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.