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Hospital Accused of Violating Consent Rules

Health: Audit cites procedural failures in experimental treatments. Director says system is under review.


ORANGE — A federal audit conducted in March found eight cases in which a research team at Children's Hospital of Orange County failed to follow procedure in obtaining consent from patients or their families for experimental treatments, according to a report obtained by The Times.

In two of the cases, characterized by experts as the most serious, treatment started before consent forms were signed, and in one of those consent was obtained over the phone rather than in person.

In a third case, the audit found, the person involved appeared "incompetent to sign informed consent."

The audit of 62 patients' records was conducted by a multi-agency team that included the Children's Cancer Group, the National Cancer Institute and the Office of Research Integrity, which fall under the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Investigators reviewed government-supported medical research that was supervised by Dr. Mitchell Cairo, the oncologist known for attempting an experimental transplant last year to save the daughter of baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew. And the final report on their findings, completed in late April, resulted in Cairo being suspended for six months as the hospital's head investigator for the Children's Cancer Group, a national research collaborative.

The audit report indicates that investigators found what they considered "only a few deficiencies" in the area of informed consent, but it noted that investigators had not focused on that area.

Children's Hospital Medical Director Robert L. Manniello said he could not comment on specific cases reviewed by the audit. However, he said a special committee of the hospital's Institutional Review Board is reviewing the entire consent process in an effort to improve it.

The committee is looking at all research performed at Children's Hospital, not just those studies conducted as part of the Children's Cancer Group, Manniello said. He would not comment on whether problems have been identified that go beyond the scope of the audit.

"The [board] is actively looking at the issues brought forth by the . . . special audit," Manniello said. "They are looking at each individual record and looking at our entire process of informed consent, not only for [Children's Cancer Group] studies but for all research carried out at the institution."

Children's Hospital treats many of Orange County's sickest children, including those with terminal illnesses for whom experimental treatment might be the only hope.

Cairo characterized the problems as "minor consent issues that come up in normal audits."

In an interview Wednesday, he said the audit team did not believe that those issues needed further evaluation.

"We take very seriously providing informed consent to any patient going on a clinical research trial," Cairo said.

The Times previously reported that a summary of the audit also cited cases in which ineligible patients received experimental treatments and cases in which researchers failed to follow procedure in ending such treatments.

Cairo has characterized those findings as "not serious because they do not fall under anything that would be considered misconduct in research." Allegations of research misconduct had prompted the audit but proved unfounded, according to the report.

In a written appeal of his suspension, Cairo said that the two cases involving ineligible patients occurred before he became the hospital's top investigator for the research cooperative. He said that in most of the other cases, contrary to the audit's findings, patients were taken off treatment within the group's guidelines or standard treatment guidelines. He said most of them were removed because of their disease status, reactions to toxic therapy or consultations with other medical experts.

Regarding the audit's findings of problems with informed consent, the report obtained by The Times instructed the hospital to deal with findings through its Institutional Review Board, which under federal law is charged with protecting human subjects in research.

Bioethicists say that even a few deficiencies unearthed in a limited review of patient cases at the hospital, such as this one, could signal problems in that area.

Christopher Hook, a hematologist/oncologist and medical ethics expert at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., called starting treatment before consent is obtained "a significant violation, not only of the doctrine of informed consent, but also of the federal regulations."

"By all of the federal regulations and just by the basic principles of informed consent, that would be a violation of those principles," said Hook, who also stressed that he could not address the specifics of the Children's Hospital cases.

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