Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Annus Mirabilis for Gene Transfer

Time to review the year 2009 for cutting edge clinical research. For the field of gene transfer, it has been an annus mirabilis: a year that has seen very encouraging results in a wide variety of human clinical studies, as well as preclinical studies. Indeed, I regret that this blog has only been able to cover a few of the former, and very little of the latter. Here are a few highlights from clinical studies:

• in March 2009, Italian researchers reported major clinical improvement in eight of ten children participating in a gene transfer study involving ADA-SCID. [discussed here]

• in June 2009, researchers at Penn / Scheie Eye Institute reported very encouraging outcomes in three children with hereditary blindness, including evidence of visual recovery. [discussed here]

• in September 2009, researchers reported "marginal effectiveness" in preventing HIV infection for a gene transfer-based vaccine. These findings from this trial (the "RV144 trial") were unexpected after abysmal trial results involving a related strategy (the STEP trials). These are the first encouraging results from any HIV vaccine study conducted to date. [described here and here].

• in November 2009, researchers at Paris-Necker reported very encouraging outcomes in two children with adreno leukodystrophy who received a vector derived from lentiviruses [discussed here]

The decade began with a series of very inauspicious clinical outcomes in gene transfer, and a sharp abatement in the volume of clinical testing. The decade ends with several highly encouraging results from well designed and executed clinical trials. (photo credit: Xavier Luque 2009)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Finding Skew: Informed Consent and Bias in Clinical Trials

Clinical researchers have long claimed that patients who enter clinical trials are better off medically than those who don't. I'm open to the notion that patients might derive personal meaning from trial participation, but I've always been dubious of the suggestion that trial participation in itself is therapeutically beneficial–above and beyond drugs received– in part because this has never been demonstrated in a convincing way. I've also worried about the way the "trial effect" has been occasionally mobilized to recruit patients, or to apologize for studies of dubious design. Last, I've worried about the ethical implications of the prospect that, in order to receive top quality care, patients should be enrolling in (or have access to) clinical trials.

One reason I have been skeptical of the "trial effect" is that trials do not enroll a random sample of patients. Ethical research requires informed consent, and if patients who consent to trials have different characteristics than those who decline, it seems plausible that they will have different medical courses. UK researchers led by Andrew Clark recently put this thesis to the test (Eur J Heart Failure; also reported in the December issue of Nature Medicine). In their study, they asked a large sample of patients whether they were willing to enter a clinical trial. They then followed the clinical course of patients who declined, and compared them with patients who consented to participation but were never enrolled in a clinical trial. They found that patients who accepted enrollment had better clinical outcomes- even when factors like age, other sicknesses, or drug use.

The finding raises a number of interesting questions about tensions between study validity and informed consent. It does not suggest that we should relax consent standards to reduce bias- though some may be tempted to view the study in this way. It does, however, raise questions about how findings in clinical trials should be interpreted when applying them in real clinical settings. And it provides another problem for those who are attached to the position that trial participation is, in itself, therapeutic. (photo credit: funkandjazz, Skew, 2007)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Expectation is a Vascular Condition: Thoughts on Media Coverage of "Liberation Procedures" for Multiple Sclerosis

Disclaimer to all readers: I am not expert in multiple sclerosis. I am not intimately familiar with recent research findings on a novel surgical treatment ("liberation procedure") for multiple sclerosis that have received wide coverage in the Canadian media.

Now here are my "claimers:" recent media accounts of this novel approach border on the irresponsible, and point to serious problems with the way many media outlets cover translational clinical research. My second "claimer" is that such media coverage has important consequences for patients and the research community.

Finally, a point of clarification: my comments below concern the quality and consequences of media coverage, not the merits of the medical procedure discussed.

Here is the background: on November 20, the Globe and Mail ran a feature by veteran reporters André Picard and Avis Favaro titled "Researcher's labor of love leads to MS breakthrough." The story described a novel theory of an Italian researcher, Paolo Zamboni, that MS "is not, as widely believed, an autoimmune condition, but a vascular disease. More radically still, [an] experimental surgery offers hope that MS... can be cured and even largely prevented." Said Dr. Zamboni, "I am confident that this could be a revolution for the research and diagnosis of multiple sclerosis." The news story then describes an Italian study that performed the surgical procedure in 65 patients; the patients saw their disease virtually eradicated.

Like practically every other news article of this species, the reporters do two things. First, they truck out a few patients to proclaim the miracle cure (said one: "I don't remember what it's like to have MS"). Second, to establish credibility, the reporters throw in the perfunctory killjoy comments of a few scientists: "skeptics warn the evidence is too scant and speculative."

As observed on the excellent NPR program On the Media, media coverage of medical research and breakthroughs "overflow with optimism and excitement, offering hope for millions." According to long-time media analyst Gary Schwitzer, "What they don't overflow with is accuracy, context and journalistic responsibility." (Schwitzer, by the way, runs an excellent blog on health news coverage).

Here are some concerns I had about the Globe and Mail story:

• the story reports on clinical research findings. The story did not say, however, that the results have not been published and subjected to peer review.

• the story did not say whether the studies were well-designed: was there a control or placebo arm, for example? the story did not mention that placebo responses can be especially high in the setting of surgical interventions. Nor did it mention that placebo responses are often high in the context of remitting diseases like MS.

• the story wrapped logical fallacies within emotive proclamations. For example, what, precisely, could it possibly mean to say "I am confident this could be a revolution..."?

• the story was not linked in any way to any particular event. Usually reports like this follow from major scientific publications, or presentations at medical conferences. This story, however, is "free floating"- which makes it much more difficult to contextualize (why is it being reported now? how well have the findings been vetted? how did the researchers capture the attention of journalists?).

• the story contains statements that are deeply suspicious. One example is that Zamboni claims MS is not an autoimmune condition. Here is the very first line in the abstract of Professor Zamboni's most recent publication: "Multiple sclerosis is primarily an autoimmune disorder of unknown origin."

• the story did not address the correlation and causation problem. The story (and Zamboni) claim that vascular malformations cause MS symptoms, because the researcher discovered that many MS patients have "malformed or blocked" veins draining the brain. But an alternative explanation would be that malformations or blockages are themselves caused by MS- that they are symptomatic rather than causal. Any news coverage of correlation should always address the issue of cause.

And the consequences? Do a google search yourself on the procedure (CCVSI) to find out how much chatter there is among expectant patients, who (judging from discussions) are wondering whether they can travel to Italy to receive the "treatment." And today, the Globe and Mail reports that the MS Society of Canada- portrayed as sourpuss nabobs of negativism in the previous article- will now fund CCVSI "with significant research dollars" in response to "the overwhelming public response to the media stories."

Surely, more research, more trials, more basic science is needed. If indeed this approach is a promising as reported, it should be subject to rigorous clinical testing. But can anyone seriously argue that media coverage of this low quality should set the research agenda and decide how scarce research resources are allocated? (photo credit: xbloodsin, sepulcrum, 2008)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More on Lenti's, Gene Transfer and Adrenoleukodystrophy

(...continued from the previous post). There are several features that make the recent Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) gene transfer study noteworthy.

1- A New Viral Vector Debuts: this is the first successful application of HIV-derived viruses in gene transfer (lentiviruses). These vectors have various advantages over retroviruses used in other protocols. One is that, in theory, at least, they are supposed to be safer. Previous trials of the same team (different disease) involving retroviruses triggered leukemia-like disorders in several volunteers. In this study, the authors do not detect any evidence that cells are poised to cause a malignancy. However, in a post this summer, I noted that another trial involving thalessemia and lentiviruses did, indeed, detect clonal enrichment. And the ALD study enrolled only two patients- if there were going to be safety problems detected, they'd need to be massive to be detected in so small a sample of patients. Thus, despite the encouraging findings in the ALD study, the safety of lentiviral gene transfer remains to be firmly established.

2- Prior Animal and Clinical Experience are Successfully Integrated: here is one instance where favorable clinical outcomes were achieved on the basis of limited preclinical evidence. Specifically, the authors previously tested their approach in mice, but because rodents do not develop the same pathology as human beings, they were uncertain whether the gene correction would be sufficient to correct the disorder in human patients. These animal studies were bootstrapped with extensive experience with bone marrow transplantation in children with ALD. Rarely is this transition from rodents into clinical applications so successful. All the more surprising- this is occurring within the realm of central nervous system disorders, which have a particularly high rate of failed drug development.

3- Patients in the Service of Science: This study will no doubt be perceived as a story of "science in the service of patients:" a team of clinicians applying cutting edge discoveries to do the best they can for their patients. But it is as much- perhaps more- a story of patients in the service of science. The study is notable for how well it used the occasion of ALD to make more fundamental discoveries. For example, in a "Perspective" piece that accompanies the published trial, Luigi Naldini describes this as what "may be a first glimpse of live [generation of new blood and immune cells at the level of DNA]." Naldini also notes how the study developed and applied new techniques for ruling out clonal dominance that "will likely become a gold standard." Also intriguing is the hint that this approach may be applicable for other disorders involving the central nervous system, and the finding that only a small amount of gene correction is needed to arrest the pathology. (photo credit: photobunny 2007)

Gene Transfer and Adrenoleukodystrophy: There Will Always Be Paris

Last week's Science magazine reported what seems likely to count as one of gene transfer's greatest clinical successes to date: stabilization of adrenoleukodystrophy in two boys receiving genetically modified blood stem cells. Preliminary results of this study had been presented at this summer's American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy meeting.

Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) is a rare hereditary brain disorder in which a deficiency in a gene, ABCD1, causes degeneration of tissues (myelin) that insulate cells in the central nervous system. The disease is familiar to many because of its most famous patient, Lorenzo Odone, whose story was featured in the movie Lorenzo's Oil. Untreated, ALD is invariably fatal.

Because myelin cells originate from blood stem cells, researchers had previously used bone marrow transplantation to successfully halt progression of demyelination in ALD patients. However, bone marrow transplantation has two severe limitations: many patients lack matched bone marrow donors; second, even when a matched donor is available, the procedure is burdensome and risky.

In this most recent study, researchers at Hôpital Necker in Paris transplanted genetically modified bone marrow cells into two Spanish boys who lacked matched bone marrow donors. The boys were also given myeloablative conditioning- a type of chemotherapy that increases the likelihood that genetically modified cells will repopulate the bone marrow. The Science report showed:

1- genetically modified cells did, indeed, survive and were maintained at stable levels for two years.
2- the modified cells expressed the therapeutic gene, ABCD1, again for two years.
3- brain demyelination was halted after 14 months- the timing is similar to what would occur for patients receiving bone marrow transplantation.
4- the two boys did not appear to decline on various measures of neurological or verbal tests, as would almost certainly have occurred with the natural course of ALD.
5- the authors did not detect "clonal dominance" in their modified cells– that is, evidence that genetically modified cells were poised to cause a malignancy.

In an accompanying editorial, Luigi Naldini calls this study a "Comeback for Gene Therapy," describing it as a "long-sought rewarding achievement in the field of gene therapy." In my next post, I will discuss some implications, interpretations, and other interesting dimensions of this very encouraging study (photo credit: tgif28, chalk graffiti at Hopital Necker, 2009)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

California Dreamin: CIRM Announces New Stem Cell Awards

California's Institute for Regenerative Medicine just announced a series of large funding awards to fund translational research initiatives involving (mostly) stem cells. The projects funded are telling with respect to what was funded, and what they will attempt to achieve.

First, notwithstanding a press release containing the words "bringing stem cell therapies to the clinic," several projects are really dressed up gene transfer studies. Thus, one team will use gene transfer in hematopoietic stem cells for sickle cell anemia; another two will use gene transfer to stem cells for treating brain malignancies; another RNAi for HIV. All this is only further evidence that the field of stem cells is devouring gene transfer. Other projects are aimed more at getting "stem cells out of the clinic" by using small molecules or monoclonal antibodies to destroy stem cells causing malignancies.

Second is the sweeping ambition. As it stands today, only one clinical trial involving embryonic stem cell-derived tissues has been initiated. The projects funded under these awards are "explicitly expected to result in a filing with the FDA to begin a clinical trial." Given that these projects are funded for four years, CIRM seems to be banking on the prospect of at least a few of these initiating phase 1 trials within five years. Four of these proposals involve goals of implanting embryo-derived tissues, and two of these involve non-lethal conditions–macular degeneration and type I diabetes (technically, other awarded projects involve nonlethal, though extremely morbid conditions). Another involves implantation of embryo-derived tissues for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It will be interesting to see how many of these meet their translational objectives, and how investigators will navigate the ethical, regulatory, and social complexity of initiating clinical testing. (photo credit: Michael Ransburg, 2008)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Need for Speed: GAO Reports on Accelerated Approval

Several blog posts ago, I wrote about the policy of accelerated approval (briefly, a mechanism whereby new drugs can be approved for sale by the FDA before definitive evidence of efficacy and safety are available). In that post, I reported on a recent paper where the authors claimed that, all things considered, accelerated approval enabled patients to get quicker access to life saving drugs without major adverse impacts on patient safety.

Last week, the Government Accounting Office issued a report on the subject that took a less favorable view of the program. Rules require that companies receiving accelerated approval for new drugs complete post-marketing studies confirming their efficacy. The GAO investigated the frequency with which companies fail to submit post-marketing trial data. They found that over a third of FDA-required post-marketing studies aimed at confirming efficacy had not yet been completed. Many of these studies might be incomplete because accelerated approval was only recently granted, and it can take as long as five years to complete requested studies. Disturbingly, however, the report found that a quarter of these studies had been incomplete for over five years; other studies have been completed but not yet reviewed by the agency. The figures are worse for other types of post-marketing studies requested by the agency.

The "poster boy" drug singled out in the GAO report is the hypertension drug Proamatine, which earned Shire Pharmaceuticals $257M since it was approved under accelerated approval 13 years ago. Apparently, the drug has not been subject to adequate confirmatory testing in all this time, though FDA has issued warning letters to the company over its promotion practices.

The report saves its criticism for the FDA, which it says has not reviewed sponsors' submissions in a timely manner, does not adequately monitor progress of post-marketing studies, and has neither specified conditions under which it would exercise its authority to withdraw drugs from market, nor has it ever exercised its authority to do so. But isn't some criticism also warranted for companies exploiting FDA's deficiencies? (photo credit: lindsay kay photography 2009)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Remembrance of Things Past: Fetal Tissue Transplantation and Parkinson's Disease

In a recent article in Science magazine, Constance Holden reports that European researchers are contemplating a revival of fetal tissue transplantation for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. As the article recounts, fetal transplants were subjected to sham controlled studies in the late 1990s; none performed better than sham, and several caused disabling dyskinesias. So should fetal tissue transplantation be revived, and if so, how?

The challenges seem all the more formidable today. We now understand that Parkinson’s disease is not restricted to the dopaminergic neurons in the basal ganglia, but instead involves diffuse pathology. And yet, studies will not involve implantation of tissues throughout the brain. As Holden’s article points out, previous fetal transplant studies revealed that brain pathology spreads to implanted tissues, suggesting that permanent responses may be difficult to achieve.

The ethical issues seem just as daunting. Deep brain stimulation has greatly improved the management of Parkinson’s for patients who are no longer responding to dopamine replacement. And yet, those pursuing fetal tissue transplantation will likely advocate pursuing trials in younger patients with less advanced disease. As pointed out by a European team of researchers, "A significant effort of bioethical research and conceptual clarification is required in anticipation of the first protocols involving human subjects." And in a recently published article in Movement Disorders, several coauthors and I outline various ethical challenges presented by such studies. These include a high degree of uncertainty about the safety of interventions, and a baseline risk associated with delivery that approaches levels of risk encountered in phase 1 cancer trials (for studies that involve eight inoculations to the brain, risk of intracerebral brain hemorrhage leading to permanent neurological deficits is on the order of 2%).

Advocates of the new wave of studies insist we know much more about the properties of fetal tissues than we did in the 1990s; they further note that such studies will provide a basis for later studies involving induced pluripotent stem cells and other tissues. Perhaps, but given the remaining uncertainties and promise of DBS, it’s hard to imagine how fetal graft experiments could credibly establish a claim of clinical equipoise with deep brain stimulation. For these reasons, a more prudent ethical course—if fetal transplant studies for Parkinson's are to be done at all—would be to pursue safety and feasibility studies in patients who are no longer responsive to standard care. Only once parameters are optimized and mechanisms well understood should clinicians consider studies in patients who are earlier in the disease process. (photo credit: Ethan Hein 2008)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Disclosure in Phase 1 Cancer Trials

Followers of this blog may recall my continuing concern with the way informed consent is obtained in phase 1 trials involving patient-volunteers (typically, these patients have exhausted standard care options and enter phase 1 trials as a final shot at managing their disease). Language used by investigators in these studies is often suggestive of therapeutic benefit, even though meta-analyses of phase 1 studies show that chances of major clinical benefit in phase 1 studies are exceedingly low. In previous posts, I described my own experience with an ethics review committee that actually defended giving patients vague and almost meaningless information about the therapeutic benefits of phase 1 trial participation. Meantime, evidence from surveys indicate that phase 1 cancer patient-volunteers tend to overestimate the probability of therapeutic benefit.

In the July-August 2009 edition of the ethics journal IRB, Shlomo Koyfman and co-authors at NIH offer up a "Consent Form Template for Phase I Oncology Trials." Their recommendations are comprehensive and excellent. Among the items they recommend are:

• use of more therapeutically neutral language, like "research agent" instead of "therapy"

• disclosure of dose escalation design; in particular, the authors recommend that patients be informed about risks and benefits relative to the cohort they are entering.

• a statement (where appropriate) that patient-volunteers will not have the option of adjusting their dose assignment in the study

• a statement that "the chances that this agent will... allow you to live longer [is] very low."

One can quibble with various particulars (I think, for example, discussion of subtherapeutic dosing should be more explicit). But on the whole, these recommendations provide an excellent standard– along with NIH Guidance on Informed Consent for Gene Transfer Research– against which typical phase 1 cancer study consent forms should be measured. (photo credit: banlon1964)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Quack You! Medical Tourism and Stem Cells

In the September 2009 issue of Nature Biotechnology, Jane Qiu reports on a thriving trade in nonvalidated stem cell interventions for incurable illnesses ("Trading on Hope"). The article provides numerous examples of overseas clinics that cater primarily to North American and European clientele in offering pricey, unproven stem cell transplants for incurable conditions like spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease, and autism. Many of these clinics make extravagant claims in their promotion materials.

Encouragingly, policy makers are beginning to take notice. China, for example, has issued new regulations on clinical application of novel interventions; it requires licensing for clinics that provide unproven stem cells. India has issued guidelines on stem cell research and therapy. As noted previously in this blog, the scientific society ISSCR issued guidelines urging clinicians to offer nonvalidated stem cell interventions to patients only in the context of clinical trials designed to test safety and efficacy. Problem is (according to the article), guidelines are sporadically enforced, if that.

I think there is much more that governments and professional societies can and should do to stem this unethical conduct. Though most of these clinics are located outside of North American and Europe, some overseas clinics have reputable, North American / European scientists and clinicians on their advisory board or have partnerships with biotechnology companies that are based in North America / Europe. Examples include Stemedica (which includes several Stanford and UCSD faculty on its advisory board), and Theravitae (which has involved close collaboration with University of Pittsburgh clinicians), and Vescell (which includes Nobelist Aaron Ciechanover on its scientific advisory board). All of these companies offer stem cell interventions to large numbers of patients outside trials, and make claims that their interventions are effective when, in fact, they remain unproven.

1- Research ethics policies should condemn scientist-clinicians who travel or collaborate abroad in delivering nonvalidated, potentially risky interventions overseas outside the context of a clinical trial. Policies should state clearly the imperative of subjecting nonvalidated interventions to systematic study.
2- Institutions should not allow these clinics to trade on their reputations, and should sanction faculty members who are involved in such activities.
3- professional societies in medical fields (e.g. cardiology) and research areas (stem cells, gene transfer) should steward the standing and credibility of their research field by developing policies and standards that discourage inappropriate activities-- through social pressure-- by providing a benchmark against which the conduct of scientists and clinicians can be judged.

(photo credit: Insert Photographer Here, 2006)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Accelerated Approval: Safe at Any Speed?

Drug regulatory authorities like the FDA have a mandate to protect public health by requiring and evaluating evidence of safety and efficacy before licensing new drugs for commercial sale. But for decades now, patient advocates have argued that FDA bureaucracy kills by keeping promising drugs from the IV's of terminal patients. In response to these criticisms, FDA and others have created new pathways for drug approval whereby drugs can be partially approved for sale on the basis of smaller, Phase 2 trials using surrogate endpoints (tumor shrinkage) instead of survival– provided drug companies confirm efficacy in subsequent trials.

This pathway, called "accelerated approval," is controversial because it allows companies to sell drugs whose efficacy and safety is not yet well established. True- the companies are obliged to run confirmatory studies, but a) how will confirmatory trials enroll enough subjects if patients know they might be randomized to standard, ineffective drugs, and they can get the drug outside a clinical trial? b) drug companies will not have sufficient incentive to run confirmatory studies once their drug is provisionally approved. c) drug companies stand to make lots of money selling unproven drugs to desperate patients in search of a cure.

In the most recent issue of Journal of Clinical Oncology, Elizabeth Richey and coauthors put these concerns to the test in an analysis "Accelerated Approval of Cancer Drugs: Improved Access to Therapeutic Breakthroughs or Early Release of Unsafe and Ineffective Drugs." They find that:

• a very large percentage of new cancer drugs are initially approved under "accelerated approval." (37% approvals between 1995 and 2008)

• 63% of drugs receiving accelerated approval have their clinical benefit confirmed in subsequent studies

• drugs involving very rare cancers are often not subjected to confirmatory testing (42%); drugs for more common cancers are tested in confirmatory studies typically (71%-- though the percentage I calculated from their figures is actually higher- 86%)

• drugs receiving accelerated approval are twice as likely to receive black box warnings compared with drugs approved by the standard mechanism (21% vs. 10%)

• about half of non-orphan drugs approved under accelerated approval (47%) become first line treatment regimens in the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

The authors see the glass half full on accelerated approval: to the title question of their article, the authors answer "Improved Access to Therapeutic Breakthroughs." (photo credit: Marxpix 2008)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ted Kennedy: 1932 - 2009

Ted Kennedy, who died two days ago, championed many of the issues covered in this blog, among them access to health care, funding for research, and a strong drug regulatory system. To those who care deeply about these issues, his indefatigable advocacy will be missed.

Among the many landmark laws and regulations that owe their origin to Kennedy are U.S. policies on human protections. Way back when, as a freshman Senator, Kennedy chaired Senate hearings that revealed human research abuses like those committed in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. He went on to introduce some of the first legislation calling for formal regulation of human research. His initial bill would have given the federal government broad authority to regulate both public and private research. However, it was ultimately overtaken by a weaker bill that called for the creation of a National Commission. Ultimately, Kennedy supported the latter bill under the condition that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now HHS) issue regulations. The reports of the National Commission continue to have a towering influence over research ethics, and the regulations following from this law (45 CFR 46) are virtually unchanged today (photo credit: John Mcnab 2007)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Clinical Research in China, But Were Afraid to Ask

After scandals involving tainted toothpaste, poisonous pet food, adulterated milk, contaminated heparin, and counterfeit medicines, and a thriving trade in organs, one shudders to imagine how well human subjects are protected in drug studies performed in China. Apart from an occasional report in the medical literature, there is little easily accessible information about Chinese human protections: the regulations and laws, compliance and enforcement, and professional standards. This information would be interesting in its own right; however, it is all the more essential given trends towards trans-national trials.

A recent report issued the Medical Research Council (UK) provides some indication of China's system of human protections, and how researchers in countries like UK might proceed when locating trials in China. The executive summary finds that Chinese regulations substantially parallel those of the International Committee on Harmonization (ICH). Informed consent and independent ethics review is required for any study. However, the UK and China "differ greatly in their approaches to enforcing guidelines for the conduct of research at the national level. In China, although there is some scrutiny of clinical trials, there is comparatively little inspection or review of compliance." Other intriguing mentions are concerns about undue inducement in China: "the high costs of healthcare and medicines, and the dependence on local providers means that particular attention [for UK researchers pursuing studies in China] must be given to potential inducements to participate in research. Collaboration with China may offer attractive opportunities for large-scale recruitment, but potential UK collaborators must be alert to the risk that unethical inducements may be offered to potential participants. ... given the high cost of accessing health care in China, a ‘free health check’ may be a relatively greater inducement than it would be deemed to be in the UK."

A perusal of the Chinese regulations- at least the ones provided in this report- indicate the following:

• China places heavy emphasis on procedure (e.g. IRB review) and informed consent, rather than substance (e.g. prohibitions on certain practices; definitions of minimal risk; categories of patients)

• China seems to take a very permissive stand (like ICH) on the use of placebos. Indeed, there is no mention of studies involving placebo.

• There is no mention of justice considerations- for example, post-trial access or responsiveness.

(photo credit: 2 dogs, 07/03/25 12:32:09 Shanghai, 2007)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Help Wanted, Part 2

So, what are some of the intriguing ethical questions of Kolata's August 2d article? Here is one: when researchers conduct studies and ethics committees review protocols, resource allocation is an important consideration. If, as Kolata alleges, mediocre trials siphon eligible patients away from good trials, then there is a case to be made that IRBs and investigators need to ponder carefully the effects proposed trials will have on other studies- even when proposed trials have a favorable direct benefit-risk balance for volunteers who enter them.

Second, if resource allocation is a key consideration in realms where patients are scarce, investigators (and IRBs) need reliable criteria for assessing the broader social value of study protocols. They further need some way of being able to compare one protocol against a body of others that are either underway or in the pipeline. The current system provides no straightforward way of doing this.

Third, if 50% of trials fail to recruit sufficient numbers to produce meaningful results, investigators, IRBs, DSMBs, and granting agencies are doing a lousy job ensuring high ethical standards in human research. It is well established that, for any study to redeem the burdens that volunteers endure on enrollment, it must produce valuable findings. It is disturbing, to say the least, that many volunteers enter studies that go nowhere, and that investigators, IRBs, and funding agencies are not realistically projecting recruitment.

Last, Kolata suggests that many cancer trials are merely aimed at "polishing a doctor's résumé." It would make a useful contribution to the field of cancer research- and bioethics- to measure the frequency of this practice. Meantime, this inability of IRBs to detect this kind of conduct, and stop it in its tracks, signals an important deficiency in human protections. Which leads me to my next post... (photo credit: ziggy fresh 2006)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Help Wanted- For the War on Cancer

Earlier this week (Aug 2), Gina Kolata of the NYTimes ran a fascinating story about challenges recruiting patients to cancer clinical trials. The story contains interesting facts, credible claims, analysis, and unfortunately, some misleading conjectures. The problem of patient recruitment also invites some hard headed ethical analysis.

First the facts. According to the article, one in five National Cancer Institute-funded trials fails to enroll a single subject; half fail to recruit enough to produce meaningful results. Now some credible claims: many trials are "aimed at polishing a doctor's résumé, and produce meaningless results; many oncologists avoid cancer studies because they can be a money loser, and many patients shy away from trial participation- particularly when their cancer is less advanced and they can obtain treatment outside of trials.

The article, however, is swathed in some misleading conjectures. The article makes the suggestion that problems with recruitment are "one reason" and "the biggest barrier" to major strides in the "war on cancer" (hence the recruitment poster in the graphic above). Hard to reconcile this with Kolata's contention elsewhere that many trials are useless. It's also hard to square the claim with Kolata's point, earlier in the article, that trials involving really promising drugs usually have no problems with recruitment. In one famous case, a Phase 1 trial testing endostatin at Harvard received 1000 inquires from patients for 3 slots in the trial (Pop quiz: see if you can guess which New York Times reporter wrote an article on endostatin that many commentators criticized for sensationalizing the drug's promise?). Third, with only about 1 in 20 cancer drug candidates making it from phase 1 tests to FDA approval, a reasonable question to ask is whether preclinical researchers are validating their drug candidates properly. And finally, the article makes no mention of the fact that many studies have exceedingly narrow eligibility criteria. Many patients may be solicited for trial participation- but only a fraction meet eligibility criteria.

Still, Kolata's article is enlightening and raises a number of intriguing questions that demand ethical analysis. I'll discuss some of these in my next posting (photo credits: Joan Thewlis, 1918 Recruitment Poster, 2009).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Orange Light on Generics

Last week, I blogged on the issue of generic biologics: should companies that make vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, cell therapies, etc. get 12 years of data exclusivity before competing companies begin offering generics? Or should they be held to the same standard as makers of drugs, who get five years of exclusivity?

Looks like the U.S. Senate is caving in to pressure from Pharma and the Biotech industry by opposing the Obama's "compromise" position: the Senate bill urges 12 years. But in today's New York Times, journalist Andrew Pollack suggests the exclusivity debate might not matter in the end: most biologics are protected by patents beyond 12 years after FDA approval. Meaning: short exclusivity periods advocated by various public interest groups would have no material impact on development of generic biologics, because generics would be prevented by patents. The article contains a graphic showing that patents on several leading biologics products extend well beyond 12 years.

So is this just a symbolic debate? I think not (disclaimer: I am not a health care economist!). Towards the end of the article, Pollack acknowledges that the exclusivity debate might matter where patents do not provide strong protection. That's a crucial issue for biologics. Intellectual property law around biologics is notoriously unstable and uncertain. And owing to their complex composition, generic manufacturers might plausibly argue that their products are biosimilar while not infringing patents. Advocates of the 12 year policy will argue that longer exclusivity is necessary to entice investors who might otherwise worry that lead products will not withstand patent challenges. Advocates of the shorter policy (like myself) will argue that we owe it to present day patients and their families to take that risk. (photo credit: sortofbreakit 2008).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Phased by Phase 0?

Today, Lancet ran an editorial asking whether Phase 0 trials will become a "platform for drug development." The editorial responds to the first published 'phase 0' study, this June, in Journal of Clinical Oncology (Kummar et al). These studies involve delivering very small quantities of a new drug to test its properties before giving biologically active levels to patients. They promise to improve the efficiency of drug development by screening drug candidates before they are tested in larger, riskier phase 1 trials.

The Lancet editorial notes the potential of phase 0 studies, but raises questions about their ethics: "no therapeutic benefit can be conferred by the small doses in a phase 0 study, and while taking part, patients are not allowed to enrol in a trial with therapeutic intent." As I have argued in Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, however, the former issue is a red herring: normal phase 1 trials routinely, and deliberately, deliver levels of drug that are too low to cause therapeutic response. Moveover, whether phase 1 trials in themselves have "therapeutic intent" is debatable.

There are, of course, many ethical concerns surrounding phase 0 studies. Chief among them is whether patients understand their nontherapeutic nature, and whether results are publicly reported (I predict that if phase 0 methods are taken up by the private sector, many results will languish in filing cabinets). But effective engagement with ethical issues in phase 0 cancer studies requires, in my view, that we take a more careful look at whether "therapeutic intent" is really the litmus that determines whether a study pursued in patients is ethical. (photo credit: w i n t e r t w i n e d 2009)