Conflict of Interests Disclosures Come to PubMed

By Christopher Robertson

Scholars and policymakers have long been concerned that the biomedical science literature — and thus the practice of medicine — is biased by the companies who fund research on their own products.  Prior research has shown that industry-funded studies tend to produce results favorable to their company sponsors.  One solution is disclosure of industry funding, so that physicians and other consumers of the biomedical literature can weigh scientific findings accordingly.

My prior work with Aaron Kesselheim, Susannah Rose, and others has found that adding such disclosures to biomedical abstracts could make a big difference — physicians understand them and will rely upon them.  Nonetheless, most journals bury the disclosures at the end of articles, which are often hidden behind paywalls and not nearly as salient as the methods and findings displayed in the abstract.  For the Institutional Corruption Lab of the Edmond J. Safra Center, I worked with a team of hackers to create a browser extension that proves the feasibility of adding those disclosures into PubMed, a Federal government database of the scientific literature.

Thankfully, that browser extension is becoming obsolete, as the National Library of Medicine (part of the NIH) has begun implementing such disclosures themselves, right in PubMed.   A search reveals that nearly 80,000 abstracts now have such tags.  While a lot in absolute terms, it is a small minority of the 17 million abstracts covered by PubMed.  Commentators have suggested that as much as 70% of the funding for clinical trials comes from industry, so we should expect millions of abstracts to have such disclosures.

Thus we are still a long way from comprehensive and effective disclosure.  There are two problems. Continue reading

Epistemic Injustice, Procedural Fairness, and the Real Weight of Medical Evidence

By Wendy S. Salkin

March 6, 2017

In his lucid and fascinating February 2017 article in the AMA Journal of Ethics, “What is the Relevance of Procedural Fairness to Making Determinations about Medical Evidence?,” Govind Persad, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and in the Berman Institute of Bioethics, considers the following questions: How can fair procedures “help address epistemological and factual questions in medicine”?[1]

As Persad sees it, dilemmas in medical ethics and health policy often involve two questions. One is a factual or descriptive question concerning “which benefits an intervention will have.” (183) The other is an ethical question concerning “how to distribute those benefits.” (183) Persad provides the following example to tease out the distinction:

determining who should receive priority for scarce vaccines in a pandemic involves answering two questions: the descriptive (factual) question of which benefits these vaccines are expected to have for their recipients and the normative (value) question of how those prospective benefits should be distributed. (183)

Persad is interested in considering how fair procedures can be used to address questions of the first sort—the “epistemological and factual questions in medicine.” (183) He sets for himself the following task: to “consider how fair procedures have been and can be used to develop and weigh factual evidence in medicine.” (184) Persad foresees an increase in both the significance and frequency of “debates over the validity and weight of medical evidence” as the amount of medical evidence that is both required and amassed increases. He foresees an acceleration in this trend, which he credits to

the expansion of clinical data collection and analysis; the growing relevance of scientific evidence to medical practice…; and the use of evidence to support payment and insurance coverage decisions that have financial implications for patients and providers. (184)

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Participant Power

By Jason Bobe, MSc (Associate Professor, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; Executive Director, Open Humans Foundation; Co-founder, DIYbio.org)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here. Jason Bobe will be participating in an NIH videocast on return of genetic results in the All of Us research program starting at 8AM on Monday, March 6, 2017.  You can tune in here

People across the world regularly rank health and health care near the top of what they value. Yet most people don’t volunteer to participate in organized health research. This is the “participation paradox.” We appear to be neglecting the very inquiry that feeds our ability to understand our bodies and to evaluate approaches to preserve, improve, or recover health from disease.

Better advertising and more effective recruitment strategies for research studies may help drive numbers up. But catchy slogans won’t drive a cultural shift toward a new future, where research participation becomes a regular part of life and organized health research is seen as a first step toward solving our health challenges, not merely the last hope for people with devastating illnesses.

Given how long it took patient-centered medicine to catch on, participant-centered research may face a long road ahead. Warner Slack was publishing about “patient power” at least as far back as 1972 (in his chapter on “Patient Power: A Patient-Oriented Value System,” in Computer Diagnosis and Diagnostic Methods, edited by John A. Jacquez, 1978). More than forty years later, great strides have been made, yet “patient power” is still a work in progress.

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The Wearables Revolution: Personal Health Information as the Key to Precision Medicine

By Ernesto Ramirez, PhD (Director of Research & Development, Fitabase)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

Personal health data has historically been controlled by the healthcare industry. However, much has changed in the last decade. From wearable devices for tracking physical activity, to services that decode the personal microbiome, there has been an explosion of methods to collect and understand our personal health and health behavior. This explosion has created a new type of data that has the potential to transform our understanding of the deep interactions of health behaviors, exposure, and outcomes — data that is large-scale, longitudinal, real-time, and portable.

New devices, applications, and services are creating large amounts of data by providing methods for collecting information repeatedly over long periods of time. For example, I have tracked over 20 million steps since 2011 using a Fitbit activity tracker. Many of the new tools of personal health data are also connected to the Internet through Bluetooth communication with smartphones and tablets. This connectivity, while commonly used to update databases as devices sync, also provides an opportunity to view data about ourselves in real-time. Lastly, there is an increasing interest in making this data accessible through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow third parties to access and analyze data as is becomes available. Already we are seeing unique and useful tools being developed to bring consumer personal health data to bear in clinical settings, health research studies, and health improvement tools and services.

The availability of this type of personal health data is having a big impact. The examples provided by the #WeAreNotWaiting and #OpenAPS communities showcase the groundbreaking potential of portable, usable, personal data. It is transforming the quality of life for individuals living with type 1 diabetes. Through access to data from continuous glucose monitors and wireless control of insulin pumps, over 100 individuals have implemented their own version of an artificial pancreas. These pioneering individuals are at the forefront of a revolution using personal health data to take charge of care and customize treatment decisions.

Personal health data will play a major role in the future of precision medicine, healthcare, and health research. Sensors will continue to improve. New data streams will become available. More analytical tools will surface. There will be more support for portable and sharable data. The availability of large-scale, longitudinal, and real-time personal health data will improve not only the ability of individuals to understand their own health, but when pooled, may produce new insights about what works, for what people, under what conditions.

Patient-Driven Medical Innovations: Building a Precision Medicine Supply Chain for All

Kingshuk K. Sinha, PhD (Department Chair and Mosaic Company-Jim Prokopanko Professor of Corporate Responsibility Supply Chain and Operations Department, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

While the promise and potential of precision medicine are clear, delivering on that promise and making precision medicine accessible to all patients will require clinical adoption and a reliable and responsible supply chain. We already know this is a big problem in pharmacogenomics technology; the science is advancing rapidly, but clinical adoption is lagging. While Big Data can be a powerful tool for health care – whether it be an individual’s whole genome or an online aggregation of information from many patients with a particular disease – building implementation pathways to analyze and use the data to support clinical decision making is crucial. All of the data in the world doesn’t mean much if we can’t ensure that the development of precision medicine is linked with the efficient, safe, and equitable delivery of precision medicine.

Effective implementation means addressing the stark realities of health disparities. Leveraging citizen science to develop and deliver precision medicine has the potential to reduce those disparities. Citizen science complements more traditional investigator-driven scientific research and engages amateur and non-professional scientists, including patients, patients’ families, and communities across socio-economic strata as well as country boundaries.

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Final Common Rule Revisions Just Published

This morning, the Federal Register posted for public inspection the final rule revising the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (AKA “The Common Rule”).  This has been a long, long road, beginning with an ANPRM in 2011 and a massive NPRM in 2015.  The agencies clearly wanted to slide this in before the administration change on Friday, but substantial uncertainty remains.

I’ve copied the preamble’s articulation of key changes – and key proposals that have been dropped – below the fold.  But I want to briefly address the “what now?” question.  The incoming Trump administration will have its hands full with ACA “repeal and something,” so it’s hard to imagine this regulatory change will be high on the priority list, especially with some of the most worrisome proposals having been nixed already.  But the Congressional Review Act provides Congress a streamlined process to eliminate new agency rules.  Under the Act, agencies must notify Congress of new regulations, triggering a 60 legislative day review period in which Congress can pass a resolution of disapproval for presidential signature (or veto).  So that’s a possibility here.

In addition, two bills have passed the House that could impact these regulations.  First, the Midnight Rules Relief Act would amend the Congressional Review Act to allow Congress to disapprove multiple rules at once.  In other words, Congress could pass a resolution of disapproval of ALL regulations that had been recently passed to get rid of them all in one fell swoop without individual consideration.  Second, the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act, if passed, would require that “major” rules get a joint resolution of Congressional approval within 70 session days to take effect – “major” is defined as having an annual impact of $100M or more, a major increase in costs, or significant adverse effects on innovation.

Point being, don’t get too comfortable with the new rule just yet.  Key changes – and things that are staying the same – are listed below (from the Fed. Reg. notice).  And I’ll be presenting on these matters at Petrie-Flom’s upcoming conference, Health Law Year in P/Review, on Monday 1/23/17.

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LIVE ONLINE TODAY @ NOON: President-Elect Trump’s Health Policy Agenda: Priorities, Strategies, and Predictions

trump_ryan_pence_header

Webinar: President-Elect Trump’s Health Policy Agenda: Priorities, Strategies, and Predictions

Monday, December 19, 2016, 12:00 – 1:00pm

WATCH LIVE ONLINE!: http://petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/events/details/president-elect-trumps-health-policy-agenda

Submit your questions to the panelists via Twitter @PetrieFlom.

Please join the Petrie-Flom Center for a live webinar to address what health care reform may look like under the new administration. Expert panelists will address the future of the Affordable Care Act under a “repeal and replace” strategy, alternative approaches to insurance coverage and access to care, the problem of high drug prices, innovation policy, support for scientific research, and other topics. The panel will discuss opportunities and obstacles relevant to President-elect Trump’s proposals, as well as hopes and concerns for health policy over the next four years. Webinar participants will have the opportunity to submit questions to the panelists for discussion.

Panelists

  • Joseph R. Antos, Wilson H. Taylor Scholar in Health Care and Retirement Policy, American Enterprise Institute
  • Lanhee J. Chen, David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; Director of Domestic Policy Studies and Lecturer, Public Policy Program; affiliate, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University
  • Douglas Holtz-Eakin, President, American Action Forum
  • Moderator:Gregory Curfman, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Health Publications

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Losing the Arms Race: Health Policy and Anti-Microbial Resistance

By Seán Finan

And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed…

H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds  

The WHO World Antibiotic Awareness Week ran from 15-22 November. It coincided with similar European and American initiatives. So, in the interests of raising awareness, I thought I would highlight a few figures.

Photo by Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIHAntimicrobial resistance currently causes an estimated 70,000 deaths annually. If current practices continue, the death toll is expected to hit to ten million per year by 2050. That works out at about one death every three seconds.

The threat isn’t limited to increased mortality. Anti-microbial resistance could cast medical practice back to turn-of-the-century standards. Turn of the 20th century, that is. Without antibiotics, the chance of infection turns chemotherapy and invasive surgeries into mortal gambles. During these procedures, the body’s immune system is subject to massive exposure and needs antibiotic support. Even ordinary nicks and scratches can lead to fatal infections without effective antibiotics.

So what is antimicrobial resistance? How does it come about? What can we do to combat it and prevent the “antibiotic apocalypse”?

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Violations of federal antifraud provisions alleged against two hepatitis B treatment producers

By Wendy S. Salkin

Two investor class-action suits have been filed within days of one another against two different California-based pharmaceutical companies both of which produce hepatitis B treatments, Dynavax Technologies and Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals. The named plaintiffs in both shareholder class-action suits, David Soontjens and Yaki J. Meller, are represented by counsel at Pomerantz, LLP.[1]

Meller v. Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals, Inc., et al., complaint filed (C. D. Cal. Nov. 15, 2016)

On November 15th, named plaintiff Yaki J. Meller filed a Class Action Complaint in the United States District Court for the Central District of California against Pasadena-based Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals, Inc., its President and CEO (Christopher Anzalone), and its CFO (Kenneth Myszkowski). Arrowhead is a biopharmaceutical company that, according to its website, “develops medicines that treat intractable diseases by silencing the genes that cause them.”

Among its clinical stage drugs are ARC-520 and ARC-521, which “are designed to treat chronic hepatitis B virus infection by reducing the expression and release of new viral particles and key viral proteins with the goal of achieving a functional cure.” ARC-520 is the drug at issue. According to the Complaint, Arrowhead knew but failed to disclose that ARC-520 “could be fatal at its higher doses and that the FDA was unlikely to approve the treatment as a result.”[2] In particular, the Complaint alleges that Arrowhead:

made false and/or misleading statements and/or failed to disclose that: (i) the Company’s ARC-520 was unsafe at certain doses and caused deaths in an ongoing primate toxicology study; and (ii) as a result, Arrowhead’s public statements were materially false and misleading at all relevant times.

According to Meller’s Complaint, in so doing, Arrowhead violated Sections 10(b) (“Position Limits and Position Accountability for Security-Based Swaps and Large Trader Reporting.”) and 20(a) (“Liability to contemporaneous traders for insider trading.”) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, “Position Limits and Position Accountability for Security-Based Swaps and Large Trader Reporting” and “Liability to contemporaneous traders for insider trading,” respectively, and Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 10b-5, “Employment of manipulative and deceptive devices.”

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New Tech, New Rules: Organoids and Ethics at the CJEU

Introduction

Last week, while attending a conference, organized by the Petrie-Flom Center in conjunction with a number of other Harvard institutions, on the ethics of early embryo research and the future of the 14-day rule, I was struck by the presentations on recent developments in stem cell technology. The speakers outlined fascinating developments in human brain organoids. And, since my own cranial organoid is becoming increasingly single track, I started wondering about the potential patentability of such inventions.

An intestinal organoid grown from Lgr5+ stem cells

An intestinal organoid grown from Lgr5+ stem cells

By way of very brief explanation, a human brain organoid is a structure of cells created in vitro through the stimulation of human stem cells. A recent paper has concluded that, given the right conditions for their development, these cell cultures can grow to resemble a 20 week-old human brain in vivo in a number of important respects.

At the conference, Dr John Aach, of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School highlighted the potential of these technologies to form the basis of innovative research and treatments. However, he also highlighted new ethical questions posed by them. In particular, (and I fear I may be grossly oversimplifying his much more subtle presentation) he noted that a sufficiently developed human brain organoid might have the capacity to feel pain. Such technologies might fall to be regulated alongside human embryos created for research. In most jurisdictions, developing an embryo beyond 14 days of gestation is prohibited, whether by law or soft regulation. The rule originally struck a balance between the interests of research and the demands of ethics: day 14 usually marks the appearance of the primitive streak in an embryo and presents a convenient point to place an ethical limitation on research.  Dr Aach noted, however, that a brain organoid does not fall under the traditional definition of embryo. As such, its development is not necessarily subject to the 14-day rule. And yet, the creation of a clump of cells that feels pain is clearly a cause for ethical concern. He argued that the time has come to re-examine the rule in light of technological advancements like organoids. Its replacement, he argued, should not be based on canonical limits but on the underlying moral concerns. Continue reading

Petrie-Flom seeks Harvard student RA for project on human subjects research

The PFC Logo-New-Horizontal_slidePetrie-Flom Center for Health Law and Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics seeks a part-time research assistant for a project with Harvard Catalyst (Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center) on challenges and innovation in human subjects research, addressing such issues as the regulatory and ethical aspects of research using electronic and online mediums, payment of research participants, models of community engagement and patient-centered research, and participant comprehension in informed consent. The work will initially involve 6-8 hours per week for 3 months. Applicants who have completed at least one year of a graduate program in law, health policy, or a related field are particularly encouraged to apply. Please contact Luke Gelinas, PhD, lgelinas@law.harvard.edu.

Social Media Use in Research Recruitment: A New Guidance Document from Petrie-Flom and Harvard Catalyst

stethoscope_computerImagine this scenario: you are a researcher conducting a clinical trial on a promising treatment for a rare but serious heart condition. Unfortunately, you are struggling to locate and enroll enough eligible participants and your study is at risk of not completing. Then you discover a Facebook support group for precisely the condition you are studying. The group is open: you do not need to be invited or to suffer from the condition to become a member—anyone can join. Here are the eligible participants you have been looking for!

But what are your obligations in approaching members of this group for recruitment? Would such recruitment be ethically advisable? Under what conditions? And what ethical norms apply when approaching sick and potentially vulnerable people for recruitment over social media? How should you (and the IRB) evaluate this type of activity from an ethical perspective?

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Kidneys and Livers, Made to Order?

By Seán Finan

Last week, Organovo might just have revolutionised the pharmaceutical industry. The San Diego-based company specialises in producing structures that mimic the behaviours and functions of human tissue, using 3D bioprinting. They announced last week that they were beginning the commercial manufacture and sale of their ExVive Kidney. The product models the proximal tubule of the human kidney and holds significant promise for clinical trials of new drugs. The commercialization of the ExVive Kidney follows the release of ExVive Human Liver Tissue in 2014.

In essence, Organovo is using 3D printing technology to produce samples of “human” tissue that can be used to test the toxicity of new drugs. The printing process, known as 3D bioprinting, involves extracting human cells, culturing them and suspending them in a solution. The resulting “bioink” is fed through a modified 3D printer. Layer by layer, the printer deposits cells, producing a mass with a similar structure and density to a sample of, for example, human liver. Just like “organ on a chip” technology, these synthetic liver and kidney samples present significant advantages over traditional clinical testing.

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Trial by Fire: CRISPR takes the next step

CRISPR-Cas9 has drawn applause for being one of the biggest technological advancements in recent history, but it also raises important ethical issues. This technology, an efficient genome editing tool, is now taking its next big step: CRISPR might be going in for human trials for its potential use in fighting cancer (namely, by altering T-cells to treat cancer cells as “foreign bodies”). Trials have been proposed to be conducted at three sites over a period of two years. The Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) at the NIH gave its unanimous approval for these trials earlier this week. Now permissions from FDA and Institutional Review Boards remain before this becomes a reality.

Whether or not the studies will get that approval is uncertain. The RAC already expressed concerns about conflict of interest, and the ghosts of the trial involving Jesse Gelsinger 17 years ago at UPenn have resurfaced.  There are also important questions about risks, uncertainty, and informed consent from the research participants.

The scientific community and regulators have been wary of the gravity of the implications of genome editing. When a Chinese study involving gene editing in human embryos was submitted for publication, there was a hue and cry over whether journals should accept it, given ethical concerns. Currently, there is a moratorium on altering DNA that will subsequently pass on to new generations. Even when the CRISPR technology was approved for editing human embryos in the UK, it was mandated that embryos be destroyed within fourteen days.

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NPRM Symposium: Quick Take on New Analysis of the Comments on the NPRM to Amend the Common Rule (and the Challenge for Bioethics and the Public)

The Council on Governmental Relations (COGR), with support from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), undertook “to review and analyze the 2,186 public comments submitted in response to the 2015 Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects” or “Common Rule” Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

I am going to discuss some highlights of their just released report, but this is far from exhaustive and you should read the whole report.

For the non-cognoscenti this is the most important revision to the rules for U.S. human subjects research since their inception. The report is largely unfavorable to several key proposed rule changes on my first read, but you should read it yourself to make up your own mind.

I’ll share some choice passages from the analysis

The results of our review (Table 2) find significant opposition to most major proposals, with mixed support for mandated use of a single IRB and extending the Common Rule and greater support for the concept of standard security safeguards. In addition, a number of responses suggested that the NPRM is overly complex, poorly written, and not supported by data; highlighted areas that could have a substantial impact on a final rule but were not included in the NPRM (e.g., proposed security safeguards, a consent template, a list of minimal risk studies and a decision tool); and suggested that some of the proposals would adversely affect human health with little perceived benefit.

Turning to Biospecimens, where we had a conference last year that will soon generate a book with MIT press:

The majority of responses, approximately 1,520, addressed one or more of the proposed changes detailed above involving non-identified biospecimens. Of these responses, 94 – 100% of patients and members of the research community, including researchers, universities, medical centers and industry, opposed the changes. Those commenting suggested that the proposed changes will significantly reduce the availability of biospecimens for research, will have a significant negative impact on medical advances, and will adversely affect human health. Per one patient, “I am asking for life saving policy not life ending policies.” From a biorepository, “Respecting autonomy at the expense of patient lives is a significant ethical concern.”

More surprising was their finding that “Among members of the general public, 55% opposed and 45% supported one or more of the major proposed changes related to biospecimens.” (They do a better breakdown of the various sub-constituencies in the report).

Turning to “broad consent” for biospecimen use:

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Webcast: Dennis on Precision Medicine and Cancer Pathology

The Regulatory Science Series at University of Arizona

presents

Eslie Dennis, MD,
Vice President and Head Global Medical Affairs Ventana Medical Systems, Inc., a member of Roche Group

speaking on 

“Cancer, Pathology, and Precision Medicine:  Virchow Revisited Through Grogan’s Lens”

Available live at 3PM Eastern Apr 6 and archived at https://goo.gl/NGEBPt

Why Senator Markey’s Message Hurts Children

Last week, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) placed a hold on the Senate’s nomination of Robert Califf’s as head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The move was less against Califf and more as political leverage against FDA’s approval of OxyContin. In August 2015, FDA approved OxyContin, a prescription painkiller, for pediatric patients ages 11 to 17. OxyContin is the painkiller most associated with United State’s prescription drug abuse epidemic, accounting for an increase in drug overdose and death over the last decade. FDA’s approval of OxyContin for children drew concern from Markey and others that the approval would lead to an increase in drug misuse for children and their family members. Markey, who has prioritized the fight against opioid addiction in his legislative agenda, hopes he can use the hold to convince FDA to reverse its August decision.

Senator Markey’s message is well intentioned, but may ultimately do more harm than good for children.

Before FDA approved OxyContin in August, children who suffered from severe, chronic pain due to cancer, extensive trauma, or serious surgeries had few drugs approved to treat their pain. Many physicians treating severe pain in children prescribed OxyContin off-label, without proof that OxyContin could safely and effectively treat children. These physicians often relied on their experience or intuition to not under or overprescribe the drug. FDA’s approval in August meant the pharmaceutical manufacturer finally provided physicians with instructions, backed by controlled studies, explaining how physicians could safely use OxyContin to treat children with severe pain. Continue reading

Some Commentary on How to Think About Secondary Research with Biospecimens

The public comment period on the NPRM to revise the Common Rule has just closed, and now we wait to see what happens (if anything), and when.  One of the most controversial proposals in the NPRM would require at least broad consent for secondary research with biospecimens (i.e., research on specimens originally collected for another purpose, either clinical care or a different study), regardless of whether those specimens retain identifiers.  This is a substantial change from the status quo, which does not require consent for such research with de-identified specimens.  How should we feel about this status quo, and the proposed change?  My own view is that it’s really not so bad: the risks to individual research participants are quite low, and the current approach facilitates critically important scientific advancement.  There is certainly room for improvement, e.g., to impose punishment on those who would act to re-identify de-identified specimens without permission, to inform the public that such research takes place, and to educate them about its value, perhaps allowing those who still feel very strongly that they prefer not to be included an opportunity to opt-out.  But what has been actually proposed has more problems than what it would replace, and in fact, wouldn’t solve some of those it seems to be a response to.

Rebecca Skloot feels otherwise.  She is the author of a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which chronicles the origin of one particularly important cell line – HeLa  – derived from cells that had been excised from Ms. Lacks in the course of a 1951 surgery to treat her cancer, and later used for research without her knowledge or permission.  Ms. Lacks was poor, uneducated, and black, and her descendants have also faced more than their fair share of adversity.  Ms. Skloot paints a compelling story of exploitation, but in my opinion, it is much more effective as a narrative about the horrible and enduring legacy of racism in this country than as proof that researchers who conduct secondary research with biospecimens without consent (as permitted under the current regulations, remember) or even without profit-sharing have behaved badly. After all, if individual risks are low and social benefits high – both true – then what’s the problem?  And it is far from clear that specimen sources deserve compensation for no other reason than that their discarded material actually proves valuable to scientists.  Nonetheless, the book has been used as a rallying cry by people from all walks of life who believe that they should be allowed to control whether, and potentially how, their specimens are used for research. Indeed, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is probably the single most important development that pushed the proposed revisions to the Common Rule forward, for the first time since they were released in 1991.

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New Developments in the Guatemala STD Experiments Case

In the late 1940s, US government scientists, in collaboration with Guatemalan counterparts, were involved in a horrible array of experiments on human subjects in which a variety of vulnerable groups in Guatemala were intentionally infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid and left without treatment. [For more on how they ended up in Guatemala and the ethics of intentional infection studies, see my work here and here.] The experiments were done without consent and without scientific rigor, violating both contemporaneous and modern ethical standards.  They were not uncovered, however, until a few years ago when a historian discovered the files in the midst of doing archival research on one of the scientists, who had also been involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study in the US.

Since her discovery, the US and Guatemalan governments have both issued apologies and reports condemning the studies (here and here), and the US pledged a relatively small amount of money to support the Guatemalan government’s efforts to improve surveillance and control of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases in that country. However, individual compensation to the victims of the experiments and their families has not been forthcoming; the victims calls for a voluntary compensation program to be established have gone unheeded, and they have also been unable to prevail in court, for a variety of jurisdictional and technical reasons.

As Glenn Cohen and I argued following the victims’ first court loss in 2012, compensation is a moral imperative.  We expressed support for a voluntary compensation program, but in its absence, alternative mechanisms of justice are essential.  Therefore, we were heartened to hear that a petition for the victims was just filed in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., by the Office of Human Rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala, represented by the UC Irvine School of Law International Human Rights Clinic and The City Project of Los Angeles.  The petition claims violations of the rights to life, health, freedom from torture, and crimes against humanity under both the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as the denial of a right to a remedy for human rights violations.

There are still a number of hurdles ahead, not the least of which is determining which individuals would actually be entitled to compensation, as the record keeping in the initial experiments was so poor and so much time has passed.  But we are heartened that advocates are still pressing forward for these victims and hope that justice, though certainly delayed, will not continue to be denied.

More information on the petition is available here.

The Common Rule NPRM: Single IRB Review

By: Academic and Clinical Research Group at Verrill Dana LLP

[Crossposted from the The Common Rule NPRM Blog Series on the Endpoints Blog]

To rely or not to rely? Under the recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) and fifteen other federal agencies outlining changes to their existing human subject protection regulations (the “Common Rule”), this would generally no longer be a question in the U.S. Part 2 of our Academic and Clinical Research Group (“ACRG”) blog series on the Common Rule NPRM addresses the NPRM’s proposal to require U.S. institutions engaged in domestic cooperative research to rely on a “single IRB” to provide review of the research on their behalf in most circumstances. This proposal remains a constant from the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) that was published in 2011, despite comments from the regulated community suggesting that HHS take steps to encourage various types of IRB reliance arrangements but stop short of a mandate. We expect that many institutions may be planning to comment again on whether single IRB review should become a mandate and on the associated relative burdens and benefits of such review (whether it is mandatory or permissive). This blog post does not comment on logistical implementation issues or on the cost assumptions provided by HHS in support of the proposal. Rather, we outline below some additional questions and issues that organizations may wish to consider or address in submitting comments on the proposal.

Thanks to a just-granted 30-day extension of the public comment period for the NPRM, comments on the NPRM are now due to HHS by January 6, 2016. The ACRG has prepared an unofficial redline of the proposed changes against the existing regulations and a set of decision charts to assist with navigating the proposed changes.

ACRG Rapid Rundown: Six Things You Need to Know

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