From the Guardian (UK), yet another story of the fate that awaits health care whistleblowers in the UK,
Allegations that patients at a Liverpool hospital had parts of their brains removed for medical research during neurosurgery without consenting to the procedure, can be revealed today.
The University of Liverpool is accused of covering up the procedures, alleged to have resulted in at least 12 patients having brain parts removed. Its medical school, which was embroiled in the Alder Hey organ retention scandal, is facing claims that it tried to silence a senior hospital whistleblower who raised the alarm about alleged misconduct by a leading brain surgeon.
Until 2005, the university employed Professor Peter Warnke, who was chair of neurosurgery and operated at the Walton Centre hospital. In 2002, allegations surfaced that Warnke had been taking tissue from the brains of living and dead patients at the Walton Centre without obtaining consent.
Warnke is alleged to have taken samples of brain tissue during surgery, freezing them in liquid nitrogen, marking them with a black dot and sending them to Genpat 77, a private biotechnology company in Germany. The samples were used to test a new treatment for brain diseases involving an antibody called TIRC 7. Warnke was a joint owner of the patent taken out on TIRC 7, along with the founder of Genpat 77. Warnke has always vigorously contested claims of wrongdoing. The Observer has established that, at around the same period, Warnke attempted to obtain tonsils that had been removed from patients at the Aintree Hospital in Liverpool for use in associated research. Elizabeth Preston, the hospital's medical director, said: 'I can confirm that Professor Warnke did ask for tonsils, but a nurse questioned whether he had ethical consent. He was refused and as far as I am aware he never had access to any tissues from Aintree.'
Both the nurse and a surgical colleague of Warnke's raised questions about his conduct with Dr Marco Rossi, who then chaired the regional ethics committee set up to improve research standards after the Alder Hey scandal, where hundreds of children's organs were retained without parents' consent. Rossi, who was a consultant neuropathologist at the Walton Centre, claims that when he began investigating the allegations against Warnke he suffered threats from senior staff at the university's medical school. He claims that the level of intimidation made him ill and he was unable to continue his work.
Rossi is suing the Walton Centre, the University of Liverpool and the strategic regional health authority for breach of contract. He argues that as a senior employee and whistleblower they should have protected him, and claims that senior medical school staff were more concerned in covering up a potential scandal. He alleges that he was subjected to a campaign of bullying and harassment in an attempt to get him to withdraw his accusations. In court, the university has argued that Rossi's allegations about Warnke were irrelevant and should not be heard.
Last week, a judge rejected this and ordered the university to hand over its dossier on the affair, including an internal investigation into Warnke's conduct. The court has heard that Rossi alleges that dozens of ethical consent forms used by Warnke for his research were either incomplete or inaccurate.
Although Rossi left in 2002, no action was taken against Warnke until April 2005, hours after Rossi launched his legal action. Warnke was suspended and later resigned. In November 2006 he was appointed chief of neurosurgery at the Beth Israel hospital in Boston, part of Harvard Medical School.
The British law firm Weightmans, which is acting for Warnke, issued a statement to The Observer rejecting Rossi's claims. It said the allegations against Warnke were 'brought by a disgruntled former employee and a colleague of our client'.
Also see the BBC coverage here.
As in the recent US case which we discussed, note that it was the person who came to the aid of the original whistle-blowers who allegedly found himself in even hotter water than they did.
It seems that many types of health care organizations in many countries lack a mechanism to give whistle-blowers a fair hearing, investigate their complaints, and protect them from the wrath of those they accuse, and from institutional leadership which fears those who would rock the boat, even if it is in an effort to alter course away from the iceberg.