One Dead Guinea Pig

A bad reaction to a drug trial sparks an investigation into Houston's Fabre Clinic and its founder

Vladimir Yuri Zhirakarov first appeared on the streets of Houston around 1997, when he joined the faceless ranks of the city's burgeoning homeless population. He fell in quickly with the Impact Church of Christ just north of downtown near White Oak Bayou. He took irregular showers at the shelter. He took meals there, too. And he camped out on a wooded lot nearby.

But he didn't wander the way many of the others did. He stayed busy with odd jobs, routinely doing volunteer work at the church's food-and-clothing distribution center. When there was no work, he lifted weights.

He was likable, but secretive and prone to binge drinking. His English was hindered by heavy Slavic inflections, though he refused to speak what he said was his native language. He claimed to be a Russian political exile and warned that discovery would mean big trouble back in the mother country, where his father held a lofty political appointment.

Doug Boehm
Doug Boehm

While this could have explained his stash of identification papers unearthed by campmates after he died in 2002, it didn't. He was wanted, but not by the former Soviet state. The man who passed himself off as a Russian on the run was finally exposed by a horrific death equally as strange as his life.

He had been born Garry Allen Polsgrove in Campbell, Missouri.

Zhirakarov/Polsgrove died in an experimental drug trial in a private clinic near the Texas Medical Center.

His death ended a 30-year investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. But it sparked an investigation of another sort entirely when the initial details of his death began unraveling, prompting authorities to take a closer look at the Fabre Research Clinic and its owner and founder, Dr. Louis Fernand Fabre.

Like many of his fellow soup-kitchen visitors, Zhirakarov was a professional human guinea pig, Impact pastor Ron Sellers says. Becoming part of a drug trial meant not only pocket money but a stay in an air-conditioned clinic with free meals between injections.

Men like Zhirakarov didn't brag about such forays, for fear that others would expose the lies they often told to qualify for the various drug trials, Sellers says.

"Desperate people do desperate things," says the pastor. "They learn the system of how to get into these trials."

In Zhirakarov's case, it got him into a trial for schizophrenics with the accompanying powerful drugs.

Zhirakarov began to show signs of an adverse drug reaction the first day he was included in the trial, April 11, 2002. Clinic staff documented he had a rapid heart rate. At this earliest of stages, clinicians should have taken him out of the trial and checked his heart for abnormalities, according to investigators. Instead, another dose was scheduled.

Eight days later, as the rapid heart rate continued, diarrhea began. Clinic staff attributed this development to a viral illness and recommended an over-the-counter antidiarrheal. Then, on April 24, his white blood cell count began to drop, according to data recorded by clinic staff. His blood pressure began to crash soon after, and laboratory findings indicated a "life-threatening" electrolyte imbalance and acute kidney failure were under way. But Fabre wouldn't review those findings until four days later, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"At a minimum, the subject should have received intravenous rehydration, continuous cardiac monitoring, and a comprehensive evaluation of his acute renal failure," investigators wrote. "The patient's severely compromised renal function should have prompted major concern since it was potentially life threatening and because clozapine is primarily excreted through the kidney."

When Fabre did look over the patient's chart, he wrote the results were "not clinically significant."

Two days later an electrocardiogram was done, showing a clearly inflamed heart. The levels of clozapine accumulating in his bloodstream were three and four times greater than those found in the other patients, an autopsy would later reveal.

Fabre's first progress note appears in the patient's file on this day and is recorded at 3:15 in the afternoon. It reads: "Patient was exam for complaints of diarrhea… [I] ordered study meds to be discontinued (abnormal electrolyte results) diet clear fluids and lomotil as instructed."

The next day, Patient 059 died.


Dr. Louis Fernand Fabre should have been at the top of his game and feeling no pain. After 31 years of practicing mind medicine in Houston, he had just been named a Life Member of the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians. He'd been published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and the British Journal of Psychiatry. And, more important, the big pharmaceutical companies had been leaning on him for decades to test out their experimental drugs on human subjects at his two community clinics near the Texas Medical Center.

But on a strangely warm January day earlier this year, a two-year-old skeleton named Zhirakarov came back to haunt the 1969 Baylor medical school graduate. A seven-page registered letter let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he was on the verge of losing his profitable drug-testing business. The small matter of a dead patient and allegations of a cover-up had put the senior psychiatrist on bad footing with inspectors from the FDA.

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