midazolam. However, the study was halted in June 2018 after the local newspaper, the Star Tribune, reported that the city police had encouraged medical personnel to sedate agitated patients. This included individuals who had already been physically restrained.
The report stated that “in many cases, the individual being detained or arrested was not only handcuffed but strapped down on a stretcher in an ambulance before receiving ketamine,” and that it raised a “concerning question” over why these people were given the drug before they were transported to the hospital, “given the immediate effects on breathing and heart function that the drug induces.”
Along with halting the trial, HCMC asked for a review of cases involving its paramedics; an independent investigation led by former US Deputy Attorney General ally Yates was initiated to assess whether the Minneapolis police had crossed a line and urged paramedics to use ketamine.
“The decision to use ketamine was based on the study’s timeline and not on clinical judgement,” said Carome.
The FDA acknowledged receipt of the complaint and inspected the IRB records and the clinical trial data. Preliminary reports received by Public Citizen confirmed their allegations. “There were not appropriate protections for vulnerable subjects,” he said. “In 2019 the FDA did further investigations and those reports had similar findings.”
The FDA had sent warning letters to Cole and Klein, citing them for ignoring federal safety laws in experimental research on the public. In their investigations, the FDA cited “objectionable conditions” for the studies led by Cole and Klein, according to the letters. Both researchers seemingly ignored FDA regulations and used practices that subjected patients to “significantly increased risk,” and the hospital defended its research with “factually incorrect” statements.
In a letter to Cole, the FDA noted that he never filed INDs for the trials with the FDA, as required by law, and that he also failed to write appropriate protocols to ensure that children and pregnant women were not enrolled in the research. Individuals under the influence of intoxicants also were not excluded, as the use of ketamine is cautioned in this population.
“Administration of the investigational drugs to these subjects placed them at significantly increased risk of the adverse events associated with the investigational products and decreased the acceptability of those risks,” the FDA said in its letter. “Your failure to exclude, and the lack of any precautions for, subjects under the influence of various intoxicants significantly increased the risks and/or decreased the acceptability of the risks associated with the investigational drugs.”
However, Cole conducted both studies in the prehospital setting and failed to initiate any specific measures to protect study participants, according to the FDA.
Carome noted that the researchers had committed repetitive egregious regulatory violations over a 4-year period, which were documented by the FDA in their warning letters to Cole and Klein. “We felt that they were so egregious that we need to send a signal to the community that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated,” he said. “The FDA denied out petition, and we think that sends the wrong signal to the research community.”
In their response, the FDA noted that as with judicial enforcement, “the Agency makes decisions regarding whether to pursue administrative enforcement action, including disqualification proceedings, on a case-by-case basis, considering all relevant facts and circumstances.” They added that at this time, they would not be taking further action against Cole and Klein.
“However, we intend to continue to consider all the options available to the Agency as we determine whether to pursue additional compliance actions related to this matter,” the FDA concluded.
The FDA declined to comment further on their decision.
Cole also declined to comment, but Hennepin Healthcare told Medscape Medical News that the “decision by the FDA to deny the petition validates the changes we made to strengthen and improve the clinical research program across the institution since the closing of the studies in 2018. We look forward to continuing to work with the FDA to ensure full compliance with the standards in place to protect research subjects.”
Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN, is a freelance writer based out of Seattle.