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Research ethics board halts zombie apocalypse ahead of time

While the zombie apocalypse is a fun topic for speculation, comparatively few people actually believe that it could happen. Jokey comments aside, a planned research trial to reanimate “living cadavers” has been halted by the Indian research ethics board, amid a cloud of fatal problems with the study. The series of experiments, called the ReAnima trial, were devised by Himanshu Bansal. The plan was to recruit recently deceased victims of traumatic brain injury, via their families’ consent, and then Hail Mary the subjects with everything that’s ever even been remotely tied to improving outcomes after TBI.

Among the planned treatments were electrical stimulation of the median nerve, injection of unaltered stem cells, and transcranial infrared laser stimulation. Bioquark, a Philadelphia biotech outfit, had agreed to supply the trial with peptides that are supposed to help regenerate brain cells. But the experiments have been halted, with no word given on a way to proceed. Presumably there were staff from the Indian Council for Medical Research running down hallways with clipboards, yelling at scientists, “‘Can’ does not denote ‘should!'”

Last time we talked about this study, I called it equal parts touchingly earnest and slightly creepy. Now that more information on the study has been made public, I’m coming down hard on the creepy side. Informed and consenting subjects were, not surprisingly, difficult to find. The squick factor is one thing, but the possible cost to those who have to take care of the arrangements after death is entirely another, and even these significant concerns pale in light of the gaping holes in the study design. Its lead investigator, too, is treading in murky waters. Bansal’s five published papers appear in the pay-to-publish Journal of Stem Cells, flagged by academics as a predatory journal willing to publish without peer review, for a fee. Worse, four of them appear in the one issue for which Bansal himself was the editor.

Lots of feathers are ruffled over the ethics here, which is a lot of the reason it’s been stopped. Some people are bothered because there aren’t animal models preceding the human study, so Bansal and colleagues wouldn’t really even know what to expect or how to interpret their results; others are bothered because bringing a brain-dead person back to “life” could traumatize family members. But these are ancillary concerns.

Nobody seems even to want to think about the whole premise of the trial, including its lead investigator. What would happen to the subjects if the experiment were to succeed? The experiment’s entire stated goal is to restore a “minimal level of consciousness” to its subjects. What happens if the part of the person that becomes conscious is locked in and unable to communicate, in agony, and then just dies again? What happens if it turns out that the reanimated, minimally conscious cadavers are hungry, amoral, and have great neuronal regeneration, and now you can’t expect headshots to work? Bansal told The Wire that there was no real plan for what to do if the experiment actually succeeded. “We hadn’t thought of that. We had not planned for it,” Bansal said, on the record and apparently unaware of his own cavalier attitude. But he did, after the Wire interview, go on to purchase an insurance policy toward any long-term care the subjects might require.

Probably the only ethically solid way to conduct this trial would be to get prenegotiated, carefully witnessed, informed consent before death — not just from the principal subject, but also from their family members. People can sign up to be organ donors when they die, or put in their will that they want to donate their bodies to research. Consenting adults of sound mind should be able to decide, for example, “I’m a skydiver and if on some tragic day my chute doesn’t open, I’d like to donate my brain to science so we can figure out how to fix brain trauma.”

In the end, there was just too much careless- or shady-looking stuff going on for authorities to give these researchers unfettered access to humans, even human remains, for experimentation. Back to the whiteboard. This is an ex-study.

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