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

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

NPRM Symposium: How Should We Think About Whether To Donate Our Leftover, Non-Identified Tissue to Research?

By Michelle Meyer

Proposed changes to the federal Common Rule would ask patients for the first time to decide whether to allow their non-identified, leftover tissue to be used for research or thrown away. For that choice to be meaningful, the public needs to be aware of the nature, risks, and benefits of biospecimens research, and of what the proposed changes will—and will not—do. In my latest Forbes essay, “No, Donating Your Leftover Tissue To Research Is Not Like Letting Someone Rifle Through Your Phone,” I consider the power of analogies and other reflections on Rebecca Skloot’s recent New York Times op-ed on the NPRM.

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.

NPRM Summary from HHS

As Michelle noted, the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on human subjects research is out after a long delay. For my (and many Bill of Health bloggers’) view about its predecessor ANPRM, you can check out our 2014 book, Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future.

Here is HHS’s own summary of what has changed and what it thinks is most important:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies have announced proposed revisions to modernize, strengthen, and make more effective the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects that was promulgated as a Common Rule in 1991.  A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was put on public display on September 2, 2015 by the Office of the Federal Register.  The NPRM seeks comment on proposals to better protect human subjects involved in research, while facilitating valuable research and reducing burden, delay, and ambiguity for investigators. It is expected that the NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2015.  There are plans to release several webinars that will explain the changes proposed in the NPRM, and a town hall meeting is planned to be held in Washington, D.C. in October. Continue reading

Black Lives Matter To Human Research–Lessons From ‘On The Run’

On-the-Run-w-Goffman

By Michele Goodwin

In her recent publication, On The Run, University of Wisconsin sociology professor, Alice Goffman writes about embedded research from 2002-2007 in a “ghetto” community she names 6th Street (located in Philadelphia).  The African American residents of this community are mostly poor and tethered to the  criminal justice system as parolees, on probation, and in and out of jail.  Goffman’s human research subjects comprised the jailed, imprisoned, and minors–IRBs generally describe these populations as “vulnerable.”

On The Run is hailed as original, creative, and transgressive because of Goffman’s lengthy stay in such a descriptively chilling, dangerous, and Black neighborhood–where frequent gun battles teach kids to dive for cover, the women are teen mothers or crack addicted, and law enforcement incessantly polices the community. Indeed, she moves into the neighborhood and lives with three of the 6th Street boys.  Much could be gained from documenting the challenges in such a community, particularly given the troubling patterns of mass incarceration in the U.S.  However, the book raises questions about what represents credibility, quality, and rigor in social science research; the book lacks an index, bibliography, and meaningful citations.  I write about these concerns and more in a forthcoming Texas Law Review essay, which can be found here.

Reviewers lauded the rigor and ignored ethics of the book, agreeing with Goffman’s Princeton advisor, Professor Mitchell Duneier, and his NY Times assessment that  “[t]he level of immersion is really unusual,” because “[s]he got access to the life of the ghetto and came to understand aspects of it we don’t ever get to see.”  Yet, therein resides a significant problem. Fascination with the ghetto and perceptions that life in inner-cities is so bad that researchers can’t possibly expose those human subjects to risks and harms may have blinded the book’s many reviewers to the fact that Black lives matter, including in human research.  It might have also implied a lower standard for rigor; it is rare that an academic book lacks a bibliography and index.  Goffman also destroyed her field notes. These concerns becomes starkly relevant when she writes about her desire and collaboration with “Mike” to kill a man from the neighboring 4th Street.

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The Ethics of Punking the Diet-Research Media Complex (and Millions of Readers)

Scale

By Michelle Meyer

A remarkable new “sting” of the “diet research-media complex” was just revealed. It tells us little we didn’t already know and has potentially caused a fair amount of damage, spread across millions of people. It does, however, offer an opportunity to explore the importance of prospective group review of non-consensual human subjects research—and the limits of IRBs applying the Common Rule in serving that function in contexts like this.

Journalist John Bohannon, two German reporters, a doctor and a statistician recruited 16 German subjects through Facebook into a three-week randomized controlled trial of diet and weight loss. One-third were told to follow a low-carb diet, one-third were told to cut carbs but add 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate (about 230 calories) per day, and one-third served as control subjects and were told to make no changes to their current diet. They were all given questionnaires and blood tests in advance to ensure they didn’t have diabetes, eating disorders, or other conditions that would make the study dangerous for them, and these tests were repeated after the study. They were each paid 150 Euros (~$163) for their trouble.

But it turns out that Bohannon, the good doctor (who had written a book about dietary pseudoscience), and their colleagues were not at all interested in studying diet. Instead, they wanted to show how easy it is for bad science to be published and reported by the media. The design of the diet trial was deliberately poor. It involved only a handful of subjects, had a poor balance of age and of men and women, and so on. But, through the magic of p-hacking, they managed several statistically significant results: eating chocolate accelerates weight loss and leads to healthier cholesterol levels and increased well-being. Continue reading

Harvard Effective Altruism: George Church this Monday

From Harvard College Effective Altruism:

The Risks of Biotechnology, with George Church
Monday, Oct. 20, 5.30pm, Sever 102

Genetic manipulations can reintroduce extinct viruses or create viruses much deadlier than ever before. What are the dangers associated with biotechnology? Can a mistake in a lab lead to a global pandemic? Can this technology be used by terrorists? What would be the implications? And is humanity doing enough to avoid these threats?

George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and the world’s leading expert on synthetic biology and security will share his insights on these issues.

George Church event_Harvard Effective Altruism

Research Assistant III: Work with Professors Eyal, Hammitt, Freedberg, Kuritzkes, and collaborators on HIV cure studies’ risks, risk perceptions, and ethics

The research assistant will work with the principal investigator Nir Eyal and collaborators from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Duke University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as the ACTG HIV trial site network. The multidisciplinary team uses methods of clinical epidemiology, economics, simulation modeling, and normative theory to predict risks in early-phase HIV cure studies, assess how much likely candidates for participation understand those risks, and make ethical recommendations on the conduct of HIV cure studies.

The research assistant will help prepare, conduct and analyze a pilot survey expected to take place in a US site of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG). The survey will assess perceptions of HIV cure and of cure study risks. The research assistant will also promote other research and grant-related activities, through literature reviews and assistance in the preparation of abstract, poster, and manuscripts for publication, grant applications, a simple project website (using Harvard’s user-friendly OpenScholar platform), and slides for lectures and seminars. The research assistant will be in touch with top researchers in HIV cure, medical decision making, and ethics from around the country, to facilitate our meetings, a workshop, and regular conversations to plan the research and debate ethical issues around early-phase HIV cure studies.

For the full job ad:
https://jobs.brassring.com/1033/asp/tg/cim_jobdetail.asp?partnerID=25240&siteID=5341&AReq=33776BR

Petrie-Flom Center Launches New Book on Human Subjects Research Regulation

Human Subjects Research Regulations Book CoverThe Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to announce publication of Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future (MIT Press 2014), co-edited by Petrie-Flom Center Faculty Director, I. Glenn Cohen, and Executive Director, Holly Fernandez Lynch.  This edited volume stems from the Center’s 2012 annual conference, which brought together leading experts in a conversation about whether and how the current system of human subjects research regulation in the U.S. ought to change to fit evolving trends, fill substantial gaps, and respond to identified shortcomings.

The book is currently available from MIT Press and Amazon, in hardcover and paperback.  We will be hosting a book discussion at Harvard Law School on October 22, and in Baltimore on December 5 at Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIMR)’s annual Advancing Ethical Research Conference.  Details will be announced shortly.

 From the book jacket:

 The current framework for the regulation of human subjects research emerged largely in reaction to the horrors of Nazi human experimentation, revealed at the Nuremburg trials, and the Tuskegee syphilis study, conducted by U.S. government researchers from 1932 to 1972. This framework, combining elements of paternalism with efforts to preserve individual autonomy, has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. Yet, as this book documents, it has significant flaws—including its potential to burden important research, overprotect some subjects and inadequately protect others, generate inconsistent results, and lag behind developments in how research is conducted. Invigorated by the U.S. government’s first steps toward change in over twenty years, Human Subjects Research Regulation brings together the leading thinkers in this field from ethics, law, medicine, and public policy to discuss how to make the system better. The result is a collection of novel ideas—some incremental, some radical—for the future of research oversight and human subject protection.

After reviewing the history of U.S. research regulations, the contributors consider such topics as risk-based regulation; research involving vulnerable populations (including military personnel, children, and prisoners); the relationships among subjects, investigators, sponsors, and institutional review boards; privacy, especially regarding biospecimens and tissue banking; and the possibility of fundamental paradigm shifts.

Contributors
 Adam Braddock, Alexander Morgan Capron, Ellen Wright Clayton, I. Glenn Cohen, Susan Cox, Amy L. Davis, Hilary Eckert, Barbara J. Evans, Nir Eyal, Heidi Li Feldman, Benjamin Fombonne, Elisa A. Hurley, Ana S. Iltis, Gail H. Javitt, Greg Koski, Nicole Lockhart, Holly Fernandez Lynch, Michael McDonald, Michelle N. Meyer, Osagie K. Obasogie, Efthimios Parasidis, Govind Persad, Rosamond Rhodes, Suzanne M. Rivera, Zachary M. Schrag, Seema K. Shah, Jeffrey Skopek, Laura Stark, Patrick Taylor, Anne Townsend, Carol Weil, Brett A. Williams, Leslie E. Wolf

For a more information, including the full table of contents, check out the book on the MIT Press website

A More Transparent System for Clinical Trials Data in Europe – Mind the Gaps!

By Timo Minssen

Following the approval of the European Parliament (EP) earlier last month, the Council of the European Union (the Council) adopted on 14 April 2014 a “Regulation on clinical trials on medicinal products for human use” repealing Directive 2001/20/EC.  As described in a press-release, the new law:

“aims to remedy the shortcomings of the existing Clinical Trials Directive by setting up a uniform framework for the authorization of clinical trials by all the member states concerned with a given single assessment outcome. Simplified reporting procedures, and the possibility for the Commission to do checks, are among the law’s key innovations.”

Moreover, and very importantly, the Regulation seeks to improve transparency by requiring pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers to publish the results of all their European clinical trials in a publicly-accessible EU database. In contrast to earlier stipulations which only obliged sponsor to publish the end-results of their clinical trials, the new law requires full clinical study reports to be published after a decision on – or withdrawal of – marketing authorization applications. Sponsors who do not comply with these requirements will face fines.

These groundbreaking changes will enter into force 20 days after publication in the Official Journal of the EU. However, it will first apply six months after a new EU portal for the submission of data on clinical trials and the above mentioned EU database have become fully functional. Since this is expected to take at least two years, the Regulation will apply in 2016 at the earliest (with an opt-out choice available until 2018).

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Update on Litigation in Looney v. Moore (SUPPORT Trial Class Action)

By Michelle Meyer

For those closely following the litigation over this clinical trial, a few updates. On January 22, the district court ruled on defendants’ motions to dismiss plaintiffs’ third amended complaint. That complaint named as defendants the director of the IRB, the chair of the IRB, the other members of the IRB (“the IRB defendants”)—all in their individual capacities; the PI of the trial, in his individual capacity; Masimo Corporation, the manufacturer of the oximeter used in the trial; and fictitious defendants (ABC Health Care Providers #1-100; ABC Individuals #1-100; and XYZ Entities #1-100). The complaint stated seven counts: products liability and negligence against Masimo; negligence, negligence per se, lack of informed consent, and breach of fiduciary duty against the IRB defendants and the PI; and wrongful death against all defendants.

Continue reading

Progress is Possible in the Institutional Corruption of Healthcare

By Christopher Robertson

Today, there are two big stories that relate to the “institutional corruption” of medicine (aka conflicts of interests).  For those who have been working long and hard on these issues, they are cause for hope.  The needle does move.

First, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, has decided that it will stop paying doctors to promote their drugs.   My prior work has shown that such payments are quite common (e.g., 61% of urologists and 57% of gastroenterologists taking money), and that they likely influence the prescribing decisions of the doctors who take such money.  In recent months, Glaxo has made several such moves towards greater transparency and integrity, often as a result of threatened or actual criminal prosecutions.  (See their newfound commitment to opening up their clinical trial data too.)

The NYT story quotes an industry consultant suggesting that the move to stop paying physicians is a result of the Affordable Care Act’s “sunshine” requirement that such payments will be disclosed, and that several other drugmakers are considering similar moves. I am a bit skeptical that the disclosure mandate had such an effect, since the disclosures were already required by Massachusetts and other states, and as part of the “corporate integrity agreements” that came of several federal prosecutions.  My sense is that such disclosures are not likely to reach patients in a useable way, so its hard to understand how the transparency could really impose much of a disincentive on the companies.  Yet, something has caused Glaxo to change course.

Second, the National Football League has decided to give the National Institute of Health $30 million to study brain injuries.  The counterfactual is that the NFL could have kept the money, of course.  But the more interesting alternative is that the NFL could have just spent the money itself, hand-picking the researchers and carefully specifying how the research should be performed, in order to buy the scientific conclusions that it preferred. This has been the classic strategy of industries facing litigation risk, from tobacco, to asbestos, and now the paper industry, whose law firm actually commissions scientific studies on its behalf.  The NFL’s move instead proves that it is possible for a self-interested party to nonetheless fund independent, credible, gold-standard research, by using an intermediary, such as the NIH.

This is exactly the sort of reform that I have called for, as an alternative to the false dichotomy between public funding and private interest. For companies that have a bona fide interest in discovering and publicizing the scientific truth, a credible intermediary like the NIH can reassure consumers of scientific information that it is valid.  Now, if only we can get big pharmaceutical companies to make the same move for their clinical trials and other scientific research studies.  Perhaps the first-movers will be the most innovative companies who have bona fide products and are tired of them being lost in the cheap talk?  If physicians making prescribing decisions continue to give greater credence towards NIH-funded research, such integrity could be rewarded.

 EDIT:  Corrected link to NFL story on NYT, and corrected amount from $100M to $30M.  Also, disclaimer: I am not involved in this Petrie Flom Center collaboration with the NFL, and the views expressed here are entirely my own.

TOMORROW: Ethical Issues in Comparative Effectiveness Research

Additional information and registration available online.

The neonatal SUPPORT trial, which randomized extremely low birth weight infants to lower or higher levels of oxygen saturation as part of their ventilator management raised ethical issues that are turning out to be among the most controversial topics in research ethics in many years.  Continue reading

Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn highlights X-risk

By Nir Eyal

Young people often assume that their life expectancies will remain what life expectancy is today—although life expectancy will grow by the time they are old. When all of us imagine our futures, we often neglect to take account of radical technologies which were not foreseeable prior to their invention, just as the internet wasn’t, and instead imagine something closer to present realities. We do not appreciate how different the future could be.

Among other things, the future might be dangerous to humankind in ways that we fail currently to appreciate. We got lucky, and nuclear energy seems hard for individuals to develop at home, but will that last, and will new WMDs be impossible to replicate with 3D printers or other future technologies? Can anyone guarantee that viruses manufactured for scientific research will not be spread by error or terror? Can we guarantee that robots designed for contained military purposes would not go out of control? Or that once artificial intelligence is advanced enough to design other artificial intelligence, humans will remain safe for long? Some of the greatest dangers to our species are unknown, simply because the technologies that create them have not been invented yet—just as many technologies that exist and threaten us today were not invented 100 years ago.

In a multimedia presentation that drew a prolonged applause from a crowd of Harvard undergraduates, Estonian programmer Jaan Tallin wove together three stories: the story of Kazaa and Skype, which he helped start; his personal journey into studying and promoting the study of existential risk; and a “sermon” (as he put it, tongue in cheek) on the ethical responsibilities of technology developers.

Tallin proposed taking active steps in anticipation of our future errors, both to make businesses robust and to keep our species safe in an opaque future: incorporating safety margins, and continually questioning one’s assumptions. He concluded by arguing, provocatively, that indispensable to both goals is having fun.

The talk was organized by the student organization Harvard High Impact Philanthropy (HHIP).

HHIP: Jaan Tallinn, co-founder of Skype, talks on responsible technology development

So You Want to be a Technology Developer…

The roots of Skype go back to one email. If that email hadn’t been sent, the world today might be different. In general, technology development is not something that “just happens” — instead, it’s a result of particular actions by individual people. Moreover, the responsibility of technology developers must increase proportionally to the power of their creations. The talk sketches out a vision of what it means to be a responsible technology developer, using behind the scenes stories and videos from the early days of Skype development.

 Jaan Tallinn, co-founder of Skype

Wednesday, October 30th

5:30 – 6:30 PM

Science Center A

RSVP to this event

The event is organized by Harvard HIP (High Impact Philanthropy).

Unreliable Biomedical Science, and a Solution?

By Christopher Robertson

The Economist has a long, detailed, and readable piece about the difficulties of inferring anything from the published findings of biomedical science.  There are all sorts of problems that fall short of scientific fraud, including the the biases caused by industry-funding of biomedical science, the biases of unblinded raters who see what they want to see, and the biases of journal editors towards only publishing “positive” findings.  (I am particularly enamored with this graphic, which shows the fundamental problem of inference.)  It is rare for researchers to even bother to attempt to replicate prior findings, but when replications are attempted, they often fail.  

The Economist piece can be read as something close to an outright assault on empiricism, at least as we now know it.  In practical terms, it is prudent for physicians, patients, and payors to be wary of the findings presented in even the top journals.

One of the beauties of our scientific system is that it is wildly decentralized.  Scientists (and their funders) can test any hypothesis that they find interesting, and they can use whatever methods they prefer.  Likewise, journal editors can publish whatever they want.  While such academic and market freedom is attractive, it results in quite a hodgepodge of science, with replication studies and publication of null results being afterthoughts.  The NIH and NSF have in the past functioned to set an agenda and demand rigor, but as their funding wanes, the chaos waxes.

The problems are scientific, but any solution will be institutional (and thus legal).  I have argued for a partial solution to industry bias in my short article, called “The Money Blind:  How to Stop Industry Influence in Biomedical Science Without Violating the First Amendment.”  Independent scientific testing could be conducted by a neutral intermediary, which would pool funds.  In a similar vein, there is also a new project of the Science Exchange, called “The Reproducibility Initiative.”  This program offers to be the independent scientific agency, which attempts to validate known results.   But there is not yet a large-scale funding model in place.  If biomedical journal editors would at least put disclosures in their structured abstracts (an intervention we have tested), over the long run that may also nudge industry to use such gold-standard independent testing, when they have something that is truly provable.  And, at least in the domain of the products regulated by the FDA, the agency should consider using its current statutory authority to push companies towards independent, robust, and replicated science.