A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: January 2015

Bioethics behind the facade: research and new thinking

Pär SegerdahlThe finished result easily becomes a picture of the process of achieving it. For example: We hear a Beethoven symphony and think that the genius had this magnificent composition in his head. He just needed to write it down.

As if the result existed from the beginning and only needed to be put on paper. I don’t know much about Beethoven’s working process, but doubt that it consisted in writing down already completed symphonies. Maybe, during a walk, a tiny idea entered his mind: a theme that made an impression on him, but that definitely was not the finished symphony. Thereafter, he explored the theme, attentive to where it wanted to go and letting it evolve in different forms and variations. Maybe he examined the theme at the piano.

Only gradually did this creative work shift to actually sitting down and composing. But still, as an exploration of the theme, albeit in the final phase of the process. And maybe it turned out that the theme worked better for a string quartet instead.

Bioethics is often misunderstood as we misunderstand Beethoven. We identify bioethics (and research ethics) with the finished result: with ethical guidelines, with the declaration of Helsinki, with models of consent, with the system of ethical review etcetera.

Bioethicists then appear like people who just put ethical rules on paper and establish bureaucratic systems to check that they are followed by researchers.

Bartha M. Knoppers recently questioned that image, in an article with the significant title:

Ethical frameworks for biomedical research originate in processes of ethical research and thinking, often in dialogue with researchers in the field, and with patients and the public. Behind the facade, bioethics is an art of conversation as well as explorative research and new thinking. This work is not the least self-critical, for the ethical frameworks need to be constantly modified and sometimes partially dismantled.

An example of this work behind the facade is a new book on the regulation of biobanking, edited by Deborah Mascalzoni at CRB:

In this book, a number of researchers present their explorations. It gives you insight into the work processes and the conversations and debates behind the regulation of research.

One principal problem raised in the book is that regulatory systems have become increasingly complex and opaque. Should we then create even more regulation?

Deborah Mascalzoni thinks that ethical research is more than just researchers following rules written by bioethicists. Instead of facing new challenges with even more regulation, she points out that all of us can think ethically, and that scientists have a moral responsibility to reflect on how they develop their research practices.

Ethics need not be a burden for research but can be a living concern within it. It can grow and flourish with the research practices, if we dare to do what Beethoven did: trust that seemingly insignificant thoughts and ideas can grow into something beautiful and real.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

Rare diseases need international research infrastructure

Pär SegerdahlThere are a few thousand diseases that you never heard the name of. They affect so few people and have no names in the common language.

These diseases are usually called rare diseases (or orphan diseases). They often (but not always) have genetic origin. They often affect children, are disabling and can even be life-threatening, and in many cases organ systems in the body degenerate.

Because the diseases are rare, they are difficult for doctors to diagnose. Even if one manages to make a diagnosis, treatments are often lacking. It’s hard to do research and develop treatments when the patient groups are small and scattered across the world.

In recent years one has begun to prioritize research on rare diseases, not least in the EU. A background to this trend is the development of biobank research. It starts to make it possible to do research on rare diseases, even though the patient groups are small and scattered across the world.

How? Since one can collect samples and data from such patient groups in biobanks that are linked with each other in international networks. Biobank networks thus give researchers access to large enough material to identify genetic and other origins of rare diseases. In this way, one can begin to develop diagnoses and treatments for small patient groups spread across the world.

In an article in the Journal of Biorepository Science for Applied Medicine,

twenty researchers, among them Mats G. Hansson, describe trends in research on rare diseases. They mention several international biobank networks developed to make such research possible, and describe the challenges that they have to deal with.

One challenge is to develop a common standard for how to, for example, document and code samples for rare diseases. Otherwise it is difficult to locate relevant samples in biobanks in different parts of the world and use them in research. One also needs to link the samples to electronic health records. Otherwise, the patterns behind the diseases will not be visible to the research.

Another challenge is that ethical review and governance operate at a national level, and often in different ways in different countries. In one case, mentioned in the article, where the researchers needed to use data from 130 patients from 30 different countries (and collaborate with 103 clinical centers), it took two years to get ethical approval of the project.

The project was not ethically controversial: 97% of the ethical review committees approved the project without requiring changes or further information. The time delay was due to problems of coordination between the governance systems in the different countries.

Another challenge mentioned in the article is to make researchers, doctors and patients aware of the existence of biobanks for research on rare diseases, and the importance of contributing to these biobank networks by collecting samples and updating databases.

The trend to link biobanks in networks has been clear for a while, even independently of the research on rare diseases. But this research really highlights a key feature in today’s biobanking: its infrastructural nature. Research on rare diseases, needing data from patients spread across the world, can therefore also likely accelerate the development of biobanks as infrastructures for future research.

Pär Segerdahl

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