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Fifty years of medical ethics at Wits

- Wits Communications

In June 1966, Professor Henry Beecher of Harvard published a shocking article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled "Ethics and Clinical Trials".

The article described unethical research carried out by unnamed but prominent researchers and research entities. At this time no ethical screening of research existed.

Catching the attention of Professor John Hansen, then head of Paediatrics at Wits, the article sparked the formation of a research ethics committee at the University to screen human medical research studies.

Initially called the Committee for Research on Human Subjects, it was the very first research ethics committee to be established in Africa and the first in the Southern Hemisphere, nearly two decades ahead of other countries here.

Pictured left to right cutting a cake are Prof. Charles Feldman (co-chair), Prof. Ames Dhai (co-chair), Prof. Peter Cleaton-Jones (chair) and Prof. Angela Woodiwiss (co-chair)Fifty years later the Human Research Ethics Committee (Medical) (HREC), as it is now known, is a Wits success story. Since its first meeting in October 1966, at a time when no guidelines for medical research review existed in South Africa, Wits pioneered the development of such parameters.

Wits did not limit itself to just human medical research. The University constituted the Animal Ethics Screening Committee in 1975 and the Human Research Ethics Committee (Non-Medical) in 1988.

The Wits HREC committee, by virtue of its long-standing and highly experienced membership, has since played a leadership role in ethics in South Africa through various engagements:

  • Members of the Wits HREC committee served on the Interim National Health Research Ethics Committee
  • The Wits HREC Chair and a co-Chair were on the editorial team of the first National Department of Health research ethics guidelines, entitled: Ethics in health research: principles, structures and processes (2004)
  • At the request of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the Wits Chair formed the HSRC Ethics Committee, serving as its Chair for three years and now as a member.

In 2014 the Wits HREC (Medical) formed the Biobank Ethics sub-committee, because of the growth of biobanks worldwide. The Department of Health issued ethics guidelines in 2000 for clinical trials and in 2004 for general research.

With the introduction of a Bill of Rights constituting that “everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity which includes the right … (c) not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent”, it is a legal requirement to gain HREC approval prior to beginning research.

Over half-a-century, the Wits HREC has developed the highest ethics standards possible for medical research undertaken by the Wits. Professor Peter Cleaton-Jones, Chair of the Wits HREC, commented at the committee’s 50th anniversary event on Friday 27 January 2017 that, over its 50 years, the Wits HREC had played a key role in the medical ethics context, has challenged foreign sponsors who refuse to compensate patients, and has ferreted out fraudulent research and motivated that consequences be brought to bear for such lack of ethics.

Today, housed within the Wits Health Consortium (a not-for-profit organisation and academic research vehicle), the Wits HREC (Medical) is custodian of the ethics of hundreds of sponsored clinical trials.