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Son of Henry Heimlich questions UCLA researchers’ involvement in his father’s controversial malariotherapy study

By Naheed Rajwani and Alessandra Daskalakis

May 6, 2013 11:06 a.m.

The original version of this article contained an error and information that was unclear. See the bottom of the article for additional information.

The son of famous physician Henry Heimlich  has requested that UCLA reopen an investigation from more than 10 years ago regarding the involvement of two UCLA researchers in a controversial study led by his father.

In a letter sent to university officials today, Peter Heimlich asked university officials to re-open the investigation of its employees’ participation in malariotherapy, a controversial form of therapy that involves injecting malaria-infected blood into HIV patients as a possible cure for HIV.

During the last investigation, UCLA referred Dr. John Fahey, a UCLA researcher said to be “indirectly” involved with malariotherapy research, to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Peter Heimlich, in his letter, asked UCLA to investigate whether the university “adequately” reported materials regarding this research to the Department of Health and Human Services.

[UPDATED 8:45 p.m.: As of press deadline, Fahey could not be reached for comment.

“UCLA takes seriously its responsibility to follow federal regulations guiding research,” said Phil Hampton, a university spokesman, in a statement. “The concerns expressed in Mr. Heimlich’s letter of May 6, 2013, involve extensive detail that is more than a decade old. Appropriate parties on campus are reviewing the letter and its many attachments to determine if a response is warranted.”]

The Heimlich Institute, which funds new approaches to medical research, led a study in China beginning in the 1980s to test the effectiveness of malariotherapy in helping cure HIV.

Henry Heimlich, the physician credited with the invention of the Heimlich Maneuver, donated all his documents about this research to the University of Cincinnati in 2011 and the Henry J. Heimlich Archival Collection was established late last year.

Documents from the archives at the University of Cincinnati, and others Peter Heimlich obtained through public records requests, show extensive communication between the Heimlich Institute, researchers in China and UCLA. Peter Heimlich published the records on his blog today, making them available to the public for review.

The Centers for Disease Control issued a public health warning against malariotherapy for HIV treatment in April 1993, according to Daily Bruin archives.

“The practice of malariotherapy for treating (Lyme disease) has been emphatically discouraged because there have been no controlled, well-designed studies showing that this approach is effective and because of the severe morbidity associated with malaria infection,” an October 1991 advisory from the CDC reads.

News reports regarding two UCLA researchers’ alleged involvement in Heimlich’s research surfaced in 2002, when UCLA officials, including the UCLA Office for the Protection of Research Subjects received a letter from an individual with the alias Bob Smith , asking the university to look into Fahey and Dr. Najib Aziz’s contributions to the Heimlich Institute’s research in China. Both Aziz and Fahey still work at UCLA.

Aziz said he was not aware of the letter and declined to comment on it, but said he was not as involved in the research as Fahey.

UCLA officials closed the investigation after Fahey denied involvement with the research, according to Daily Bruin archives.

But, the university reopened its investigation after receiving documents from Henry Heimlich – as shown through documents Peter Heimlich obtained from records requests years later – that showed written communications between Fahey, Aziz and Heimlich. The documents also contained correspondences between Fahey and the researcher in China, who was overseeing the study’s implementation.

Much of Fahey’s communication was made on paper with UCLA letterheads, signifying official communication between UCLA and the outside researchers involved in the study.

In 2003, UCLA changed its previous statement and acknowledged in a press release that “Dr. Fahey, while not personally involved in the clinical trials, was involved in evaluating data and biological samples brought to UCLA from China.”

UCLA also stated that Fahey participated in human subjects research without getting approval from the university.

The university then turned the case over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for maintaining public health.

UCLA officials wrote to the department and said Fahey assured them that he and those under his direction would, in the future, have approval before conducting research at UCLA, according to documents Peter Heimlich obtained through public records requests.

Department officials wrote back, stating that the arrangement appeared to be “appropriate” under federal regulations, according to the public records.

It is unclear whether UCLA gave the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services all the documents it received from Henry Heimlich for review.

Correspondence between Fahey and researchers in China shows that Fahey’s involvement was not limited to testing blood samples from China, but also included a trip to China and the shipping of reagents to help with the research. The purpose of Fahey’s trip to China, however, is unclear.

Additionally, the documents show Fahey was involved in helping Heimlich and the researcher in China draft journal articles about the malariotherapy research.

Peter Heimlich, the son of Henry Heimlich, has asked UCLA to determine whether the investigation was properly conducted and whether university officials adequately reported the findings to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Fahey continues to work at UCLA and is listed as an immunologist, researcher and professor on the David Geffen School of Medicine’s website. He is also the director of the Center for International Research in Disease. Aziz is listed as a manager and technical specialist at the UCLA Clinical and Translational Research Laboratory, according to the lab’s website.

Compiled by Naheed Rajwani and Alessandra Daskalakis, Bruin senior staff.

Correction: Peter Heimlich, in his letter, asked UCLA to investigate whether the university “adequately” reported materials regarding malariotherapy research to the Department of Health and Human Services. Also, the Heimlich Institute, which funds new approaches to medical research, led a study in China beginning in the 1980s to test the effectiveness of malariotherapy in helping cure HIV. 

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