Meds and Eds and Human Testing

Project ACE flyer

A Brown University research flyer (via Brown University’s Center for Alcohol & Addiction Studies)

Pacific Standard Magazine has a fascinating article out about a place decimated by the collapse of the textile industry turning a university-healthcare collaborative to revitalize their region:

Today’s Kannapolis does not offer as many good blue-collar jobs as it used to—unemployment still hovers at 10 percent—but it does provide plenty of opportunities for locals to serve as human research subjects. At any given time, Kannapolites can take part in studies of nutrition, longevity, or cognitive or physical performance; eat a standardized diet; or spend time in a metabolic chamber while their vital signs are monitored—sometimes for $30 to $250 and up.

By far the most ambitious and prominent of these studies was launched in 2007 with a $35 million donation from Murdock himself. Conducted by Duke University’s Translational Medicine Institute at the Kannapolis campus, the MURDOCK Study, as it’s called, aims to collect and bank three tablespoons of blood and urine, family medical histories, and electronic health records from 50,000 locals—or roughly one in three adult residents of the town and a few neighboring zip codes. Using all that biological material and health data, the researchers plan to search for patterns in the interplay between genes, life histories, and chronic disease. The hope is that this will inform the creation of new predictive tests, diagnostics, and even treatments that can be matched to individual genetic profiles—an approach, much vaunted among certain medical futurists, known as personalized medicine.

Now, at the top I’ve placed an image of the ubiquitous ads from Brown’s Center for Alcohol & Addiction Studies (CAAS), which are virtually unavoidable if you ride RIPTA anywhere. I’m not picking on Brown, but the article does start to get into the interesting ethical issues of using DNA obtained from people for medical profit:

There’s something clearly unsettling about the thought of scientists profiting from one woman’s cells without her knowledge—and without her, or her family, sharing in any of those profits. In Kannapolis, the case is far grayer: There, scientists are drawing samples from thousands of people who do sign a consent form, however open-ended. If this case, too, seems morally unsatisfying, it poses a difficult question: What, then, do Kannapolites deserve—in terms of clarity, if not also in terms of recompense?

The CAAS is not doing this, but I think the article itself is illustrative of the trouble with relying on university-medical partnerships to revitalize Providence – the much vaunted “meds and eds” economic strategy which so far has failed to yield results. While those within the university and medical professions reap rewards (some quite massive), those on the fringe of the system may increasingly find ourselves struggling to get by.

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