Hopkins reaches settlement with family of lab tech

Medical school pays undisclosed sum in asthma study death

October 12, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Ending a wrenching episode, the Johns Hopkins medical school has reached a financial settlement with the family of a young woman whose death during an experiment prompted a federal shutdown of research at the institution.

Medical school officials and the family of Ellen Roche of Reisterstown would not disclose the amount of money the family will receive as part of the out-of-court settlement.

But the agreement provides enough money to help the family set up a scholarship fund for aspiring scientists like Roche and eliminates the possibility of a lawsuit against the university or Dr. Alkis Togias, who conducted the experiment, said Craig Schoenfeld, attorney for the Roche family.

"When you have the loss of a child, you can never be satisfied with a number, no matter what it is," Schoenfeld said yesterday, noting that the agreement prohibits discussion of the amount of the settlement.

"Nobody would benefit by having this dragged through the courts for years," said Schoenfeld. "The family is confident that what happened to Ellen won't ever be repeated."

Roche, 24, a lab technician at Hopkins' Asthma and Allergy Center, died June 2 after inhaling an experimental chemical during a study of how the lungs of healthy people work differently from those of asthmatics.

Federal investigators found that Togias failed to discover the chemical's documented links to lung disease, did not warn Roche of the risks of the experiment, and failed to tell her or a university review board that an earlier volunteer developed a persistent cough.

The federal Office of Human Research Protection also harshly criticized Hopkins' system for reviewing experiments and suspended most federally funded experiments at Hopkins and several affiliated institutions for four days in July.

The shutdown at the elite school drew national attention and raised questions about whether more federal safeguards are needed to protect research subjects.

Hopkins instituted sweeping reforms, boosting its number of internal review boards and re-reviewing hundreds of experiments to make sure they're safe.

Now, almost three months after the suspension, 25 percent to 50 percent of the studies at Hopkins that do not provide life-sustaining medications for patients are still on hold while scientists resubmit the proposals for additional scrutiny by review boards, university officials said yesterday

"In the aftermath of [Roche's] death, Hopkins pledged to do whatever it would take to rigorously protect those who volunteered to advance medical knowledge," Hopkins officials said in a written statement yesterday.

The medical school is studying the possibility of creating some kind of memorial to Roche, but it remains unclear whether that would be something like a lecture series in her name or a plaque or monument, said Joann Rodgers, a spokeswoman for the university.

Roche's family does not want to talk about the settlement. The family has a lot of respect for Hopkins and understands the need for medical experiments on human subjects to advance science, said Schoenfeld. They did not want Hopkins' research to be suspended.

"When the stories about Hopkins being shut down came out, Mr. [Bernard] Roche [Ellen's father] said to me, `If I had cancer, and an experimental treatment was the only option available, I wouldn't want to have the study suspended,'" Schoenfeld said.

Ellen Roche volunteered for the asthma study because "she was a humanitarian ... and she wanted to something to help her fellow human beings," the lawyer said.

Using some of the settlement money, the family is setting up the Ellen Marie Roche Memorial Fund to provide science or veterinary scholarships to other graduates at her alma maters, Franklin High School and Frostburg State University.

Roche worked at Hopkins because she wanted to improve her credentials to get into veterinary school, Schoenfeld said.

She was a lifelong animal lover who owned horses, rabbits, cats and dogs and entered competitions with the Carroll County 4-H Club.

Daniel Kracov, attorney for Togias, said his client continues to work at Hopkins, but the asthma experiment that Roche participated in was canceled and his other studies were put on hold.

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