Friday, February 26, 2010

Canada Human Research Ethics Policies: Take 2

In the Vancouver Olympics, Canada is tied for the most gold medals as of this writing. Will Canada also "own the podium" when it comes to providing a clear and effective voice for ethical human research?

Recall that, in a previous post, I mentioned that Canada was presently undertaking a major overhaul of its main research ethics policy- the Tricouncil Policy Statement. After issuing an intital draft, the panel charged with revising the document (PRE) released a second draft. In a few days, the comment period closes for this second draft. The policy will then be revised again and finalized.

I will be submitting comments on the new version, along with my research collaborators. Here are a few important problems that carry over from the previous version:

1) The draft, like the old version, does not quite get the foundations for research ethics right. As a consequence, principles like respect for persons or justice are made subservient to beneficence. This is not an obscure philosophical point: it sends a message to investigators and research ethics committees that these other principles matter less.

2) The application of justice in studies involving economically or socially disadvantaged populations is somewhat muddled. The draft defines justice in terms of what it is not, or what researchers should not do, rather than providing an affirmative description of what justice entails. Consider what it would mean if the application of "respect for persons" merely meant that researchers should avoid enrolling patients who did not consent, or that researchers should refrain from studies if risks are unacceptable.

3) The language on undue inducement has problems: The TCPS language implies that concerns about undue inducement arise out of a concern for risk (see point 1 above). It doesn't. It is unethical to pay individuals to override certain moral commitments (in government, we call this bribery), even in the absence of risk to the individual.

4) The chapter on clinical trials sends conflicting messages, and seems to imply that it is ok for doctors and institutions to put patients at medical disadvantage by enrolling them in research. Hard to imagine, if this is accepted, how conscientious doctors could ever participate in research, much less refer their patients to studies. Of particular concern, the chapter on clinical trials seems like it is trying to accommodate the unethical standards established by the International Council on Harmonization's Good Clinical Practice.

I hope the panel can correct these (and other) flaws, while preserving the many qualities contained in the proposed revisions. (photo credit: pmorgan 2004)

Transplanting Autoimmune Research

What's the difference between testing a typical small molecule drug, and testing a novel cell therapy strategy? And where might the latter raise ethical challenges that the former doesn't? These questions are extensively discussed in my book, and given human drama in a recent story by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in the Feb 12, 2010 issue of Science ("Replacing an Immune System Gone Haywire").

Couzin-Frankel describes the numerous difficulties that researchers have faced in attempting to validate autologous bone marrow transplantation for the treatment of (often nonlethal but highly debilitating) autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes, Crohn's disease, and multiple sclerosis. The idea of this procedure is to "reset" the immune system by purging patients of their bone marrow cells, and then returning healthy bone marrow to them. The approach has shown some promise for certain autoimmune disorders. However, response is highly variable and unpredictable, and validating and applying bone marrow transplantation for autoimmune disorders is beset by numerous ethical and logistical difficulties.

A major one is the risk-benefit balance: bone marrow transplantation requires exposing patients to the dangers of the transplantation procedure (6.6% mortality in one report of lupus patients). And yet, the procedures appear to work better in patients whose disease is not yet advanced. Testing the procedure therefore requires recruiting more or less healthy, at risk patients (sometimes children) into studies that expose them to serious risk of mortality. Clinicians understandably balk at referring their patients to such studies, making recruitment very difficult.

A second challenge is funding: many of these approaches involve using the patient's own bone marrow cells. There is nothing to patent-- and hence, little commercial interest in bone marrow transplantation for autoimmune disorders. This deprives this promising line of research needed resources.

And all this creates the perfect storm for a series of ethical challenges not directly addressed in this article (but covered in my book and articles): the siting of such studies in low and middle-income settings. Prohibitive costs, plus extreme difficulty recruiting patients who are otherwise eligible for somewhat effective and extremely expensive monoclonal antibody therapies, makes the siting of such trials in economically disadvantaged settings very attractive. This gives rise to what I have elsewhere called "expedient" justification for recruitment. Not surprisingly, then, one of the first trials of the procedure was performed in Brazil, and the article closes by mentioning that ongoing trials involving high-income country researchers are recruiting from São Paulo, Prague, China, and Argentina. This is good news if people in those settings have a reasonable prospect of having widespread and affordable access to bone marrow transplantation once it becomes validated. But it is troubling indeed if people in these countries will be bearing considerable burdens for the sake of knowledge benefits that will primarily (or most expeditiously) accrue to patients in high-income settings. (photo credit: Wellcome Images, Compact Bone, 2009)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cooperation and Medical Research

Why do patients cooperate with medical researchers? So asks sociologists Mary Dixon-Woods and Carolyn Grant in a study analysis appearing in the June 2009 issue of Social Science and Medicine. You might think the answer is simple: they think they will benefit; they want to contribute to medical knowledge; or, they trust researchers who invite them. These are the simple and pat answers that have dominated the research ethics literature until now. However, Dixon-Woods and Tarrant probe deeper by asking why it is that patients feel safe and justified in joining research studies.

Using interviews from three different clinical studies, Dixon-Woods and Tarrant identify five recurring themes:

1- Research as Moral Act: Volunteers perceive participation as a moral act: they are willing to participate and cooperate only insofar as they are "able to defend the moral character" of their actions

2- Research as Risk: There was an awareness of risk and research scandals, and volunteers perceived a need to defend their choice to enter a study (rather than feeling like the choice was an obvious one that needed no explanation)

3- Trust in Regulation: Volunteers perceived that the research enterprise was regulated- that transgression of errant researchers would be "subject to punishment," though they had no familiarity at all with specific oversight structures

4- Signals of Trustworthiness: Participants sought "cues" and "signals" as to the values and trustworthiness of researchers. Informed consent, for example, was taken less as a substantive process than as a signal of the researcher's openness and integrity. Participants had strong expectations that researchers and affiliated institutions shared values of cooperation. And they saw the healthcare setting and affiliation of research personnel as "signaling" a kind of trustworthiness."

5- Trust of Professions: Building on item 4, participants made "swift" judgments about the trustworthiness of research personnel- not so much on the basis of their personal characteristics as their affiliation with trusted professions and institutions

The report helpfully contextualizes these findings within a broad sociological literature on giving, cooperation, and trust. Though the authors shy from offering specific prescription, two key themes emerge: oversight systems should focus on meeting these expectations; and regulation (whether external or internal to the profession), far from impeding research, creates social conditions in which patients can feel comfortable bearing risks imposed by strangers for the sake of strangers. (photocredit: Lucas 2008)