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Three who stopped the cancer tests

THE people whose advice delayed the treatment of lung cancer patients at a major hospital are a priest, a nun and a businessman.

The three members of the board of Dublin's Mater Hospital were key to the decision to stop trials of the drug for lung cancer patients.

They objected because female patients who get could get pregnant would have to take contraceptives under the treatment.

The subcommittee of the board - Fr Kevin Doran, Sr Eugene Nolan and John Morgan - were delegated the task of examining the conditions attached to testing the drug.

They looked to see if the conditions contravened the hospital's Catholic ethos.

The drug to be tested may prolong the lives of lung cancer patients by several months.

But it emerged last night that these patients, who have already exhausted all other forms of treatment, will have to wait until October 18 before knowing if the trials are approved.

On October 18 the hospital board meets to decide on new wording which will give patients a choice on whether or not they will take contraceptives.

The hospital has objected to existing wording which makes it compulsory for women at risk of pregnancy on the trials to take contraception to avoid damaging the foetus.

The controversy underlines the clash of Catholic teachings in the face of medical advances.

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It is the most acute example in recent times of how the Catholic Church faces huge challenges to its moral standpoints.

Cancer specialists led by Dr John McCaffrey, who is based at the Mater, had already received legal permission to treat the Mater Hospital patients.

This was because the proposal had already been given the green light by the ethics committee in Tallaght Hospital.

The Tallaght committee has power to give permission for drugs trials in any hospital.

Once an ethics committee complies with rigorous conditions they have the power to allow trials across the whole state - and that includes patients outside of their own hospitals.

This has been the case since new legislation was introduced in all EU countries in May 2004.

Confusion over the role of the hospital's research ethics committee in the decision escalated yesterday after several attempts by the Irish Independent to contact its members failed.

The ethics committee, which has a range of expertise, is understood to have met last Wednesday - but chairman Dr Harry Frizelle, an anaesthetist, referred all questions to the hospital's press officer yesterday.

Another member, Timothy Mooney, who is a senior lecturer in Philosophy in UCD said he could not remember what was discussed at the meeting.

Sources raised questions about the legality of the Mater Hospital ethics committee action.

Originally a hospital spokesman said it was the hospital's ethics committee which stopped the trials but he later said it was the subcommittee of the board.

It was only yesterday it emerged this subcommittee had just the one member with a medical background.

The extent to which they consulted with doctors could not be confirmed.

A spokesman for the hospital insisted last night the board of the Mater had the legal power to override the permission given by the Tallaght ethics committee.

However, he could not say if the Mater board had met to consider the issue or if it relied on the recommendation of the three-member sub committee.


Previous decisions by the Mater Hospital on drug trials and questions of their legal standing were brought to the attention of the Department of Health several months ago but no action was taken.

St Vincent's hospital cancer specialist, Dr John Crown who criticised the Mater delay as "sectarian" said he now applies for permission to carry out trials to the ethics committee in Tallaght Hospital. This is because his own hospital's ethics committee 18 months ago raised objections to one of his trials over the same concerns about the contraceptive clauses.

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