Vast clinical trial undertaken on psychiatric patients in Switzerland 

The drug tests on patients carried out by Swiss psychiatrist Roland Kuhn at the Münsterlingen clinic were of a greater magnitude than initially assumed. © Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

Between 1946 and 1980, at least 3,000 people served as "guinea pigs" at the Münsterlingen Psychiatric Clinic in northeast Switzerland, according to a report published on Monday. The authorities in the canton of Thurgau apologised to the victims of these drug tests. 

This content was published on September 24, 2019 - 11:36

The 300-page study highlights the key role played by doctor and clinic director Roland Kuhn (1912-2005). Kuhn was involved in the development of the first tricyclic antidepressant, Tofranil. At least 67 different substances on groups of different sizes, sometimes reaching up to 1,000 people, were tested. Some 25,000 tablets of an antidepressant never before marketed have been found in metal cans. 

From the mid-1960s onwards, Kuhn’s methods no longer met scientific standards but the authorities and the pharmaceutical industry allowed and even financed his research, according to Jakob Stark, the president of the Thurgau State Council. Patients rarely volunteered for these experiments and they were also rarely informed about the drugs they received.  

Controls, the study found, were insufficient. There have been medical complications and even deaths associated with the clinical trials, although there is some uncertainty regarding the exact causes of death.  

In addition to the clinic and the pharmaceutical companies, a vast network of institutions and people were involved in the trials: patients' caretakers, private doctors, other clinics, authorities. The pharmaceutical industry paid Kuhn millions of francs to carry out these tests.  

The Thurgau authorities found the extent of the experiments undertaken particularly disturbing. They are troubled by the fact that concoctions were administered to patients who did not belong to the test groups.  Another source of concern is the administration of the trial on highly vulnerable individuals such as children, adolescents or people with serious or chronic diseases. 

Novartis Archives 

The report was carried out at the request of the canton by an independent and interdisciplinary research team under the direction of Marietta Meier, a professor at the University of Zurich. It took three and a half years to complete and cost about CHF1 million ($1 million). The authors relied on the archives of the Münsterlingen Clinic (TG), the estate of Roland and Verena Kuhn-Gebhart, as well as the archives of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis. 

Drugs have been tested on patients in psychiatric institutions in several Swiss cantons in the past, particularly in Basel and Lucerne. Historical work is underway. In the canton of Vaud, last year the parliament voted against commissioning a report on possible tests of unauthorised medicines between 1940 and 1980. 

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