The Health Ministry is probing suspicions that two elderly patients died last year at Gedera's Hartzfeld Geriatric Hospital after undergoing an illegal invasive medical experiment.

The patients allegedly died from a severe urinary tract infection caused by the extraction of urine by puncturing their bodies.

One of the two died of the infection in February. The experiment allegedly was conducted about two weeks after she had undergone surgery for removing part of her small intestine. After her death, hospital management allegedly advised its doctors not to recruit any more patients for the experiment.

The Health Ministry suspects that at least two types of experiments were illegally conducted at the hospital in 2003-2004 on dozens of patients aged 70 to 90. One experiment was invasive, consisting of urine extraction by puncturing the patient's stomach. The other involved administering iron to hospital in-patients.

The ministry suspects that both experiments were conducted without obtaining the patients' full consent, and without providing them with all the pertinent information and advising them of the risks involved, as required by law.

At least four geriatric doctors from the hospital are implicated in the affair.

Owned by the Clalit Health Maintenance Organization (HMO), Hartzfeld contains 300 beds and is one of the country's largest public geriatric hospitals. In 2003, some 4,000 patients were hospitalized at Hartzfeld, with 826 having died there. The hospital is a division of Rehovot's Kaplan Hospital, whose management, headed by Dr. Yossi Barel, is responsible for it.

The Health Ministry also is looking into further suspicions of attempts to conceal information and disrupt the inquiry. Numerous documents regarding the experiments have disappeared, and hospital personnel are suspected of trying to destroy or hide evidence tying some of the doctors to illegal acts.

Health Ministry Director General Prof. Avi Yisraeli appointed a committee to probe these suspicions in January. The panel consists of Prof. Jacques Michel, chair of the panel for experiments on human beings at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Dr. Mina Arinos, Health Ministry director of experiments on human, Arye Paz, the ministry's comptroller, and attorney Yoel Lifschitz of the ministry's legal department.

The committee's first session, which was originally scheduled yesterday, was postponed until April after Barel announced that the committee had taken on legal services.

The inquiry was triggered by the State Comptroller's probe of allegations of experiments on human beings at Israeli hospitals, as Haaretz recently reported.

The comptroller's office is investigating suspicions that doctors conducted experiments in violation of the law and ministry directives, and that deaths during experiments had not been reported or investigated, as required by law. It is also looking into alleged experiments on elderly people, mentally ill people, and children, without obtaining all requisite permits or the full consent of all subjects.

The comptroller's office is conducting the investigation both in general and psychiatric hospitals.