Risks of discrimination in population-based biobanks

April 4, 2018

Pär SegerdahlEven good intentions can cause harm. Considerately treating certain groups as “vulnerable,” such as pregnant women and children, can cause discrimination against them. If we protect them from participation in clinical research, we know less about how they respond to medical treatments. They are therefore exposed to greater risks when they are patients in need of medical treatment. Thanks for your concern.

Deborah Mascalzoni points out possible discrimination patterns in population-based biobank research. She particularly highlights people with psychiatric conditions, who often are excluded from such studies. However, she also mentions children, who rarely are included in population-based biobanks, as well as people with early forms of dementia or addiction problems.

Mascalzoni thus asks how representative population-based biobanks really are. This is important, as results from such research are increasingly used in the planning of care. We need to see these potential discrimination patterns more clearly, so that people suffering from psychiatric conditions, for example, have similar opportunities to benefit from research as others.

However, the patterns are caused not only by how we think of certain groups as “vulnerable.” Even practical difficulties, to which you may not give much thought, can cause discrimination. It is ethically and legally cumbersome to recruit children as research participants. People suffering from depression may have suicidal thoughts, which requires special efforts. People with early symptoms of dementia may have difficulty understanding complex information, which complicates the process of informed consent.

Some groups are in practice more difficult to recruit to population-based biobanks. Not only our consideration of certain groups as “vulnerable,” then, but also practical obstacles to which we do not pay attention, may cause biased research results, which may lead to poorer care for certain groups. There is therefore reason to ask about representativeness.

Pär Segerdahl

Mascalzoni, D. 2017. Reverse discrimination for psychiatric genetic studies in population-based biobanks. European Neuropsychopharmacology 27: 475-476

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Hoping when there is no hope

November 27, 2017

Pär SegerdahlPatients participating in phase I oncology trials have terminal cancer and are near the end of life. Participating in research cannot cure them or even extend their lives. Not only because they have terminal cancer, but also because in phase I trials one tests the safety profile of the treatment, not effectiveness against cancer.

Nevertheless, many patients state that hope is an important reason for them to participate in phase I oncology trials. This is worrying from an ethical perspective. Do they understand what they agree to when they enroll as research participants? Have they been properly informed?

In an article in the Journal of Oncology Practice, Tove Godskesen discusses the issue, together with Ulrik Kihlbom. They argue that it is a norm in cancer care to provide hope to patients, and that this norm may support a tendency in personnel who recruit research participants to not always discourage hope, but rather reinforce it.

Since supporting hope in cancer patients is humanly important, it is not entirely easy to find a solution to the problem. Godskesen and Kihlbom proceed cautiously by distinguishing three kinds of hope that cancer patients may have concerning their participation in phase I trials.

The first is independent hope: patients hope for something that is independent of cure, such as receiving more attention by participating in research. The second kind of hope is realistic hope: patients understand that there is really no hope of cure or prolonged life, but they still hope against hope. The third kind is unrealistic hope: patients misunderstand the situation and think they are offered a treatment that doctors/researchers believe can help.

It is reasonable to support independent and realistic hope in phase I trials, according to Godskesen and Kihlbom. However, unrealistic hope is ethically worrying. It should be discouraged when patients enroll as research participants.

Discouraging unrealistic hope requires awareness of the norm to provide hope to cancer patients. The authors describe how a hopeful attitude is activated simultaneously with the cancer diagnosis. Words like treatment, hope and cure are immediately emphasized in the conversations with patients. The risk is that these words are used in the same hopeful spirit also when participation in a phase I trial is discussed.

Another problem in this context is that patients participating in phase I trials rarely receive palliative care, which would be reasonable given their terminal cancer. This may create the false appearance that research participation means being offered a new treatment. Perhaps the norm to provide hope creates this reluctance to mention palliative care. Staff is afraid that they may discourage hope. That fear is problematic, the authors claim.

What measures do Godskesen and Kihlbom propose? First of all, we need to put extra high demands on the information to participants in phase I oncology trials so that this vulnerable patient group is not exploited. Secondly, the information should contain palliative options. Thirdly, patients should receive palliative counseling throughout the trial.

Integrating research participation with palliative care reduces the risk of encouraging unrealistic hope in this patient group. The fact that trial participation is research and not treatment becomes clearer.

Pär Segerdahl

Godskesen T. and Kihlbom, U. (2017), “I have a lot of pills in my bag, you know”: institutional norms in the provision of hope in phase I clinical cancer trials. Journal of Oncology Practice 13(10): 679-682. DOI: 10.1200/JOP.2017.021832

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Consent based on trust rather than information?

March 21, 2017

Pär SegerdahlConsent to research participation has two dimensions. On the one hand, the researcher wants to do something with the participant: we don’t know what until the researcher tells. To obtain consent, the researcher must provide information about what will be done, what the purpose is, what the risks and benefits are – so that potential participants can decide whether to consent or not.

On the other hand, potential participants would hardly believe the information and consider consenting, if they didn’t trust the researcher or the research institution. If trust is strong, they might consent even without considering the information. Presumably, this occurs often.

The fact that consent can be given based on trust has led to a discussion of trust-based consent as more or less a separate form of consent, next to informed consent. An article in the journal Bioethics, for example, argues that consent based on trust is not morally inferior to consent based on information. Consent based on trust supports autonomy, voluntariness, non-manipulation and non-exploitation as much as consent based on information does, the authors argue.

I think it is important to highlight trust as a dimension of consent to research participation. Consent based on trust need not be morally inferior to consent based on careful study of information.

However, I get puzzled over the tendency to speak of trust-based consent as almost a separate form of consent, next to informed consent. That researchers consider ethical aspects of planned research and tell about them seems to be a concrete way of manifesting responsibility, respect and trustworthiness.

Carefully planning and going through the consent procedure is an ethical practice that can make us better humans: we change through what we do. It also opens up for respondents to say, “Thank you, I trust you, I don’t need to know more, I will participate.” Information and trust go hand in hand. There is dynamic interplay between them.

I guess that a background to talk of trust-based consent as almost a separate form of consent is another tendency: the tendency to purify “information” as cognitive and to idealize humans as rational decision makers. In addition, there is a tendency to regiment the information that “must” be provided.

This tendency to abstract and regulate “information” has made informed consent into what sometimes is perceived as an empty, bureaucratic procedure. Nothing that makes us better humans, in other words!

It would be unfortunate if we established two one-dimensional forms of consent instead of seeing information and trust as two dimensions of consent to research.

Another article in Bioethics presents a concrete model of trust-based consent to biobank research. Happily, the model includes willingly telling participants about biobank research. Among other things, one explains why one cannot specify which research projects will use the donated biological samples, as this lies in the future. Instead, one gives broad information about what kind of research the biobank supports, and one informs participants that they can limit the use of the material they donate if they want to. And one tells about much more.

Information and trust seem here to go hand in hand.

Pär Segerdahl

Halmsted Kongsholm, N. C., Kappel, K. 2017. Is consent based on trust morally inferior to consent based on information? Bioethics. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12342

Sanchini, V. et al. 2016. A trust-based pact in research biobanks. From theory to practice. Bioethics 4: 260-271. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12184

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Stem cells: unique biobank material?

March 7, 2017

Pär SegerdahlStem cells are perhaps not what first springs to mind as biobank material. Yet, even stem cells can be biobank material and there are biobanks that focus on stem cells. The use of this biobank material, however, has some unique features.

Stem cell researchers process not only data from human material. The material itself is “processed” and sometimes transplanted to research participants. Commercializing stem cell research moreover implies that cells derived from donated human tissue appear in products on a market. This gives rise to ethical and legal questions.

Does the law allow patenting cell lines derived from human donated material? Is buying and selling such material lawful? Another issue concerns research participants’ right to withdraw their consent at any time. Human embryonic stem cell research uses stem cells from donated spare embryos from IVF treatment. How far does embryo donors’ right to withdraw consent stretch? Must transplanted devices with matured cells be removed from research participants, if the embryo donor withdraws consent? Moreover, assuming that researchers share stem cell lines with companies, are these companies willing to invest in the development of stem cell products if embryo donors may withdraw their consent at any time?

Another difficulty is the purpose to which embryo donors are asked to consent. According to the law, human embryos can be donated only for research purposes (or to other IVF patients). Yet, medical research loses its meaning if results cannot be commercialized. It cannot then reach patients. It is important to inform donors about this broader context of embryo donation. Does that information imply that the consent becomes broader than has support in the law? Or is there support since embryos are not used in product development, only derived material?

The answers to these questions probably depend on whether one can distinguish between donated embryos and cell material derived from embryos (using various inventions). This raises also more philosophical questions about how to view embryos, stem cell lines, matured cells, and human tissue.

Pär Segerdahl

An earlier version of this text was published in Biobank perspectives.

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Ethics and law of stem cell treatment of diabetes

December 21, 2016

Pär SegerdahlMany people support in various ways medical research, which they perceive as urgent in view of the needs of various patient groups. But patients typically won’t benefit from research unless the results are translated into development of medical products.

Type 1 diabetes is an incurable disease that requires daily life-sustaining treatment and strict dietary rules. Disease onset usually occurs at an early age.

In Sweden, about 50 000 people have this form of diabetes and of these around 8 000 are children. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells. Without insulin the body cells cannot use glucose for energy, and the sugar level in the blood rises. Energy is recovered instead from fat and protein, which causes waste products that can cause diabetic coma and attacks on vital organs.

Today, diabetes is treated with daily insulin injections, or by using an insulin pump. This requires continuous measurement of blood sugar levels, as incorrect doses of insulin entails risks and can be life-threatening. It is not easy to live with diabetes.

An alternative treatment, which is still at the research stage, is to generate new insulin-producing cells using human embryonic stem cells. The insulin-producing cells detect blood sugar levels and regulate the secretion of insulin. In order not to be attacked by the immune system, the transplanted cells are encapsulated in a protective material. It may become easier to live with diabetes.

But research alone doesn’t treat diabetes. Encapsulated insulin-producing cells need to be produced and made available also to patients; not only to research participants. But this is a big step and a host of ethical and legal issues, including embryo donation, patentability and consent, need to be examined and discussed.

The Swedish Research Council recently granted funding for a project to examine these issues. The project is led by Mats G. Hansson at CRB and is a collaboration with Olle Korsgren, professor of transplantation immunology, as well as with lawyers Anna-Sara Lind and Bengt Domeij, and philosophers and ethicists Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist and Pär Segerdahl.

The step from stem cell research to available treatments requires reflection. I look forward to start thinking about the ethical and philosophical questions.

Pär Segerdahl

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More biobank perspectives

September 27, 2016

If you did not get your fill during the Europe biobank week in Vienna, we give you more biobank related news in the latest issue of Biobank Perspectives, our newsletter on current issues in biobank ethics and law.

This time, Moa Kindström Dahlin describes what BBMRI-ERIC’s new federated Helpdesk for ELSI-issues can offer. We also invite you discuss public-private partnerships in research at a workshop in Uppsala on 7-8 November.

The legislative process on data protection in the EU might be over for now but there is still activity in government offices. Anna-Sara Lind gives you her view on the consequences for Sweden. We are also happy to announce that the guidelines for informed consent in collaborative rare disease research have received the IRDiRC Recognized Resources label.

You can read the newsletter on our website, or download a pdf version.

Josepine Fernow & Anna-Sara Lind

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Global bioethics: each culture its own “ethnobioethics”?

April 6, 2016

Pär SegerdahlWith globalization bioethics is spread over the world. The process isn’t without friction, since bioethics is associated with Western philosophy. Is that thinking applicable to other cultures? Parts of the world where bioethics is spread may also have a colonial history, such as Africa. Should they now once again come under Western influence?

In an article in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Sirkku K. Hellsten discusses the role of philosophy in global bioethics. She uses the example of Africa, where discussions about a unique African philosophy have been intense. But she also quotes Henry Odera Oruka, wondering why so much time is spent discussing what distinguishes African philosophy, when so little time is devoted to actually practicing it.

To investigate the role of philosophy in global bioethics, Hellsten distinguishes (inspired by Odera Oruka) four forms of philosophy. I reproduce two of them here:

  1. Ethnophilosophy: Here it is assumed that different cultures often have incommensurable conceptions and worldviews. Bioethical key concepts – personhood, rationality, autonomy, consent, human nature, human well-being – have as many interpretations as there are cultures. The aim seems to be to develop these interpretations of Western ethical concepts and principles, to develop culture specific “ethnobioethics.”
  2. Professional philosophy: Professional philosophers, says Hellsten, are academically trained in critical, impartial, logical argument. (She distinguishes professional philosophy from the ideological tendencies of Peter Singer and John Harris). Although professional philosophers are influenced by their culture, they can recognize these biases and subject them to self-critical examination. Professional philosophy is self-correcting.

Hellsten points out that ethnophilosophical thinking, in its quest to carve out culture specific “ethnophilosophies,” on the contrary tends to make sweeping generalizations about cultural views, creating false oppositions. Moreover, ethnophilosophical thinking is at risk justifying double standards in biomedical practices. It can make it seem reasonable to ask for individual consent in individualistic cultures but not in collectivist.

Hellsten suggest that what global bioethics needs is professional philosophy. It can impartially scrutinize arguments and reveal contradictions and unclear thinking, and it can keep ethics at arm’s length from politics and rhetoric. It is a universal form of human thought that should be accessible to all cultures. Through professional philosophy, global bioethics can become universal bioethics.

What do think about this? I believe that Hellsten’s emphasis of “universality” does not quite strikingly describe the point I think she actually has. In order to understand in what sense she has a point, I believe we need to understand that bioethics is not only as a form of “thinking,” but also a concrete component of contemporary social structure.

Law (to take another example) isn’t just a form of “thinking” but also an organized part of the social structure: a legal system. During the twentieth century, we saw the birth of bioethics as another part of the social structure: as an organized way to deal with certain issues of health care and biomedical research (other parts of the social structure). Bioethics therefore has an obvious place in the social structure, and that place is: the university, with its resources for research and education.

So where do I locate Hellsten’s point when she claims professional philosophy’s role in global bioethics? Not in the view that professional philosophy supposedly is “universal thinking,” but in the fact that the university is the place of bioethics in the social structure. If we build hospitals and invest in advanced medical research and education, and if we develop legislation for these activities, it is in the university that bioethics finds the resources it needs to play its role.

So why is “professional philosophy” relevant for bioethics in Africa? In my view, precisely because one builds hospitals and makes investments in medical research and education. It would be odd if the efforts to build such a society were combined with an emphasis on tradition-bound “ethnophilosophy.”

We need to be clear about where we are: in the midst of an ongoing construction of society. And we need to be clear about the fact that ethics, in addition to being a personal concern, also has become an important “apparatus” in the social structure. In Africa, and elsewhere, it will certainly be faced with unique bioethical issues, like the legal system is faced with unique problems in different parts of the world.

At the same time, it is important to emphasize, as Hellsten does, the open and self-critical nature of global bioethics.

(I want to thank the Global Bioethics Blog for drawing my attention to Hellsten’s article.)

Pär Segerdahl

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