Chinese Addiction Study, Human Rights, and the U.S.

Science published a report in April describing a new procedure that could prevent cravings and relapses in drug addicts. The study was conducted in China on human test subjects at Beijing Ankang Hospital and the Tian Tang He Drug Rehabilitation Center. Last week, Science published a letter from Dr. Joseph J. Amon, health director at Human Rights Watch, expressing serious concerns about human rights violations that may have occurred during the research for this study:

In the Report “A memory retrieval-extinction procedure to prevent drug craving and relapse” (13 April, p. 241), Y.-X. Xueet al. describe experiments conducted on rats and drug users in Beijing, China. Although the authors state that the study participants gave written informed consent and that the research was approved by the Human Investigation Committee of the Peking University Health Center, substantial questions about ethical protections remain.

The authors do not mention that the Beijing Ankang Hospital and Tian-Tang-He Drug Rehabilitation Center, where their study participants reside, are compulsory treatment centers run by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau and the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice (respectively), historically housing people detained without due process. Over the past few years, Chinese compulsory treatment centers have also begun accepting voluntary patients. The specific dates on which the research was conducted and whether the study participants in Xue et al.‘s paper were voluntary patients or held under administrative detention are not clear from the Report, nor is the standard of drug dependency treatment provided in either center.

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Dr. Amon’s letter also mentioned that two researchers from the U.S. government-funded National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) co-authored the study, internationalizing the ethical questions surrounding Chinese rehabilitation facilities. This fact is further explored by a recent article in The Atlantic:

But the Chinese can’t take all the blame: It turns out that U.S. taxpayers were also inadvertently supporting this work. Two of the co-authors on the original paper were scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is congressionally funded. In response to voicemails left at the offices of all five of NIDA’s media relations’ spokesmen, I received the following two-sentence email: “Good afternoon. In response to your voicemail, the study you referred to was not funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the whole truth. In a statement released to the Associated Press on April 22, NIDA explained that its scientists “advised on the experimental design of the preclinical studies, and were involved in the data analyses and in the preparation of the manuscript.” While NIDA didn’t provide direct funding for the study, they did contribute financial support for the paper by paying the salaries of David Epstein and Yavin Shaham, who provided technical assistance and whose names are on the published paper. NIDA’s claim that their only support was technical, though, would be in violation ofScience magazine’s guidelines — which state that all co-authors are responsible for the sum total of any article published in its pages — their own code of conduct, and standard scientific protocol. By allowing their names to be published on the study, NIDA’s scientists took responsibility for the entire contents of the article, including the ethics of the research.

Sadly, this is not the first such study supported by NIDA in Southeastern Asia with questionable rights abuses; it appears to be an ongoing, and under-reported problem. In 2011, Human Rights Watch reportedthat compulsory detention centers in Vietnam, where other NIDA studies were conducted, were engaged in similar kinds of arbitrary detention and forced labor.

Reuters has more on China’s drug rehabilitation centers, possible ethics violations within, U.S. involvement in the recent study, and a summary of the overall findings of the report:

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 “extinguished.”

The scientists concluded that memory retrieval-extinction offers “a promising nonpharmacological method” for fighting addiction.