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Monday, August 7, 2023

Shake-up at top psychiatric institute following suicide in clinical trial

Brendan Borrell
Spectrum News
Originally posted 31 July 23

Here are two excerpts:

The audit and turnover in leadership comes after the halting of a series of clinical trials conducted by Columbia psychiatrist Bret Rutherford, which tested whether the drug levodopa — typically used to treat Parkinson’s disease — could improve mood and mobility in adults with depression.

During a double-blind study that began in 2019, a participant in the placebo group died by suicide. That study was suspended prior to completion, according to an update posted on ClinicalTrials.gov in 2022.

Two published reports based on Rutherford’s pilot studies have since been retracted, as Spectrum has previously reported. The National Institute of Mental Health has terminated Rutherford’s trials and did not renew funding of his research grant or K24 Midcareer Award.

Former members of Rutherford’s laboratory describe it as a high-pressure environment that often put publications ahead of study participants. “Research is important, but not more so than the lives of those who participate in it,” says Kaleigh O’Boyle, who served as clinical research coordinator there from 2018 to 2020.

Although Rutherford’s faculty page is still active, he is no longer listed in the directory at Columbia University, where he was associate professor, and the voicemail at his former number says he is no longer checking it. He did not respond to voicemails and text messages sent to his personal phone or to emails sent to his Columbia email address, and Cantor would not comment on his employment status.

The circumstances around the suicide remain unclear, and the institute has previously declined to comment on Rutherford’s retractions. Veenstra-VanderWeele confirmed that he is the new director but did not respond to further questions about the situation.


In January 2022, the study was temporarily suspended by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, following the suicide. It is unknown whether that participant had been taking any antidepressant medication prior to the study.

Four of Rutherford’s published studies were subsequently retracted or corrected for issues related to how participants taking antidepressants at enrollment were handled.

One retraction notice published in February indicates tapering could be challenging and that the researchers did not always stick to the protocol. One-third of the participants taking antidepressants were unable to successfully taper off of them.

Note: The article serves as a cautionary tale about the risks of clinical trials. While clinical trials can be a valuable way to test new drugs and treatments, they also carry risks. Participants in clinical trials may be exposed to experimental drugs that have not been fully tested, and they may experience side effects that are not well-understood.  Ethical researchers must follow guidelines and report accurate results.