Biobank news: ethics and law

April 23, 2014

The second issue of the newsletter from CRB and BBMRI.se is now available:

This April issue contains four interesting news items about:

  1. New international research cooperation on genetic risk information.
  2. The new Swedish law on registers for research on heritage, environment and health.
  3. The legislative process of developing a European data protection regulation.
  4. A new article on trust and ethical regulation.

You’ll also find a link to a two-page PDF-version of the newsletter.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Research ethics as moral assurance system

March 19, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogModern society seems to be driven by skepticism. As philosophers systematically doubted the senses by enumerating optical and other illusions, our human ability to think for ourselves and take responsibility for our professional activities is doubted by enumerating scandals and cases of misconduct in the past.

The logic is simple: Since human practices have a notorious tendency to slide into the ditch – just think of scandals x, y and z! – we must introduce assurance systems that guarantee that the practices remain safely on the road.

In such a spirit of systematic doubt, research ethics developed into what resembles a moral assurance system for research. With reference to past scandals and atrocities, an extra-legal regulatory system emerged with detailed steering documents (ethical guidelines), overseeing bodies (research ethics committees), and formal procedures (informed consent).

The system is meant to secure ethical trustworthiness.

The trustwortiness of the assurance system is questioned in a new article in Research Ethics, written by Linus Johansson together with Stefan Eriksson, Gert Helgesson and Mats G. Hansson.

Guidelines, review and consent aren’t questioned as such, however. (There are those who want to abolish the system altogether.) The problem is rather the institutionalized distrust that makes the system more and more formalized, like following a checklist in a mindless bureaucracy.

The logic of distrust demands a system that does not rely on the human abilities that are doubted. That would be self-contradictory. But thereby the system does not support human abilities to think for ourselves and take responsibility.

The logic demands a system where humans become what they are feared being.

The cold logic of distrust is what needs to be overcome. Can we abstain from demanding more detailed guidelines and more thorough control, next time we hear about a scandal?

The logic of skepticism is not easily overcome.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


Stress turns ordinary cells into pluripotent stem cells

February 19, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogTissues of the body originally form when “naïve” undifferentiated embryonic stem cells differentiate to form the “mature” cells of specific tissues: liver cells, brain cells, skin cells, and so on.

The mature cells are then locked in their differentiated forms, as if they met their fate.

I recently mentioned that Yamanaka and Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 for their surprising findings about dedifferentiation. Through direct genetic modification of nuclear function, mature cells can be reprogrammed to return to naïve stem-cell states. These dedifferentiated cells are pluripotent and can differentiate again and form a variety of mature cell types.

The rejuvenated cells regain the naïve properties of embryonic stem cells!

In January this year, an article published in Nature reported that the genetic reprogramming can be achieved more easily, without direct nuclear manipulation.

All you need to do to dedifferentiate mature cells, according to this article, is to subject them to stress: like an acid environment. Not all but some of the mature cells will be freed from their fate as liver or skin cells and return to naïve pluripotent states.

An easy to read summary can be found in BioEdge, and here is a link to the article:

Using mature cells to create stem cells with properties of embryonic stem cells might thus be easier than expected. In fact, the new findings weren’t even made in a stem-cell laboratory.

The ethical responses to the findings are not as thrilling as the findings. Some welcome the possibility of creating “ethical stem cells” that avoid the controversy about embryonic stem cells. Others see “new ethical issues” on the horizon.

These responses are characteristic of a routine view of ethical assessment as a static one-way process: ethicists assess others. But these findings indicate that processes in the opposite direction are possible as well, since they seem to challenge ethical assumptions about the unique function of the embryo.

I’m tempted to extend Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions to ethics. The new findings could function as anomalies for ethically paradigmatic ways of thinking about the embryo.

As stress turns mature cells into naïve pluripotent stem cells, these findings could stress some ethicists to return to more open-minded states that in the future can differentiate in new and unexpected directions.

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging findings - The ethics blog


Dynamic consent in biobank research: better than broad consent?

October 2, 2013

Biobanks make contributing to medical research easy: easier than when the research is performed on living human bodies.

I simply donate my sample and consent to storage for certain kinds of future research, under specified conditions like that the research is ethically reviewed and the sample is coded so that it cannot be traced to me without keys. I consent to a specific biobank framework.

Thereafter, the research is done on the sample and data in registers. What an easy way of contributing to research!

Too easy, it is sometimes objected. Broad consent to future research implies ethically problematic passivity among biobank participants, the objection goes. Participants are precluded from exercising fundamental rights and freedoms. Power is transferred from participants to researchers.

What’s the solution, then? An often proposed solution is familiar to all who make choices on the internet. Passive biobank participants can be activated by keeping themselves updated via a website. On this website, they give dynamic consent in real time, as researchers continually inform about proposed research with donated samples.

Dynamic consent would empower biobank participants, make them engaged in the decision-making process and equal partners in the research.

It sounds brilliant! What an easy solution!  In the case of large population-based biobanks, however, it would mean that hundreds of thousands would spend the rest of their lives keeping themselves updated about planned research with samples donated perhaps decades ago, and for each new project make active choices: yes or no?

Researchers would be free to come and leave the biobank, while participants are fettered to a life-long commission as ethical gate-keepers, with their own login information.

Seduced by sugary phrases? In an article last month – Broad versus dynamic consent in biobank research – Norwegian research ethicists identify six often cited reasons in favor of a dynamic consent model for biobanks. For each cited claim, they are able to adduce reminders and considerations that make the claim notably less appetizing, at least to me.

This post would become long-winded if I informed about all objections to the claims in favor of dynamic consent: who reads long texts on the internet? Two central objections, however, are that a dynamic consent model would invite people into the therapeutic misconception and that it would individualize the ethical review of public health research.

Still, it is vital that biobanks continually inform about ongoing and planned biobank activities, making the research transparent, and giving those who might want to opt-out opportunity to do so.

Pär Segerdahl

The temptation of rhetoric - the ethics blog


Don’t shoot at the patient (or at the messenger)

April 2, 2013

The newly proposed European Data Protection Directive overprotects research participants and exposes patients to greater risks of contracting illness and dying.

Thus dramatically a recent article in The Lancet Oncology can be summarized, written by Mats G. Hansson at CRB together with Gert Jan van Ommen, Ruth Chadwick and Joakim Dillner.

People who provide data to research registers are not exposed to physical risks, like participants in interventional research. The risks associated with register-based research are informational: unauthorized release of information about participants. One might ask if it even makes sense to say that people “participate in research” when researchers process large data sets.

Patients (and people in general) have significant protection from disease thanks to register-based research. For example, it is estimated that the HPV vaccine will save about 200 women from dying in cervical cancer each year, in Sweden alone. This cancer-preventive treatment became possible because researchers had access to samples dating back to the 1960s providing evidence for a causal connection between a certain virus infection and cervical cancer later in life.

  • Despite this vital value in biobanks and registers,
  • despite the fact that risks are only informational,
  • despite rigorous safety routines to prevent unauthorized spread of information,
  • despite the fact that researchers don’t study individuals but statistical patterns, and
  • despite the question if people really are “participants” in register-based research,

the EU committee proposing the new directive treats the integrity of “research participants” as so pivotal that researchers who process data not only must be subjected to the same ethical review process as for invasive research, but also must obtain informed consent from each and every one who once gave their data to the register, whenever the researchers want to study a new disease pattern.

Data protection efforts easily lose their sense of proportions, it seems, at least concerning register-based research. Not only is one prepared to expose patients to greater physical risks in order to protect research participants from (already rigorously controlled) informational risks.

One also is prepared to disturb data providers who hardly can be described as “participating” in research, by forcing researchers to recontact them about informed consent. Not only on one occasion, but time and again, year after year, each time a new disease pattern is explored in the registers. That’s what I call privacy intrusion!

Pär Segerdahl

We participate in debates - the Ethics Blog


Life scientists’ responsibility when their research has dual use

March 13, 2013

Do life scientists have moral responsibility when their research can be used not only to do good (like preventing pandemics) but also to harm others (like developing biological weapons)?

It could be tempting to think that researchers’ only responsibility is the advancement of scientific knowledge. The use and practical application of that knowledge is the responsibility of others.

The September 11 attacks made that idea much less tenable. Since then, the security sector has pushed the scientific community to take more extensive responsibility for research that could be used to develop, for example, biological weapons.

Do scientists have such a responsibility for how others might use their findings? If they do have responsibility, how is it most appropriately approached in practice? These questions are investigated by Frida Kuhlau at CRB in a dissertation that she defends on March 23:

Kuhlau argues that researchers do have a moral responsibility for research with dual use and she tries to specify the content of that responsibility. It includes, for example, always considering possible negative implications of one’s research; reporting activities of concern; being prepared to occasionally delimit the dissemination of results.

How is such responsibility best approached in practice? The traditional way of taking ethical responsibility for research is by imposing ethical regulatory systems (guidelines, codes, ethical review).

Like Linus Johnsson who defended his dissertation last Saturday, Frida Kuhlau doubts such bureaucratic attempts to ethically regulate research. Researchers need to shoulder the responsibility themselves, learning how to deliberate and take action concerning research with dual use.

Shouldering responsibility does not mean, however, doing it alone. Individual researchers normally don’t have all the competencies needed to reasonably assess possible risks of research. The scientific community and the security sector are dependent on each other. What is required to take proper responsibility, Frida Kuhlau suggests, is therefore an ethic of conversation and deliberation.

Taking moral responsibility for research with dual use presupposes ongoing communicational processes. These processes need organizational support, platforms. A novel suggestion in the dissertation is that ethical review boards could function as such platforms.

Rather than only reviewing, as ethical review boards normally do, these boards would support an ethical culture of conversation and deliberation about dual-use research.

For more information about this important dissertation, see News from Uppsala University. If you are in Sweden and want to visit the public examination, it takes place in Auditorium Minus, Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala, Saturday, March 23, 2013, at 09:15.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Dissertation on trust in biobank research

March 6, 2013

On Saturday, March 9, Linus Johnsson at CRB defends his dissertation:

The dissertation is based on four studies. The first two scrutinize empirical evidence concerning public trust in biobank research. They indicate that people do trust biobank researchers, at least in Sweden.

Such findings might give rise to complacency. The ethical regulatory system obviously works and promotes trust. Biobankers can relax.

The third study, however, is a conceptual investigation showing such a reaction to be mistaken. Trust creates obligations in the person who is being trusted. If a doctor collects samples from patients and suspects that their trust is mistaken in one way or another, the doctor has an obligation to handle that mistaken trust appropriately. (I’ve written about this study on The Ethics Blog.)

Public trust doesn’t merely indicate trustworthiness. It creates a moral demand. The proper response to public trust in biobank researchers, then, is taking increased moral responsibility.

The fourth study strives in the same direction. It critiques prevalent faith that trustworthiness is best quaranteed by an extensive ethical regulatory system (ethical review, guidelines, etc.). The opposite may very well be the case. Such a system may foster moral complacency and failure among researchers to deal with ethical issues that are not addressed by the system.

If I interpret Linus Johnsson right, the current widespread trust in ethical regulatory systems is mistaken, and his dissertation is an attempt to take responsibility for that mistaken trust by intellectually highlighting and critiquing it.

As this brief summary shows, the dissertation is original and presents some very thought-provoking results, empirically and above all conceptually. For more information about the dissertation, see News from Uppsala University.

If you are in Sweden and want to visit the public examination, it takes place in Auditorium Minus, Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala, Saturday, March 9, 2013, at 09:15.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


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