The Growth of Human Research Abuse

Why the Media Must End its Silence on the Dangers

by Robert Cockburn,

The commercialisation of clinical trials and its acceptance by universities and government departments is causing the normalisation of human research abuse.

For the first time, one case is blowing open the corruption and misuse of Sydney hospital  patients and of National Health Medical Research Council public funds – and the surprising doctors and scientists who disregarded Informed Consent.

In my film Breathtaking Human Research Crime and this article, Australian and international medical figures speak out to demand the criminalisation of human research abuse and its cover up to protect the ordinary people who test all medical products. As a journalist, injured on a corrupt trial, I ask my trade, the Media, to end its virtual silence that protects abusers in violation of its ethical code. The Federal Government is now investigating the scam cover-up.

* * *

On December 13, 2020, news broke in London of the death of the legendary British spy writer  John Le Carre. On 14 December I received an e-mail from Hannah Southcott, a producer with ABC News Channel at its Sydney HQ:

‘We’d like to organise a live TV interview with you for 1845, to speak about your time working with John Le Carre. The interview would be via Skype or FaceTime, with presenter Karina Carvalho and take around 5 minutes. Thanks so much.’

The ABC wanted to discuss my work exchanges with John about his novel and Hollywood blockbuster The Constant Gardener with stars Rachel Weizs and Ralph Fiennes, his fictional drama exposing the use of impoverished unwitting African patients to test experimental pharmaceutical drugs. A searing investigation of betrayal of the most vulnerable.

I did it.  YouTube link

But it was a set-up, a trick to show the ABC’s instant lure to celebrity and a far away fictional racket... while it was concealing the same very real factual racket happening just up the road from its Ultimo HQ at Sydney University’s Woolcock Institute which it refused to report.

I did it to expose media hypocrisy. John loathed hypocrisy.

Indeed, it could be the plot of a lost Le Carre novel/film, with tricked hospital patients, falsified  official documents, injury, lies and coercive intimidation.

But that, in reality, is what has happened for five years – a desperate, at times farcical, official cover up of multiple human research violations by some of Australia’s most eminent and honoured doctors and scientists at Sydney University, and let off with no accountability despite inflicting serious injury to one of their victims. And throughout the Australian media stayed silent about a shocking a growing scam in human research abuse.

But now their cover-up is under a federal government investigation which could have huge implications here and beyond Australia [See Australian Research Integrity Committee [ARIC] below].

Declaration of Interests

I am the injured Woolcock Institute clinical trial participant. I am an age pensioner and a journalist with a career-long interest in public health, and a lead peer-reviewed investigator for the Public Library of Science Medicine. I used my journalism to secure the official NSW and now Federal Government investigations into the unethical trial and its cover-up.

My articles on this subject are published on my Trac Productions site, the European For Better Science
and Breathtaking Human Research Abuse is distributed by Journeyman Pictures, London
These also carry the official documents with links referred to in this article.

There are no legal proceedings in this case. No legal demands have been made to withdraw my work. 

Genuinely sorry

Woolcock Institute lawyer Simon Black of Barry.Nilsson, sent me this apology, 23/12/2019
‘The Woolcock Institute is genuinely sorry for any distress which you experienced as a result of your involvement in the trial.’ noting, ‘The Woolcock Institute has acted on the recommendations and findings set out in the final [SLHD] report…. In addition, as set out in the letter provided by our lawyers dated 20 December 2019, the Woolcock Institute has since taken additional steps to comply with your [Robert Cockburn] further requests relating to personal data received during the course of the clinical trial.’ 

I have received no compensation.

I previously have been invited by Sydney University to give talks to students on international affairs and the media, and reported on its senior staff’s academic work.

Our Ethical Codes

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care states:
Ensuring informed consent is obtained is a legal, ethical and professional requirement on the part of all treating health professionals and supports personal centred care.

Australia’s human research regulations come out of the horrors of WWII Nazi experimentation and the subsequent 1947 Nuremberg Code and 1964 Declaration of Helsinki principals for human research, most importantly the right to Informed Consent.

First set out in 1944, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance [MEAA] Journalist Code of Ethics states: ‘Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism.

Rule 1 states:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.

Both of these research and journalism codes were disregarded in the case, below.

The Case

For the first time, my film Breathtaking Human Research Crime and this article reveal the shocking and dangerous misuse of Sydney hospital patients on a proven unethical clinical trial.

They open up, Australia’s first known proven human research abuse case, to shine a light on how this insidious scam operates, the surprising people who run it and the growing commercial takeover of the clinical trial system, and the misuse of NHMRC public funds by unscrupulous university staff and government officials.

Film cast member Prof Patricia Murray of Liverpool University, UK, says, ‘One of the most important things was the need for Informed Consent.’

Prof Wendy Murray of Sydney’s Macquarie Univerity says: ‘It’s certainly the case that the aims of companies is given priority over patient safety.’

In 2019 an official investigation caught some of Australia’s most eminent doctors and scientists running a scam since 2017 to con unwitting severe asthma patients from Sydney hospitals into testing experimental lung devices – without saying these were experimental and without informed consent.

Employed by Sydney Local Health District, and Sydney University and its Woolcock Institute, some those involved hold Australia’s highest AM honours. They selected trial targets from the city’s three main teaching hospitals - Royal Prince Alfred, Royal North Shore and Concord Repatriation.

The clincial trial was titled:

CH62/6/2017-119, the Role of home telemonitoring of lung function using forced oscillation technique in assessing and predicting asthma control: a pragmatic, observational trial.

Funded by the National Health Medical Research Council Centre of Excellence in Severe Asthma, its Primary sponsor was Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney and Secondary sponsor the Woolcock Institute. Project Sponsors were  Woolcock Institute and SLHD.

By fixing a falsified clinical trial approval letter and invalid fake participant consent forms, they subverted all NSW state and Federal human research protections. The trial was presented to participants as a ‘study’ of the effectiveness of patient home monitoring. In fact, from 2017,  severe asthma patients were being used to test Italy’s Restech company’s Resmon FOT device and its experimental new software. A second unregistered device, the US Spiro PD spirometer, was given to participants. A trial participant received life-changing injuries, triggering official investigations.

The 2019 internal SLHD investigation, led by SLHD chief executive Dr Teresa Anderson, proved multiple violations of the National Statement on the Ethical Conduct in Human Research by the Woolcock Institute. In her damning 25/10/19 report Summary [Doc 1,] Dr Anderson found vital information was wrongly withheld from clinical trial participants, including:

And still SLHD and the Woolcock kept trial participants in the dark by withholding information about the investigation and my trial device injury – to maintain the uninterrupted flow of their trial data back to Restech in Milan. The commercial priority ruled.

The deceit was staggering. Patients were used as lab rats through a one stop shop set up to subvert the clinical trial system for a company. No one knew better than those responsible about danger they put participants in, particularly by hiding user problems with the Spiro PD home spirometer. A severe asthma attack gives just minutes, if you’re lucky, to get an ambulance and emergency hospital care to revive your breathing. I know and I am eternally grateful to the health workers at NSW Ambulance and RNSH.

Prof Jureidini says, ‘The people who participate in medical research, and who are making a sacrifice, we have an obligation to them to be completely honest. We should be acknowledging their ownership, their partnership, in owning the data that is generated out of their participation.’

There was overwhelming public interest to reveal details of the case to trial participants and for the media to warn people of the rise in human research scams. Yet, Dr Anderson held no one to account and keeps her investigation buried. Their scam, including Dr Anderson’s role, demonstrates the arrogant certainty this medical elite believed entitled them to violate with impunity trusting trial volunteers. They were normalising human research abuse.

The Sydney University and SLHD staff involved include:

Prof Carol Armour AM, Woolcock Executive Director, a pharmacologist and Associate Dean of Career Development at Sydney University Medical School.

Prof Helen Reddel AM, Woolcock trial Research Leader

Prof Andrew McLachlan AM, Sydney University Head of School and Dean of Pharmacy who practices at Concord Repatriation Hospital, and Program Director of the National Health Medical Research Centre for Research Excellence in Medicines and Aging.

Woolcock trial chief investigators Dr Cindy Thamrin and Prof Greg King [my then breathing consultant who recruited me], Dr Farid Sanai, Dr Nicole Roche, Dr Claude Farah, Prof Matthew Peters, Dr Joseph Duncan.

A PhD student Kieran Patel was used to install trial devices in participants’ home and to obtain their signatures on the invalid participant Consent forms, later retracted and replaced.

Why were they ever allowed to get them away with it?

In a 29/10/19 meeting, Dr Anderson told me, glibly: ‘Do I think there was an intentional act to mislead? The investigation does not support that. I think sometimes people think that they have communicated well.’

Are we seriously meant to believe all of these researchers simultaneously and unintentionally forgot to tell their trial volunteers they were using them to test experimental devices? That did not explain the creation of the prior falsified trial approval and fake consent forms.

Yet, Dr Anderson’s ‘mass amnesia’ lie was grasped at to avoid admitting public scandal: including by, then Sydney University vice-chancellor Prof Stephen Garton AM. In 2021, Prof Garton wrote refusing my request to investigate Sydney University staff involved in the scam because their actions were ‘not deliberate’ or ‘deceitful’.

But another eminent medical figure in the scam was kept well hidden by SLHD and Sydney University. It took me another two years and two Freedom of Information applications to force SLHD to send me the 2017 falsified clinical trial approval letter and with it the it the identity of the person who signed it.
Ethics Approval Letter 2017
This was the Sydney University Head of School and Dean of Pharmacy, Prof Andrew McLachlan AM.

Prof McLachlan is employed by SLHD to practice at Sydney’s Concord Repatriation General Hospital, and was Dr Anderson’s Chair of the SLHD Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) with the public duty to protect clinical trial participants from human research abuse.

But he did not. Instead, Prof McLachlan betrayed us trial participants and his official post, by signing the falsified 2017 Woolcock Institute approval letter, fraudulently claiming it met the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, and approving approving the trial’s invalid participant Information and Consent forms. He facilitated the scam for his Sydney

University colleagues to recruit and experiment on participants with seemingly genuine paperwork.

The ABC in 2019 refused a golden opportunity to get this information when I sought help [see Media below]

Prof Jureidini, says, ‘It is absolutely the case that human research ethics committees’ priorities should be the wellbeing of the participants in the trial. But that must always be done completely openly and transparently.’

The false trial approval letter and invalid Information and Consent forms were retracted and replaced with re-written documents on 13/1/20. The corrected forms needed two extra pages to cover all of the information wrongly withheld from participants. SLHD highlighted it in yellow. It includes the names of those running the trail, the devices and their makers, and the Politecnico di Milano and its staff.

There was never informed valid participant consent up to that point. To my knowledge, the full information about the cam and my trial injury remains have not been provided.

This is a criminal scam like any other, and worse than most. If scammers or a street gang used these methods to get into my home, deceive me and leave me with these injuries, they would face a criminal court. Why, are medical research abusers immune?

And why has the media kept silent, despite the provision of relevant government documents, becoming complicit in the research abuse?

Clinical trial system ‘Not fit for purpose.’

But already the Sydney case is drawing Australian and international condemnation and calls to criminalise human research abuse and its cover-up. Those few defy pressures to keep quiet include the Australian, US and UK cast of Breathtaking: Prof Wendy Rogers, a medical ethics expert at Sydney’s Macquarie University; from Adelaide University Prof Jon Jureidini, a paediatric psychiatrist, and Dr Melissa Raven; from UK, stem cell scientist Prof Patricia Murry of Liverpool University, and US Prof David Egilman an epidemiologist of Brown University. They are angry.

So serious is the assault on the need to obtain a participants valid informed consent, that Prof Wendy Rogers, a lead architect of Australia’s human research regulations told me, ‘The whole system is not fit for purpose. It's a very messy system and it's all shrouded by secrecy as well, which I think makes it much worse.

Commercial Takeover

Researchers are seeing the commercial takeover of the clinical trial system.

Prof Rogers says, ‘The way that we do research has a lot of perverse incentives. The majority of research – medical research funding comes from private industry. There's a lot of pressure on universities and hospitals to bring in that money and you get inevitable conflicts of interest which can then play out in adverse ways, particularly for participants of trials.’

Prof Murray says, ‘Why do researchers disregard ethical codes? Well, many of the cases I’ve looked at involve companies.’

At stake is the clinical trial system itself, and the safety of the ordinary people, volunteers, we all rely on to test every new experimental medical product before it can go one the market.


Prof Murray told me, ‘The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre was covering unethical clinical trials in the Third World – countries such as in Africa. But actually its also happening in places like Australia.’

Prof Murray is a relentless campaigner against human research abuse. She has given evidence to the UK Parliament, in court cases and is familiar in the media. ‘I found that quite shocking,’ she said of the Sydney case, ‘The well-being of a patient should be the main priority, but it seem that’s not always the case.

‘I’ve been involved in preventing four clinical trials going ahead, that if they had done, likely to cause serious harm to patients. In some cases it was only thanks to exposure in the media that some of these trails were prevented from going ahead. But of course, it shouldn’t take media exposure because medical regulations and ethics committees: they had all the information.’

But unlike other countries, Australia’s media has failed to report human research abuse.

Prof Jureidini told me. ‘Journalists are at a disadvantage because there are massive media and marketing machines within industry that will provide journalists with convincing cases for the fact that people like me are just troublemakers,’ he told me, ‘Journalists, unless they are very skilled and have good advice are up against it in terms of trying to expose this stuff.’

Media No-Go Area

A media no-go area still exists around Sydney University in the Woolcock case. Journalists and the media have become public relations tools for the medical industry and medical academics.

But, one journalist did report the case. In a media first, after four years of media silence, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph journalist Natalie O’Brien and its editor Ben English ran the Sydney University and SLHD trial scandal detailing my trial injuries [content of Sydney Daily Telegraph ].

Still, no one else would touch the story. I asked Ms O’Brien why she thought the Australia media refused to report the abuse case.

‘It is hard to work out why there has been no follow up,’ O’Brien said, ‘There are many factors at play in journalism these days – not least of which is the lack of actual journalists.’

Cultural Change

A culture change is long overdue to treat human research abuse as scam like any other scam.

‘Injuring someone is injuring, whether you do it with a medical product or a baseball bat – it’s still an injury,’ Prof David Egilman told me, ‘If people are harmed, I think criminal sanctions are merited, based on whatever the harm might be.

‘Certainly if someone died in a clinical trial, as a result of the clinical trial, and was not told that they were in a clinical trial, and whatever was being used was experimental, that seems to me to be at the equivalent to at least a manslaughter charge. Then there is assault and battery.’

Yet, it is 15 years since the US Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol 99, No 1, published the devastating paper, ‘When Human Experimentation if Criminal’ [0091- 4169/09/9901-2009 0080 Prof L. Song Richardson, 2009. Prof Richardson wrote: ‘Medical researchers engaged in human experimentation commit criminal acts seemingly without consequence. Whereas other actors who violate bodily integrity and autonomy are routinely penalized with convictions for assault, fraud, and homicide, researchers escape criminal punishment.’

To repeat: the first rule of the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics states: ‘Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.’

Nothing could have been more essential or relevant to the remaining asthma patients on the Woolcock clinical trial than news about the April 2019 SLHD investigation of the trial they were conned into joining, or the injury to a participant – or to warn the general public of clinical trial scams.

Sydney University Media No-Go Area

Prior to the SLHD investigation, I first asked Channel 7 News to report my injury on a Woolcock clinical trial. Its news desk replied that the time restraints could ‘not do justice’ to the story [26/2/19]. Shortly after Channel 7 News ran a story featuring the Woolcock promoting the use of asthma medications.

I sent several e-mails to an ABC friend and colleague reporter Matt Carney [from 4/4/19 on] to  get coverage. Nothing happened.

That April 2019 SLHD announced its unprecedented formal investigation into Woolcock and SLHD senior staff for human research ethical code violations. It was a hard news story no one would touch.

I tried ABC journalists Riley Stuart and Greg Miskelly [20/4/19]. After the initial interest I got no further response.

On 26/6/19, with the SLHD investigation well underway, the ABC 7.30 Report and reporter Andy Park ran a near copy of the C7 News story promoting asthma medications. It featured the Woolcock’s Prof Helen Reddel AM, the trial research manager, who was one of those under investigation, and later found to have committed ethical violations.

This showed an unfair use of Sydney University and its Woolcock Institutes easy access to media outlets, promoting its staff in a positive light while under investigation. I informed a colleague at 7.30 Report about the investigation and that Andy Park’s report was in effect a re-heat of the C7 News story. I was told the 7.30 Report reporter concerned would be informed. I heard nothing more and 7.30 ran no clarification.

To keep the lid on the scandal, SLHD and Woolcock refused to inform their other participants that their trial was under investigation and of a serious injury caused by a trial device. It was a crucial to find another way to warn them.

This was a dangerous new scam. One good story would warn the public and the participants.

The ABC had further chances to warn participants. Instead, it kept quiet, protecting the abusers  instead of the abused.

On 15/7/19 I asked Michael McKinnon at the ABC Freedom of Information unit to look into the trial scam. After, initial enthusiasm McKinnon replied, 30/7/19: ‘I am not going to investigate this issue. I am also aware of your advice that that there have been no deaths, or indeed and arguably, any significant lasting impact.’

Both statements are untrue. Death is not a criterion for an ABC FOI application; the trial injury impacts were devastating for me and my young family.

But, by avoiding a FOI application, Michael McKinnon missed a scoop: identifying a key person  to the scam who was being kept hidden by SLHD and Sydney University. Instead, it took me another two years and two FOI applications to obtain the falsified 2017 trial approval letter and with it the identity of Sydney University’s Head of School and Dean of Pharmacy, Prof Andrew

McLachlan AM who signed it to facilitate his colleagues scam.

It was scoop – clearly not wanted at the ABC.

Later, 8/7/20, I offered the updated investigation developemnts to senior ABC Radio National news producer Rebecca Barrett. Again, no story ran. It was to Ms Barrett I sent my Le Carre interview offer she promptly circulated around the broadcaster.

Australian media outlets which refused to publish or didn’t respond between 2019 and 2024 include: Channel 7 News, ABC, The Senior, the Australian Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Channel 9, Channel 10, Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Financial Review, Newcastle Herald, Crikey, New Matilda, Michael West Media.

But while this case and the wider issues of human research abuse were rejected by the media, other agencies are taking responsibility to inform the public of this crisis in health, and teach and debate it.

Other Agencies Act
Political Interventions

Other agencies did act.

In an unprecedented political intervention, then Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt blew the whistle on his own TGA department to end its part in the cover-up. On 10/9/19 he ordered his Therapeutic Goods Administration [TGA] department to send me with its hidden TGA experimental status of the two Woolcock trial devices, noting non-disclosure and a violation of the National Statement.

Then, the New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard, concerned about possible wider and historical abuses, went Dr Anderson’s investigation recommendations. On 6/1/20, he informed me that he had used my case to warn all NSW Human Research Ethics Chairs and the Office for Health and Medical Research to follow their clincal trial regulations ‘...ensuring that all essential information relating to a patient’s consent is communicated in the Patient Information Consent Form.’

Minister Hazzard. In his 6/1/20 letter to me, Minister Hazzard, himself an asthmatic, urged ‘my continuing advocacy in the matter’.

The ministers’ actions and letters were sent to a ranger media outlets. They were ignored.

When politicians have to do journalists’ job for them we are in trouble.

Parliamentary Human Rights Inquiry and Bill

In 2023, my articles and film about the case were accepted as evidence by Federal MPs on the Parliamentary Joint Committee Human Rights Inquiry. They are framing Australia’s first Human Rights Bill.

University Teaching

At the start of the 2024 academic year, Adelaide University became the first to use my film Breathtaking and supporting journalism as a teaching resource.

University Bullying and Culture of Fear

A powerful fear factor exists in university culture that applies peer pressure to join unethical trials and not to meet obligations to report human research abuse, eg loss of career chances.

But I experienced direct intimidation by Woolcock Executive Director Prof Carol Armour. With the 2019 SLHD Woolcock investigation underway, Prof Armour was desperate to get back from me the clinical trial’s experimental Resmon FOT device, now incriminating evidence. In an e-mail, Prof Armour tried to coerce me by cutting off my breathing physiotherapy fees she owed after my injury, writing: ‘Once the FOT device, which belongs to us, and is not the object of your concern, is returned, I will transfer the funds.’

I declined and kept both of the trial devices. It is significant that Dr Anderson did not include Prof Armour’s abuse in her investigation findings.

Woolcock Moves to Macquarie University

In 2023 Sydney University got rid of its Woolcock Institute which was welcomed by Sydney’s Macquarie University [6/6/23] with all of its staff involved in the unethical clinical trial. Asked if any action would be taken against them regarding the SLHD findings, writing to me on behalf of Macquarie University Vice-Chancellor Dr Bruce Dowton, his Director and Chief of Staff Heather Mackinnon wrote: ‘The University does not propose to take any further action.’

NHMRC-ARIC Investigation

However, the Woolcock staff and SLHD and Sydney University heads still face the outcome of the current NHMRC-ARIC investigation and possible sanctions.

And so to the Federal Government’s wrestle with one of its its biggest science and medical dilemmas. At stake is whether to join the cover-up of human research abuse or to expose it.

Since 2021, a small virtually unknown unit of the NHMRC, the Australian Research Integrity Committee or ARIC, has been investigating allegations of failures to properly investigate the Woolcock clinical trial and its cover-up. Its unprecedented and unenviable task at such high level consists of investigating SLHD Chief Executive Dr Teresa Anderson AM and then Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Prof Stephen Garton AM for refusing to hold their staff to account and their cover-up of the case. Anderson and Garton face allegations that staff:

...deceitfully, deliberately, recklessly and negligently breached Code obligations of community trust, honesty, rigour, transparency, fairness, respect and accountability under it principles of responsible research, Responsibilities of Institutions and Responsibilities of researchers.’

ARIC takes on only five or six cases a year, mostly concerning claims of academic plagiarism.

Its chair Patricia Kelly PSM accepted the need for an investigation in 2021, a process, expecting the process to take six months and one year.

Over two years later ARIC remains unable to issue a final report. It sent me its confidential draft report on 13/6/23. I won’t its draft findings in this article. But, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work it out what’s at stake.

In response to ARIC’s draft, and maintaining confidentiality, I wrote an Open Letter:

‘A four-year cover-up of the Sydney University case now comes down to a simple choice for you to make. Either, to recommend Sydney University, its Woolcock Institute, and Sydney Local Health District properly investigate those who violated human research regulations and hold them and their institutions to account – to give hope to millions of patients and the vast majority of genuine researchers.

‘Or, if you truly believe Sydney University, its Woolcock Institute, and Sydney Local Health District are right to let their staff get away with serious human research violations causing injury, then reject proper investigations and accountability to join a cover-up that encourages abuse of CT participants and threatens our CT system.’


‘Journalists are key to communicating the pressing issues in our society to encourage awareness and action,’ says Prof Marcel Dinger, Dean of Science at Sydney University’s Faculty of Science and partner to the Walkley Science and Environment Journalism Award. Is this a breakthrough?

Prof Dinger adds, ‘As such, we are the proud education partner for the Coverage of Science and Environment Award. Thank you for your contribution to this essential storytelling and we wish all applicants the best of luck.’

I intend to submit this article to the competition. On Prof Dinger’s criteria, my article should be welcomed. I feel the best Walkley Celebration of Journalism would be for an end to the media silence around human research abuse, and for its partner, Sydney University, to publicly report the unethical Woolcock clincial trial and to acknowledge its responsibilities in this case.

‘I would love to be feared’

Perhaps the most revealing questions asked in the matter were asked by Sydney University pharmacy students in a Youtube interview with their department head Prof Andrew McLachlan.

He says, ‘I would love to be feared.’

Asked for his greatest fear, Prof McLachlan replies, ‘Being found out.’

Robert Cockburn Copyright 14/4/24