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Banana study involving Iowa State raises questions about human testing

Study will involve ISU students eating bananas designed to raise vitamin A levels

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By Austin Harrington, Ames Tribune

AMES — A study taking place in part at Iowa State University has some questioning the role a public university should play when it comes to conducting scientific tests.

The project, referred to as Banana21, is aimed at alleviating widespread vitamin A deficiency in Uganda.

The project leaders are based in Uganda and Australia, and the project itself is sponsored by Uganda’s government. The research for Banana21 is being collaboratively led by the National Agricultural Research Organization and Queensland University of Technology in Australia, with partial funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Only a small portion of the research will be completed at ISU, but that portion will consist of paying students to eat bananas that are designed to raise the vitamin A levels of people living in Africa.

The use of human testing is raising questions from current and former ISU students who want more information about the study and its ethics surrounding the practices taking place on campus.

Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, an ISU doctoral student in sociology and sustainable agriculture, said she has been trying to get answers from ISU administration for some time.

“We’ve had a real hard time getting any information from the university. So we submitted nearly 1,000 petitions and signatures ... to the administration to try to get them to respond to some of our questions,” she said.

She said those requests have gone mostly unanswered.

Self-described social change organization and mobile phone company CREDO Mobile also has started collecting signatures to petition ISU to release more information on the study. Nearly 57,000 people have signed on to their cause, according to the group’s website.

“That’s a ton of signatures. Clearly it’s not just people in this community but communities all around the country and really the world because we have a lot of partners and folks in Africa who sign our petition,” Roesch-McNally said.

Roesch-McNally and CREDO Mobile would like to know how the study is being completed, the type of testing that is taking place, the safety risks for the test subjects and who is taking part in the study.

Wendy White, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at ISU, is leading the project in Ames. White said she is conducting a small and very focused study as part of the overall project, so she could not speak about the entire project but she was willing to answer questions concerning her work on Banana21 at ISU.

“Everyone is entitled to their questions, and many are valid and necessary. But many of the questions go far beyond the narrowly defined and limited scope of what I am specifically addressing,” White said.

“Much of my research career has been devoted to studying beta-carotene absorption in the human body,” White said. “That’s why the project leaders approached me to conduct a study.”

Her work, she said, is “aimed at answering one question: To what extent are levels of provitamin A available to be absorbed and converted to vitamin A when the bananas are eaten?” “We have addressed these kinds of questions for many nutritional studies, as our Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition offers unique research capabilities in measuring minute amounts of nutrients,” she said.

According to White, the project will go a long way in addressing the needs of African women and children, who are most vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency. But she said she understands why people have so many questions about her work.

Angie Carter, a former ISU doctoral student working to find out more information about the study last year before she graduated and took a position in the department of sociology, anthropology and social welfare at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill, Carter said she just wants to see more transparency in the project.

“It’s concerning to me that the Iowa State University administration seems so reluctant to engage in questions that are sociological and cultural questions about this technology and its impacts. They seem to focus only on the technological questions,” Carter said.

White said she is not against informing people of her intent with the project, but she believes her work is necessary to solve a bigger problem.

“We certainly need to be transparent and clear about goals of any field of research and the potential for adding to the knowledge required to address enormous challenges we face, such as vitamin A deficiency in many countries ... However, we won’t know enough about that potential ... until we complete the experiments, analyze the data and allow the scrutiny of other scientists,” White said.

Carter said that level of clarity is not what she experienced when the group she was working with invited several members of the ISU administration to take part in a public conversation about the project.

“They replied in emails to our request to invite them to the panel,” Carter said. “They wanted to bring, I think like six people with them to be on our panel and we had worried that that might create a sense of imbalance and so they refused to participate. They did offer to meet with us individually in a private meeting and we had asked for a public meeting.”

Clark Wolf, director of bioethics at ISU, took part in a panel discussion on the project but who is not directly involved with the study. Wolf said he understands the concerns of the students. But he also thinks ISU researchers should be doing their work.

“With respect to the scientific liberty issue, I certainly think that scientists at Iowa State University have a right to pursue controversial research and that people who have objections to research don’t have a right to shut down research merely because they disapprove of it,” Wolf said.

Wolf said he knows a lot of concern surrounding the study involves possible harm to those who are taking part. But he sees no reason why this project would be any more harmful than others being completed on campus.

White said every precaution is taken to make sure the participants have all the information before agreeing to take part.

“For this research, as well as for all research I do that includes human participants, the work was reviewed and approved by the university’s institutional review board,” White said. “The IRB rigorously examines and considers all research risks to human health, in accordance with federation regulations, and its review is designed to protect the safety of participants.”

Since the research has been approved, White said she plans on beginning the testing phase of the study this year.

“Participants will be approximately a dozen female students and staff,” White said. “The schedule for the actual texts will be this calendar year.”

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