Biobanks and alternative energy resources

September 26, 2012

Last week I participated in HandsOn: Biobanks, an interactive conference exploring the values of biobanking. The warm and collaborative atmosphere made the conference a both moving and encouraging experience.

Here is how the conference made me think about the value of biobanks:

New techniques of fundamental importance to humanity tend to appear in proportion to our needs for them. Efforts to develop efficient uses of alternative energy resources, for example, were not seriously supported until we became truly aware of how the world’s oil finds were running dry.

My impression at the conference was that biobanks could be compared to a new and much needed global energy resource. Biobanks are presently being set up all over the world as part of a new infrastructure not only for medical research, but also for health care and the pharmaceutical industry.

And the point is that efficient uses of this alternative resource of biological material appear urgently needed in our current situation.

Health care costs run amok, and so does the industry’s costs for developing new drugs. An efficient infrastructure of biobank resources would very likely help us come to terms with the problems that accumulate in the old framework.

The industry wastes billions on medical hypotheses that after years of hard work turn out to be unfeasible. Translating research results into safe and efficient drugs often is more complex and time-consuming than the research itself. Using biobanks could speed up the translation of research into drugs and make the process more predictable.

The health care sector too has problems and needs to make its practices more efficient, for example, through personalized medicine. Increasingly clever uses of biobank resources allow researchers to begin answering questions like:

  • Who is in the risk category for developing prostate cancer?
  • Who responds to which treatment?
  • Who will experience side effects?
  • Who can be given a clean bill of health after cancer treatment?

Answering such questions is revolutionary in medicine. So revolutionary in fact, that the intelligent use of biobank resources promises to generate new definitions of health and disease; new notions of diagnosis, treatment, and preventive medicine.

Developing a global infrastructure of biobank resources is a challenge for biobankers. Two challenges that were discussed at the conference were harmonization and evidence-based sampling and storing techniques. I got the impression that these challenges were manageable.

However, seeing the real significance of the biological resources that are being collected in biobanks is a challenge also for politicians, legislators and ethicists. To approach the political, legal and ethical issues in the right spirit, I believe we need a bigger picture of our situation.

Perhaps the comparison to our present need to develop intelligent uses of alternative energy resources can provide such a picture.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Research for the sake of the patient

September 7, 2012

We regularly tell strangers about sensitive aspects of our lives. We do it every time we visit the doctor. We do it without hesitating, in spite of the fact that the information won’t stay with the doctor to whom we give it.

The information is archived and will be read by health care staff in the future, when we visit a hospital again. As patients, we are satisfied with this state of affairs. Typically, we are happy that our samples are saved for future use, and that research is being done on our data to improve the quality of the care.

It is obvious to us that these actions are taken for our sake as patients, or as future patients.

However, when the same kind of data is collected for similar overall purposes, but outside of the health care sector, in the construction of biobanks and registers for future medical research, it suddenly becomes more tempting to worry about the safety of our data.

In spite of the fact that the researchers’ information about us

  1. normally is less comprehensive than in the doctor’s journal,
  2. is coded so that the connection to us is as safe as in a bank vault,
  3. isn’t used to do research on us individually, but to explore human patterns of disease,

a tendency to imagine nightmarish scenarios of surveillance appears. – Why?

One reason could be an assumption that researchers only want to answer their own questions. They don’t do research for our sake. They are curious and need our support to realize their own research goals.

Another reason could be an assumption that if medical research has commendable purposes related to health and health care, these purposes are very general and societal: Improved Public Health; Decreased Health Care Costs; A Flourishing Pharmaceutical Sector etc.

Who cares about little me?

When I visit the doctor, the connection to my own health and care is obvious. When I donate blood to the biobank for future research, on the other hand, the connection to me as a patient, or as a future patient, is less obvious.

Still, today’s health care depends on yesterday’s research.

The information I give the doctor would not help me a bit as a patient, if millions had not already provided medical research with their data. My doctor wouldn’t even be able to suggest a diagnosis, or recommend an effective treatment.

I believe we need to defuse the issue of personal data in biobanks and research registers; calm down our tendency to think that the information is collected without regard to us, and for wholly different purposes than in health care. Even in research, our data are collected for our sake: so that we, the day we visit the hospital and tell the doctor about our troubles, can expect well-founded diagnoses and effective treatments.

If you want to reflect more about our interest as future patients that there is ongoing biobank and register research, I want to recommend a coming dissertation:

  • Biobank Research – Individual Rights and Public Benefit

Author is Joanna Stjernschantz Forsberg at CRB, who defends her dissertation the 6th of October in Uppsala.

I also want to recommend the interactive conference, HandsOn: Biobanks, in Uppsala 20-21 September, which tries to illuminate the values of biobanking. You can register for the conference until the 11th of September.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


Interesting conferences

August 7, 2012

The Ethics Blog recommends three important conferences this autumn:

1.      Genomics for Healthcare and Socio-Economic Progress

This conference is organized by the Wales Gene Park. It discusses the economic potential of genomics in, for example, healthcare, agriculture and bio-energy.

  • When? 13-14 September 2012
  • Where? Radisson Blu Hotel, Cardiff
  • Website? Here

2.      HandsOn: Biobanks

This interactive conference is organized by BBMRI.se. It dicusses biobanking and the value of biobank research.

  • When? 20-21 September 2012
  • Where? Uppsala, Sweden
  • Website? Here

3.      Children’s Participation and Decision-Making in Medical Matters

This conference is organized by the Nordic Committee on Bioethics. It discusses the ethics of children’s participation in medical research.

  • When? 11-12 October 2012
  • Where? Lund, Sweden
  • Website? Here

Visit the websites to find out more about these interesting events!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend conferences - the ethics blog


“The Route” is taking shape

June 27, 2012

Our plans for the interactive part of the conference program for HandsOn: Biobanks, in Uppsala 20-21 September 2012, are taking shape. This part of the program is called “the Route.”

During coffee and lunch breaks, participants can walk through an interactive exhibition illustrating the process of informed consent, data and sample sharing, and new legislation.

Within the Route, participants can also meet law scholars, ethicists, biobank researchers and journalists. They can listen to and participate in conversations on a broad range of issues, such as the role or trust in biobank research, handling of incidental findings, patents, and regulatory processes.

Finally, the LifeGene debate will be discussed with representatives from LifeGene, EpiHealth, the Swedish Data Inspection Board, and the Central Ethical Review Board.

Curious? Do you want to partake in the Route?

Registration is open until September 11.

Pär Segerdahl


Interactive conference seeks the value of biobanking

April 20, 2012

I have the privilege of belonging to a group of ethicists and law scholars that currently discuss how to visualize ethical and legal dimensions of biobanking.

We organize an interactive part of the scientific conference program for HandsOn: Biobanks in September. The conference invites participants to Uppsala to explore the values of biobanking and to take part in its interactive exhibition.

Biobanking is hot in medicine. There are hopes that it will substantially improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of widespread as well as rare diseases. At the same time, however, the route to such values is difficult to survey, and the goals of large biobank investments are not always entirely transparent.

HandsOn: Biobanks is an ambitious attempt to explore and visualize the values of biobanking and the path towards them.

The conference asks: What are the values sought after? How can they be achieved in practice? There are the ethical, legal, scientific and commercial challenges, but there are also challenges for the industry. How can biobanking affect public trust in medical research and industry?

The conference combines keynote presentations with idea labs and educational sessions. The interactive part of the conference where I participate is called “the Route.” It follows the research process from ethical review, consent, sampling, storage and analysis, to end results that hopefully add value in ethics and trust, in clinical practice, in health economy, and in drug development.

If you want to participate in this interactive conference and help us better understand the values of biobanking, or simply are curious to see how we manage to solve the tricky problem of visualizing ethical and legal aspects – keep these dates in mind:

We are in the midst of brainstorming “the Route.” I hope that future blog posts can share with you some of the ethical and legal issues that we want to visualize and make accessible to participant interaction.

Registration is open – hope to see you in September!

Pär Segerdahl


The economisation of the language of medicine

October 21, 2011

Two American physicians recently wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about how they were forced back to school again learning another foreign language. In medical school they learned that measles was called rubeola and itching pruritus. Today they learn that patient is called “customer” (or “consumer”) while doctor and nurse both are called “providers.”

The authors guess that spiralling health care costs drive this “economisation” of their professional language. Economists and politicians believe that the solution to the cost problematic lies in the industrialisation and standardisation of health care. Hospitals are to be run as modern businesses and the traditional language of medicine modified with terms that correspond to the professionals’ new factory functions. Above all, the patient relation is updated as a customer relation.

The two doctors see the economisation of their language as reductionist. It neglects the psychological, spiritual, and humanistic aspects of the relation to the patient. Precisely these aspects made medicine a “calling,” they write. The economisation of medicine concerns not only language, however, but also the organization of work. Doctors are less free to make their own decisions based on their clinical judgment. They are forced to follow manuals written by experts, as if they were on the factory floor following the chief engineer’s scheme.

When I read the article I thought that an alternative way of formulating the problem is in terms of means and ends. The authors’ note that clinical care always had a financial aspect, but the treatment of the patient still was in focus as the doctor’s primary goal. When profit took overhand as the goal, it was seen as a betrayal of the doctor’s calling and worth ridiculing, as in Moliere’s plays. The economisation of medicine turns the relation of means and ends inside out. The end of treating the patient is snatched out of the doctor’s hands and become a means towards other, economic ends. The analysis of the alienation this means is old and it is tempting to hear echoes from another century in the article’s finish, which I cannot avoid paraphrasing: “Doctors and nurses of the world, unite! Through off the language that demeans both patient and professional and that threatens the heart of medicine!”

Simultaneously, one must admit that new generations grow up that do not seem alienated in this new world, but act as self-evident consumers of health care.

Pär Segerdahl

We have a clinical perspective : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


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