With clinical burns research involving patients suspended, grant money dwindling and an investigation into allegations of compliance violations dragging on, the University of Texas Medical Branch on Thursday eliminated the positions of more than 40 people.
The layoffs were the latest blow to a world-renowned program shaken by allegations of inappropriate treatment provided by medical branch faculty and staff for burn patients enrolled in human subject research studies at Shriners Hospitals for Children-Galveston.
Among the people out of a job this week were researchers, lab technicians and administrative assistants working in clinical research involving burn patients, along with other personnel. Most had been in limbo and on edge for months, unable to conduct clinical burns research involving patients after research was suspended in April last year.
That suspension came after whistleblower allegations regarding possible compliance issues in some research involving burn patients, although medical branch officials have declined to elaborate, citing an ongoing investigation.
After the suspension, money for clinical burn research was greatly reduced because some grants weren’t renewed, not funded or were in abeyance, medical branch officials said.
Medical branch officials on Thursday didn’t immediately have answers about how much research grant money had been lost to the suspension and investigation.
After the suspension, medical branch executives had temporarily reassigned personnel to other duties, and their salaries were paid through other medical branch funding sources, officials said.
But that funding situation wasn’t sustainable, leading to the elimination of 40 positions this week, medical branch officials said.
People laid off this week were encouraged to apply for other open positions at the medical branch, officials said.
The medical branch, acting on concerns prompted by allegations that rules governing human research had been violated, in April 2018 suspended three burn studies at Shriners Hospitals for Children.
After a subsequent investigation of burn research at the medical branch and Shriners, officials suspended all human-subject research involving burn-injured patients at the medical branch and Shriners, Dr. David L. Callender, medical branch president, announced in January in an internal correspondence to faculty and staff.
The move was unprecedented for the medical branch and Shriners, both world renowned for research and advances in treatment of burn patients.
The allegations involved possible inappropriate treatment provided by medical branch faculty members and staff for burn patients enrolled in human subject research studies at Shriners Hospital for Children-Galveston, Callender said at the time.
“Based on these concerns, UTMB’s Institutional Review Board immediately suspended research activities associated with three burn research protocols,” Callender said.
At that time, working with Shriners, the medical branch launched a comprehensive investigation of burn research at its campus and Shriners’, Callender said.
The medical branch in January declined to elaborate about the nature and scope of the treatment in question nor would it discuss personnel involved in the research at issue, the allegations or the investigation.
The medical branch in the Jan. 8 installment of the column “Inside UTMB,” which The Daily News publishes each week, had unceremoniously announced Dr. Randall J. Urban would assume the role of principal investigator for the Clinical and Translational Science program. Urban would build on the work begun by the program’s departing principal investigator, Dr. David Herndon, a legendary figure in burn research and treatment.
The brief announcement of Herndon’s departure from that post sent waves through the medical community.
Asked on Thursday whether Herndon was among those laid off this week, the medical branch said “no.”
The Clinical and Translational Science program, in the Institute for Translational Science, was established in 2007 to turn observations made in the laboratory, clinic and community into interventions to improve the health of people and populations.
Among other research, Herndon has studied the long-term use of propranolol in severely burned pediatric patients. Propranolol is a type of drug called a beta-blocker. It works by acting on nerve impulses in specific areas of the body such as the heart, according to medical resources.
The medical branch said all research on burn-injured patients would remain suspended until a formal review was complete, but did not answer questions about when that might happen.
Clinical burns research involving patients is the only research suspended at the medical branch, officials said.
Burn patients continue to be treated and cared for at medical branch burn treatment facilities, officials said.