Intended for healthcare professionals


Specialist ousted in research row

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 19 April 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:839
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    A British epilepsy specialist has been dismissed after an inquiry panel appointed by the Singaporean government found that he had infringed patients' rights and acted unethically while conducting research as director of Singapore's National Neuroscience Institute.

    Professor Simon Shorvon, 54, was dismissed from his post last Thursday after conceding in a letter that the panel's findings were correct. “I accept the report and the findings therein,” he wrote in a letter dated 31 March in response to the panel's original report, which was released on 21 March.

    Mr Michael Lim, chairman of the National Healthcare Group, the public body that employed Professor Shorvon, wrote to him on 25 March offering him two choices: accepting the findings of the health ministry inquiry; or facing a commission of inquiry led by a judge, the equivalent of a public inquiry.

    On the same day the panel released a supplementary report that accused the professor of tampering with patients' records while visiting the offices of the solicitors advising the panel. Professor Shorvon has denied these charges, which have been passed on to the Singapore police.

    The inquiry centred on a $6m (£3.8m; a5.6m) government sponsored study of genetic factors in Parkinson's disease and two other disorders. When Professor Shorvon and his assistants found themselves far short of patient recruitment targets for the Parkinson's disease arm of the study, they obtained lists of patients from two hospitals. They recruited 127 patients by calling them directly, bypassing their neurologists.

    The patients' neurologists were not informed of the tests that were done, which in many cases included altering their treatment. Patients were tested for Parkinson's disease by an L-dopa test, which usually involved missing one or two doses before testing of motor function. Missing doses was potentially harmful to patients, the panel found.

    Also, the consent forms signed by the patients made no mention of the L-dopa test, during which several patients were videotaped. Members of the study's ethics committee also testified that they were unaware of the tests.

    Professor Shorvon's research assistant and doctoral student Mr Ramachandran Viswanathan was singled out for especially harsh criticism by the panel, which said the student had “fled Singapore.” The government has begun procedures to extradite him from India. The health ministry has also announced plans to strengthen research ethics committees.

    Professor Shorvon left Singapore last weekend and has returned to his previous job at the Institute of Neurology at University College London. The university is carrying out its own investigation of the allegations.

    The Medical Protection Society issued a statement on Professor Shorvon's behalf, saying he could not comment while at least one formal inquiry is pending. The statement said: “Although he initially accepted the inquiry's report and its conclusions it was under exceptional circumstances and there is a great deal in the report that he is contesting.”

    Another British neurologist, Professor Nick Wood, also of the UCL Institute of Neurology, was also involved in the research. He refused to answer the inquiry panel's questions, but sent them a message saying he had not helped to formulate the study protocol. The panel criticised his refusal to appear but refrained from further comment.