Copenhagen Conference: Legal Perspectives on Synthetic Biology and Gene Editing

Join us at the Centre for Information and Innovation Law (CIIR) Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen on 20 November, 2017 to discuss Legal Perspectives on Synthetic Biology and Gene Editing.


Emerging technologies in Synthetic Biology and Gene Editing offer incredible opportunities and promising solutions to some of the most urgent challenges faced by humanity, such as climate change, environmental protection, growing population, renewable energy and improved health care. But the emerging applications also raise exceptional ethical, legal and social questions.

This conference marks the final phase of the participation of the Copenhagen Biotech and Pharma Forum (CBPF) Research Group at the Centre for Information and Innovation Law (CIIR) in the cross-faculty research project BioSYNergy. In accordance with the goals of this large cross-faculty project on Synthetic Biology, the event explores legal perspectives on synthetic biology, systems biology and gene editing. Dealing with the legal responses to ethical and scientific challenges raised by emerging life science technology. Continue reading

How should we organize consent to research biobanking in the hospital?

By Alena Buyx, MD PhD

Ever wondered what happens to the biological material you leave behind when you check out of the hospital? Nothing much, is the usual answer. However, the little bits of blood, tissue, and urine are potentially valuable for medical research; miniscule amounts of it may already allow sophisticated analyses, including genetic ones. Thus, in an approach termed ‘healthcare-embedded biobanking’, healthcare providers have started collections of leftover patient materials to create resources for future research.

However, unlike traditional research, healthcare-embedded biobanking is not done with a clear research question in mind. The materials are simply left-overs from diagnosis or treatment and, at the time of collection, the scientific projects for which they may be used eventually are entirely unclear.

This approach leads to an ethical conundrum. Established research ethics frameworks found here and here require that patients be asked for their consent and that they are given  all the information they need to make an informed decision about whether to donate their material (and its associated data) or not.  This includes, in particular, the research goals as well as the potential benefits and risks. However, this provision of information is not possible in healthcare-embedded biobanking: the risks and benefits can only be described in very broad terms, and the goals and timing of future research are usually unknown. Indeed, the materials may even not be used at all. Continue reading

The First Human Body Transplant – Ethical and Legal Considerations

By Ana S. Iltis, PhD

brain_glowingprofileTo what lengths should we go to preserve human life? This is a question many are asking after hearing that three men plan to make medical history by conducting the first human head transplant. Or, rather, whole body transplant. Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero and Chinese surgeon Dr. Xiaoping Ren plan to provide a Russian volunteer, Valery Spiridonov, a new body. During the procedure, Spiridonov’s body and head would be detached and, with the help of a crane, surgeons would move the head and attach it to the donor body.  But is this ethical? What role might law and regulation play in monitoring them or in assessing their conduct after the fact?

Critics call the plan crazy, unethical, and sure to fail. The likelihood of success is very low and the risk of Spiridinov dying is high. Spiridonov says that as soon as animal studies confirm the possibility of survival, the risks will be worth taking. He has Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, a genetic disorder that destroys muscle and nerve cells. He is confined to a wheelchair and has lived longer than expected. Body transplantation offers him the best chance at a life worth living. Continue reading

Patenting Bioprinting Technologies in the US and Europe – The Fifth Element in the Third Dimension

By Timo Minssen

I am happy to announce the publication of our new working paper on  “Patenting Bioprinting Technologies in the US and Europe – The 5th element in the 3rd dimension.” The paper, which has  been co-authored by Marc Mimler, starts out by describing the state of the art and by examining what sorts of bioprinting inventions are currently being patented. Based on our findings we then discuss what types of future innovations we can expect from the technological development and how far these would and/or should be protectable under European and US patent laws.

The paper is forthcoming in: RM Ballardini, M Norrgård & J Partanen (red), 3D printing, Intellectual Property and Innovation – Insights from Law and Technology. Wolters Kluwer, but the working paper is already available on SSRN. Continue reading

Bill of Health Blog Symposium: How Patients Are Creating the Future of Medicine

We are pleased to host this symposium featuring commentary from participants in the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences event, “How Patients Are Creating Medicine’s Future: From Citizen Science to Precision Medicine.”  Below, Susan M. Wolf tees up the issues.  All posts in the series will be available here.

How Patients Are Creating the Future of Medicine: Roundtable at the University of Minnesota

By Susan M. Wolf, JD (Chair, Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences; McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy; Faegre Baker Daniels Professor of Law; Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota)

Citizen science, the use of mobile phones and other wearables in research, patient-created medical inventions, and the major role of participant-patients in the “All of Us” Precision Medicine Initiative are just a few of the indicators that a major shift in biomedical research and innovation is under way. Increasingly, patients, families, and the public are in the driver’s seat, setting research priorities and the terms on which their data and biospecimens can be used. Pioneers such as Sharon Terry at Genetic Alliance and Matthew Might at have been forging a pathway to genuine partnership linking patients and researchers. But the legal and ethical questions remain daunting. How should this research be overseen? Should the same rules apply as in more conventional, academically driven research? What limits should apply to parental use of unvalidated treatments on children affected by severe, rare disease? And should online patient communities be able to set their own rules for research?

In December 2016, the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences convened four thinkers with diverse academic and professional backgrounds to analyze these trends. This event, “How Patients Are Creating Medicine’s Future: From Citizen Science to Precision Medicine” was part of the Consortium’s Deinard Memorial Lecture Series on Law & Medicine, co-sponsored by the University’s Center for Bioethics and Joint Degree Program in Law, Science & Technology, with support from the Deinard family and law firm of Stinson Leonard Street. To see a video of the event, visit

The four speakers offered diverse and provocative perspectives, each of which is highlighted in this series.

Citizen-Led Bioethics for the Age of Citizen Science: CRexit, BioEXIT, and Popular Bioethics Uprisings

By Barbara J. Evans, MS, PhD, JD, LLM (Alumnae College Professor of Law; Director, Center on Biotechnology & Law, University of Houston)

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.

The citizen science movement goes beyond merely letting people dabble in science projects. It involves giving regular people a voice in how science should be done. And citizen science calls for a new, citizen-led bioethics.

Twentieth-century bioethics was a top-down affair. Ethics experts and regulators set privacy and ethical standards to protect research subjects, who were portrayed as autonomous but too vulnerable and disorganized to protect themselves. The Common Rule’s informed consent right is basically an exit right: people can walk away from research if they dislike the study objectives or are uncomfortable with the privacy protections experts think are good for them. An exit right is not the same thing as having a voice with which to negotiate the purposes, terms, and conditions of research.

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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,

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

By Seán Finan


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

Organs and Overdoses (Part II): ‘Higher risk’ donors

By Brad Segal

In my last post I characterized how overdoses from the surging opioid epidemic have become the fastest-growing cause of mortality among organ donors. In this update, I raise one potential consequence with ethical and policy implications: so-called donor-derived infections. To be clear, I focus primarily on organ recipients as deaths from drug overdose, and drug addiction more broadly, should be prevented regardless of any implications for transplantation. With this in mind, consider how the population of injection drug users shoulders a heavy burden of HIV, hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) (Table 1). First I will focus on screening guidelines, and then will move on to transplantation of organs known to carry an infection. table-1

Screening guidelines can help reduce the incidence of donor-derived infections, but the lab tests recommended in any policy must balance two potential concerns. First, lab tests have a rate of false negative results. Transplants of these organs will accidentally increase donor-derived infections. The policy question, then, is whether or not transplanting organs donated by individuals with higher risk of recent disease exposure will expose an unacceptable proportion of recipients to infection. This unintentional harm could undermine a duty of non-maleficence to organ recipients. Further complicating a potential screening policy is that the basic lab tests for HIV, HBV, and HCV detect the presence of human antibodies, which work well among a low-risk population, but antibodies might not appear in the blood until weeks after infection (Table 2).Recent infections are better detected by nucleic acid amplification (NAT) testing.To mitigate risk of infection,then, transplant screening policies should require a heightened level of surveillance among donors with a history of illicit drug use. Continue reading

Initial Quick Thoughts on the Announcement of the Birth Through Mitochondrial Replacement in Mexico

The science media is abuzz about the birth of a child using mitochondrial replacement techniques in Mexico to Jordanian parents at the hands of NY Doctors. A few quick reactions (I am heading to this unrelated NAS/IOM Committee meeting tomorrow evening so may have some more thoughts when that settles down).

  • This is the first time this particular technique has been used to produce a live, but I am not sure from an ethical standpoint the arguments are all that different. That said, for those deeply interested in the more philosophical question of harm to children and the propriety of best interests argument in light of Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem (my take here and here) it may matter whether mitochondrial replacement is done through Pronuclear Transfer or Maternal Spindle Transfer as argued quite well here.
  • The fact that the doctors are from New York, the Patients are from Jordan, and the procedure took place in Mexico is not insignificant. This is a form of medical tourism, a topic I wrote a book on, most similar to cases of fertility and stem cell therapy tourism I cover in the latter half of the book. Absent making domestic prohibitions extraterritorial, something that I argue is permitted by international law and justified in some instances, there is very little that a home country can do about this. The going abroad is likely in part at least a function of some U.S. laws on the subject Eli Adashi and I wrote about for JAMA prohibiting FDA from considering approval of the technology.
  • As I wrote on this blog in February in relation to the IOM report “whatever the US policy in a world where medical tourism is possible and other countries adopt their own systems, so long as not everyone adopts the approach of the US some of these problems will manifest no matter what. So this is about harm reduction not harm avoidance.” This was a bit quicker than even I thought, but is not surprising. More generally if your concern about MRT is harm to offspring and transmission to future generations, people born elsewhere through the technology will inevitably enter the United States and/or marry, and procreate with U.S. citizens who themselves become U.S. citizens. To sound a bit X-Files about it “THEY WILL BE AMONG US!” This is a great example of the limits of unilateral regulation in a world of globalized health care.
  • Interesting that it was a male birth. This may be coincidence or in keeping with the IOM recommendation that only male embryos be transferred (to get rid of germ line transmission). Eli Adashi and I raised some ethical questions in Nature about whether that was an ethically problematic form of sex selection or not but in the reporting I have seen so far it has not been clear that they used only male embryos on purpose.
  • I wish we could stop calling it in the media “Three Parent IVF” or “Three Parent Reproduction.” That assumes the answer to what I think of as a subtle and interesting set of questions — is the mitochondrial donor a “parent” and what sense of the word do we mean.

More soon, I hope!

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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NIH Announces Plans for new Rules for Funding Chimera Research (Human-Animal Mixtures)

As reported by Science, today the NIH announced plans to lift a preemptive year long moratorium on funding chimera research – that which mixes human and animal cells, often at the embryonic stage.

Here is a snippet from the Science article about the new proposed NIH process:

According to two notices released today, NIH is proposing to replace the moratorium with a new agency review process for certain chimera experiments. One type involves adding human stem cells to nonhuman vertebrate embryos through the gastrulation stage, when an embryo develops three distinct layers of cells that then give rise to different tissues and organs. The other category is studies that introduce human cells into the brains of postgastrulation mammals (except rodent studies, which won’t need extra review).

These proposed studies will go to an internal NIH steering committee of scientists, ethicists, and animal welfare experts that will consider factors such as the type of human cells, where they may wind up in the animal, and how the cells might change the animal’s behavior or appearance. The committee’s conclusions will then help NIH’s institutes decide whether to fund projects that have passed scientific peer review.

The devil will, of course, be in the details. It will be interesting to see how much NIH takes a more categorical approach as opposed to more case-by-case rule making like in the Institutional Review Board or ESCRO setting. Continue reading

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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Planned Parenthood And Fetal Tissue Sale: Manufactured Controversy And The Real Ethical Debate

This new post by I. Glenn Cohen appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

In 2013 the Center for Medical Progress appeared to have secured tax-exempt status for a fake company it set up called Biomax Procurement Services. The company’s “representatives” contacted the non-profit women’s health provider Planned Parenthood staffers and led them into conversations that were secretly recorded. The result, according to their website (as reported by CNN), was “a 30-month-long investigative journalism study by The Center for Medical Progress, documenting how Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted babies.”

The videos were edited down and released slowly in a way designed to paint Planned Parenthood in the worst light. While some have called it a “hoax,” that’s not a word I would use in this case. When I think of great journalistic hoaxes I think of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds (though more recent historical work suggests that the panic it caused may have been mythological). Instead what happened here, I want to suggest, is what I will call a “manufactured controversy.” [..]

Read the full post here.

FDA Announces Draft Guidance That Would Limit Enforcement Discretion for FMT

By Rachel Sachs

Yesterday, the FDA announced a new draft guidance regarding its exercise of its enforcement discretion around the investigational new drug (IND) requirements as they apply to fecal microbiota transplantation, or FMT.  For almost three years now, the FDA has exercised its enforcement discretion for FMT under a rather permissive set of guidelines, enabling patients to access FMT while companies shepherd a set of products through the clinical trial process.  I recently co-authored an article about the FDA’s regulation of FMT, and I’m concerned about this new guidance, in terms of safety, access, and regulatory clarity.  This is one of the wonkiest posts I’ve written in some time (and that’s saying something), so I’ll endeavor to be as clear as possible.

What is FMT and why is it important? To make a long story short, it’s a poop transplant.  Filtered stool from a healthy donor is transplanted into the gastrointestinal tract of a sick patient.  Although scientists are continuing to explore the use of FMT for a range of indications, we already know that FMT is a startlingly effective treatment for recurrent C. difficile infection.  C. difficile infections have become among the most common hospital-acquired infections in the United States, with more than 450,000 total incident infections annually.  Unfortunately, many of these infections are resistant to antibiotics: with those 450,000 infections came 80,000 recurrences and 29,000 deaths.  But FMT may provide a way forward.  A recent randomized trial of patients with recurrent C. difficile infections was stopped early, when 94% of patients in the FMT group were cured, as compared to roughly 30% of those getting only antibiotics.

How is the FDA involved? In May 2013, the FDA announced that fecal microbiota would be regulated as a drug.  All uses of FMT would therefore need to be part of an IND application, and patients who wanted to be treated with FMT for recurrent C. difficile would need to participate in a clinical trial to do so.  Physicians and scientists responded with concern, arguing that available evidence supporting FMT’s effectiveness as a therapy for recurrent C. difficile infection was too compelling for regulators to restrict its availability to clinical trials.  As such, in July 2013, the FDA announced that it would exercise enforcement discretion when FMT was used to treat patients “with C. difficile infection not responding to standard therapies,” so long as the treating physician obtained informed consent. Continue reading

Does the NAM Recommendation of Sex Selection for Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy Violate the Equal Protection Clause (Part III on my take on the NAM report)

As I said in one of my earlier posts today one of the most interesting parts of the NAM report on mitochondrial replacement therapy was its recommendation that only male embryos be implanted and not female ones. The argument is that this will eliminate the risks of germ-line transmission of anything untoward. I will leave it to others more versed in the risk factors to discuss whether this is an over-reaction (the UK did not adopt this in their recommendation) or reasonable. In the last post I discussed why politically/ethically this may get them in some hot water, but here  I want to raise a different question. Would such a recommendation be unconstitutional?

If FDA were to adopt this rule it would clearly be state action. It seems to be a state-law that favors one gender (males) over another (females) in that only males can be produced in this way. If that is right, under existing Supreme Court precedent it would be judged under “intermediate scrutiny.” To pass intermediate scrutiny, the challenged law must further an important government interest by means that are substantially related to that interest. Would this rule satisfy that test? Continue reading

Breaking News: NAM Releases Report on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (Part II My First Take)

By I. Glenn Cohen

My last post was a summary of the NAM’s Recommendations on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT). Now here is my take on the report. But keep in mind the report was just released and all I could give it was a quick read, so these are really more like initial impressions: 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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