In a partial victory for a Louisiana leukemia patient, an Iowa state judge yesterday ordered the University of Iowa to describe the patient's plight to a woman the patient says he believes could save his life through a highly experimental transplant of her bone marrow.
However, Johnson County District Court Judge L. Vern Robinson ruled that the potential donor's name must not be revealed to the public or the patient, saying that she might be subject to "widespread publicity and pressure."
The state university immediately appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, and late yesterday won a temporary stay of further action until a hearing March 14.
William Head, 27, the patient, who contracted leukemia two years ago, contacted the university last fall to see if it had a potential bone marrow donor in its computerized registry of tissue types.
He was told that a potential match existed. It was the only one he has been able to locate nationwide. The university wrote the potential donor without mentioning Head, and followed up with a telephone call. However, the woman said she did not wish to donate to anyone other than a relative. A university review committee of physicians and ethical experts decided that she should not be contacted again because it might subject her to undue pressure.
Head, who is in Houston undergoing cancer treatment, called Robinson's ruling a "victory for me and other leukemia patients as well. There is a lot of public support for it."
Robinson clearly sought to strike a compromise and to limit the breadth of his ruling, which he based on Iowa's freedom of information act. But both sides agreed yesterday that, if left standing, the decision could set a legal precedent.
Brent Appel, the lawyer who represented the University of Iowa, yesterday expressed concern over the "potential impact on clinical medical research and on the confidentiality of medical registries."
Arthur Caplan, a bioethics expert at the Hastings Center in New York, who testified on behalf of the university, said, "This type of ruling can have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to become involved in medical research of any type."
Caplan said it could also allow the courts to interfere with the decisions of federally mandated "institutional review boards" that oversee human experimentation at hospitals.
Peter Riley, an attorney for Head, called it an "important precedent, recognizing the right of people in need of a transplant to have contact made with a potential donor."
A bone marrow transplant between two unrelated individuals is an experimental procedure designed to restore the body's ability to produce new blood cells.
Head filed suit because he said the university's letter to the potential donor was too vague.