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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Ethics, human rights and responsible innovation

October 31, 2017

josepine-fernow2It is difficult to predict the consequences of developing and using new technologies. We interact with smart devices and intelligent software on an almost daily basis. Some of us use prosthetics and implants to go about our business and most of us will likely live to see self-driving cars. In the meantime, Swedish research shows that petting robot cats looks promising in the care of patients with dementia. Genetic tests are cheaper than ever, and available to both patients and consumers. If you spit in a tube and mail it to a US company, they will tell you where your ancestors are from. Who knows? You could be part sub Saharan African, and part Scandinavian at the same time, and (likely) still be you.

Technologies, new and old, have both ethical and human rights impact. Today, we are closer to scenarios we only pictured in science fiction a few decades ago. Technology develops fast and it is difficult to predict what is on the horizon. The legislation, regulation and ethical guidance we have today was developed for a different future. Policy makers struggle to assess the ethical, legal and human rights impact of new and emerging technologies. These frameworks are challenged when a country like Saudi Arabia, criticized for not giving equal rights to women, offers a robot honorary citizenship. This autumn marks the start of a research initiative that will look at some of these questions. A group of researchers from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas join forces to help improve the ethical and legal frameworks we have today.

The SIENNA project (short for Stakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact) will deliver proposals for professional ethics codes, guidelines for research ethics committees and better regulation in three areas: human genetics and genomics, human enhancement, and artificial intelligence & robotics. The proposals will build on input from stakeholders, experts and citizens. SIENNA will also look at some of the more philosophical questions these technologies raise: Where do we draw the line between health and illness, normality and abnormality? Can we expect intelligent software to be moral? Do we accept giving up some of our privacy to screen our genome for genetic disorders? And if giving up some of our personal liberty is the price we have to pay to interact with machines, are we willing to pay it?

 The project is co-ordinated by the University of Twente. Uppsala University’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics contributes expertise on the ethical, legal and social issues of genetics and genomics, and experience of communicating European research. Visit the SIENNA website at www.sienna-project.eu to find out more about the project and our partners!

Josepine Fernow

The SIENNA projectStakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact – has received just under € 4 million for a 3,5 year project under the European Union’s H2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No 741716.

Disclaimer: This text and its contents reflects only SIENNA’s view. The Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

SIENNA project

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Communicating risk in human terms

October 4, 2017

Pär SegerdahlThe concept of risk used in genetics is a technical term. For the specialist, risk is the probability of an undesired event, for example, that an individual develops some form of cancer. Risk is usually stated as a percentage.

It is well known that patients have difficulties to access the probability notion of risk. What do their difficulties mean?

Technical notions, which experts use in their specialist fields, usually have high status. The attitude is: this is what risk really is. Based on such an attitude, people’s difficulties mean: they have difficulties to understand risk. Therefore, we have to help them understand, by using educational tools that explain to them what we mean (we who know what risk is).

We could speak of communicating risk in the experts’ terms (and on their terms). Of course, one tries to communicate risk as simply and accessibly as possible. However, the notion of ​​what to communicate is fixed. Anything else would disturb the attitude that the expert knows what risk really is.

In an article in Patient Education and Counseling, Jennifer Viberg Johansson (along with Pär Segerdahl, Ulrika Hösterey Ugander, Mats G. Hansson and Sophie Langenskiöld) makes an inquiry that departs from this pattern. She explores how people themselves make sense of genetic risk.

How does Viberg’s study depart from the pattern? She does not use the technical notion of risk as the norm for understanding risk.

Viberg interviewed healthy participants in a large research project. She found that they avoided the technical, probability notion of genetic risk. Instead, they used a binary concept of risk. Genetic risk (e.g., for breast cancer) is something that you have or do not have.

Furthermore, they interpreted risk in three ways in terms of time. Past: The risk has been in my genome for a long time. When symptoms arise, the genetic risk is the cause of the disease. Present: The risk is in my genome now, making me a person who is at risk. Future: The risk will be in my genome my entire life, but maybe I can control it through preventive measures.

These temporal dimensions are not surprising. People try to understand risk in the midst of their lives, which evolve in time.

It is not the case, then, that people “fail” to understand. They do understand, but in their own terms. They think of genetic risk as something that one has or does not have. They understand genetic risk in terms of how life evolves in time. A practical conclusion that Viberg draws is that we should try to adapt genetic risk communication to these “lay” conceptions of risk, which probably help people make difficult decisions.

We could speak of communicating risk in human terms (and on human terms). What does genetic risk mean in terms of someone’s past, present and future life?

When you talk with people with lives to live, that is probably what the risk really is.

Pär Segerdahl

J. Viberg Johansson, et al., Making sense of genetic risk: A qualitative focus-group study of healthy participants in genomic research, Patient Educ Couns (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2017.09.009

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Moral panic in the intellect

September 6, 2017

Pär SegerdahlMoral panic develops intellectually. It is our thoughts that are racing. Certain mental images make such a deep impression on us that we take them for Reality, for Truth, for Facts. Do not believe that the intellect is cold and objective. It can boil over with agitated thoughts.

This is evident in bioethics, where many issues are filled with anguish. Research information about cloned animals, about new techniques for editing in the genome, or about embryonic stem cell research, evoke scary images of subversive forms of research, threatening human morality. The panic requires a sensitive intellect. There, the images of the research acquire such dimensions that they no longer fit into ordinary life. The images take over the intellect as the metaphysical horizon of Truth. Commonplace remarks that could calm down the agitated intellect appear to the intellect as naive.

A science news in National Geographic occasions these musings. It is about the first attempt in the United States to edit human embryos genetically. Using so-called CRISPR-Cas9 technique, the researchers removed a mutation associated with a common inherited heart disease. After the successful editing, the embryos were destroyed. (You find the scientific article reporting the research in Nature.)

Reading such research information, you might feel anxiety; anxiety that soon takes possession of your intellect: What will they do next? Develop “better” humans who look down on us as a lower species? Can we permit science to change human nature? NO, we must immediately introduce new legislation that bans all genetic editing of human embryos!

If the intellect can boil over with such agitated thoughts, and if moral panic legislation is imprudent, then I believe that bioethics needs to develop its therapeutic skills. Some bioethical issues need to be treated as affections of the intellect. Bioethical anxiety often arises, I believe, when research communication presents science as the metaphysical horizon of truth, instead of giving science an ordinary human horizon.

It may seem as if I took a stand for science by representing critics as blinded by moral panic. That is not the case, for the other side of moral panic is megalomania. Hyped notions of great breakthroughs and miraculous cures can drive entire research fields. Mental images that worry most people stimulate other personalities. Perhaps Paolo Macchiarini was such a personality, and perhaps he was promoted by a scientific culture of insane mental expectations on research and its heroes.

We need a therapeutic bioethics that can calm down the easily agitated intellect.

Pär Segerdahl

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Genetic screening before pregnancy?

June 20, 2016

Pär SegerdahlGenetic diseases can arise in strange ways. So-called recessive diseases require that both parents have the gene for the disease. The parents can be healthy and unaware that they are carriers of the same non-dominant disease gene. In these cases, the risk that the child develops the disease is 25 percent.

In families with a history of some recessive disease, as well as in communities where some serious recessive disease is common, genetic screening before pregnancy is already used – to determine whether couples that are planning a child are, so to speak, genetically compatible.

As these genetic tests have become more reliable and affordable, one has begun to consider offering preconception genetic screening to whole populations. Since one doesn’t know then exactly which genes to look for, it’s not just about screening more people, but also about testing for more recessive traits. This approach has been termed expanded carrier screening (ECS).

In the Netherlands, a pilot project is underway, but the ethical questions are many. One concerns medicalization, the risk that people begin to think of themselves as being more or less genetically compatible with each other, and feel a demand to test themselves before they form a couple and plan children.

Sweden has not yet considered offering expanded carrier screening to the population and the ethical issues have not been discussed. Amal Matar, PhD student at CRB, decided to start investigating the issues in advance. So that we are prepared and can reason well, if preconception expanded carrier screening is suggested.

The first study in the PhD project was recently published in the Journal of Community Genetics. Interviews were made with clinicians and geneticists, as well as with a midwife and a genetic counselor, to examine how this type of genetic screening can be perceived from a Swedish health care perspective.

Ethical issues raised during the interviews included medicalization, effects on human reproductive freedom, parental responsibility, discrimination against diseased and carriers, prioritization of resources in health care, as well as uncertainties about what to test for and how to interpret results.

The study serves as an empirical exploration of the ethical issues. Some of these issues will be examined philosophically further on in Amal Matar’s project.

(Read more about Amal Matar and her work at CRB here.)

Pär Segerdahl

Matar, A., Kihlbom, U., Höglund, A.T. Swedish healthcare providers’ perceptions of preconception expanded carrier screening (ECS) – a qualitative study. Journal of Community Genetics, DOI 10.1007/s12687-016-0268-2

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Gene editing: a threat to the moral ecosystem?

January 13, 2016

Pär SegerdahlA few years ago it was discovered that bacteria can protect themselves against viruses by cutting the viruses’ DNA at specific positions. The discovery is the basis for new, easier and more precise ways to make changes in the genome. Researchers have begun to talk about “cutting and pasting” in the genome; about “editing” the genome.

The new gene-editing technique has been applied to plant breeding. But it can, of course, be applied elsewhere too. And as often is the case, the issues appear extra controversial when applications to humans are considered.

I read an intellectual debate between a proponent of therapeutic use of the technique on humans (Julian Savulescu), and an opponent (Margaret Somerville). (You find it here.) The opponent used an analogy to summarize her position, which I cannot resist commenting upon here on the Ethics Blog. Here is the analogy (as I render it):

  • Today we are acutely aware that we must take responsibility for our environment, for the physical ecosystem. But the same can be said of our metaphysical or moral ecosystem. We must care about our values, beliefs, attitudes, principles and narratives. Genetically editing a human embryo, perhaps to remove a disease gene, may have good consequences from an individual perspective. But it threatens the moral ecosystem at its roots: it contradicts the respect for human life.

Say what you want, but it is a dramatic analogy! Maybe a little too dramatic. For essentially the same threat has been depicted many times before, when new forms of biotechnology appeared on the horizon. If this kind of threat was real, morality should lie in ruins since long ago. But we quickly forget and it is always only the latest techniques that Threaten Morality at its Foundation.

I believe that the idea of ​​a major technological threat to morality is based on intellectualizing both technology and morality. One attaches enormous significance to the fact that aspects of the technology can be described with certain words, such as “editing” or “designing.” The description, ​​”designing a child,” sounds like it logically clashed with another intellectualization – of morality as a system of propositions about what a “person” is, about what “respect” is, and about what is “right and wrong.”

The idea of an apocalyptic threat is thus based on reading the new technique and morality literally, so that it sounds as if the technique contradicted the basic tenets of morality.

Is there nothing to worry about, then? Should we not care about important values? Of course we should. My point is that in practice this looks differently than it verbally sounds like.

When new biotechnologies are implemented in society and put to use, this occurs in specific practical contexts where there are recognized problems that one wants to solve or treat. These applications are regulated, ethically and legally.

In vitro fertilization (IVF), another technique, is embedded in its specific contexts. Within these contexts, the technique solves problems for people. But it hardly threatens morality by, on some general and verbal level, contradicting the basic tenets of a moral system – such as “the respect for human life.” Rather, the technology has become a new way to concretely respect people and take their problems seriously.

The practical aspects disappear in the intellectualization of the issues, with its focus on words and theses. But it is the living contexts we have to take responsibility for. That is where we find the respect and the disrespect. That is where the problem lies.

Some moral problems are just false readings, overinterpretations of words.

Pär Segerdahl

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Openness as an ethical ritual

August 3, 2015

Pär SegerdahlBarbara A. Koenig wrote last year about how informed consent has acquired a “liturgical feel” in biomedical research ethics. Each time the protection of research participants is challenged by new forms of research, the answer is: more consent!

The procedure of informing and asking for consent may feel like assuming a priestly guise and performing an ethical ritual with the research participant.

The ritual is moreover sometimes practically impossible to implement. For example, if one is to inform participants in genetic research about incidental findings that might be made about them, so that they can decide whether they want to be re-contacted if researchers happen to discover “something” about them.

If it takes one hour to inform a patient about his or her actual genetic disease, how long would it take to inform a research participant of all possible kinds of genetic disease risks that might be discovered? Sorry, not just one participant, but hundreds of thousands.

How then can research participants be respected as humans, if informed consent has become like an empty ritual with the poor participant? (A ritual that in genetic research sometimes is impracticable.)

In the August issue of Nature, Misha Angrist suggests a solution: we treat participants as partners in the research process, by being open to them. How are we open to them? By offering them the researchers’ genetic raw data, which can be handed over to them as an electronic file.

Here we are not talking about interpreted genetic disease risks, but of heaps of genetic raw data that are utterly meaningless for research participants.

Openness often has important functions. Making scientific articles openly accessible so that everyone can read them has a function. Making researchers’ data available to other researchers so that they can critically review research, or use already collected data in new research, has a function.

But offering files with genetic raw data to research participants, what is its function? Is it really the beginning of a beautiful partnership?

Openness and partnership seem here to become yet another ethical ritual; yet another universal solution to ethical difficulties.

Pär Segerdahl

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

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