Openness as a norm

March 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWhy should scientists save their code keys as long as 20 years after they conducted their study, the Swedish Data Inspection Board apparently wonders. In its opinion to a proposed new Swedish law on research databases, it states that this seems too long a period of time.

Yet, researchers judge that code keys need to be saved to connect old samples to new registry data. The discovery of a link between HPV infection and cervical cancer, for example, could not have been made with newly collected samples but presupposed access to identifiable samples collected in the 1960s. The cancer doesn’t develop until decades after infection.

New generations of researchers are beginning to perceive it as an ethical duty to make data usable for other scientists, today and in the future. Platforms for long-term data sharing are being built up not only in biobank research, but also in physics, in neuroscience, in linguistics, in archeology…

It started in physics, but has now reached the humanities and the social sciences where it is experienced as a paradigm shift.

A recent US report suggests that sharing data should become the norm:

Research is obviously changing shape. New opportunities to manage data mean that research is moving up an IT-gear. The change also means a norm shift. Data are no longer expected to be tied to specific projects and research groups. Data are expected to be openly available for a long time – Open Access.

The norm shift raises, of course, issues of privacy. But when we discuss those issues, public bodies can hardly judge for researchers what, in the current vibrant situation, is reasonable and unreasonable, important and unimportant.

Perhaps it is profoundly logical, in today’s circumstances, to give data a longer and more open life than in the previous way of organizing research. Perhaps such long-term transparency really means moving up a gear.

We need to be humbly open to that possibility and not repeat an old norm that research itself is leaving behind.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


The need of a bird’s-eye view

February 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlIn the previous blog post I wrote about the tendency in today’s research to build common research platforms where data are stored and made open: available for future research, meta-analysis and critical scrutiny of published research.

The tendency is supported at EU level, by bodies responsible for research. Simultaneously, it is obstructed at EU level, by other bodies working with data protection.

The same hopeless conflict can be seen in Sweden, where the Swedish Data Inspection Board time and again stops such efforts or criticizes suggestions for how to regulate them. This month the Data Inspection Board criticized a proposed law on research databases.

It may seem as if the board just dryly listed a number of points where the proposal is inconsistent with other laws or allowed unreasonable infringement of privacy. At the same time, the Data Inspection Board seems alien to the new way of organizing research. Why on earth should researchers want to save so much data so damn long?

How can we handle these conflicts between public bodies that each has his own little mission and thus its own limited field of vision?

Pär Segerdahl

We want to be just - the Ethics Blog


Revised European data protection will make data about rare diseases even rarer

April 30, 2013

EU is currently discussing changes to the European privacy laws. The intention is to strengthen the protection of privacy and to give people more control over their data.

The problem, which I highlighted on The Ethics Blog, is that the new proposal applies also to research. Presently there is an exception for scientific research about health and disease. The proposed revision of the privacy regulation, however, allows no exceptions.

Every person who has given data to a register must according to the new proposal be asked for consent each time researchers want to study some new disease pattern. Patient data can never be used in research without specific consent, and not even historical registers and data from diseased persons are given exception in the new proposal.

A recent article in Nature Reviews Genetics by Deborah Mascalzoni et al. highlights a patient group that is especially vulnerable to the proposed revision: patients suffering from rare diseases. In Sweden a disease is defined as rare if it affects less than a hundred persons in a million.

Data on rare diseases are, as a matter of course, rare. We therefore know little about these diseases and it is difficult to develop effective medical treatments. To achieve statistically significant analyses, researchers must typically share data over national borders. Every lost piece of data about rare diseases can mean dramatically impaired prospects of new drugs and treatments for these patient groups.

Rare diseases are thus a further strong reason for maintaining the current exception for scientific research in the data protection legislation. Read more on the CRB website.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - 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


No consent for maintaining high-quality health care?

September 21, 2012

Collecting biological samples and health information from healthy donors in the construction of biobanks and research registers obviously requires the donors’ informed consent.

But is a similar demand for consent reasonable when patients provide their doctor with samples for diagnosis, undergo medical examination and treatment, and answer the doctor’s questions? Or can patients be expected to accept that their traces in the health care system – for example, data about experienced side effects – are monitored to optimize the quality of medical diagnosis and treatment?

A recent article by Mats G. Hansson at CRB discusses the issue. The article in Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics is well-argued and challenges common assumptions.

The basic argument is that quality registers and biobanks within the health care system play such a decisive role in optimizing the quality of the care that we expect as patients, that no consent should be required for collecting and studying our traces as patients (provided that the purpose is maintenance of high-quality health care, and nothing else).

Consent is associated with costs, in the form of drop-out of data. This impairs the value of the information in quality registers and biobanks, and thereby also the conditions for optimizing medical diagnosis and treatment.

Privacy is not the only ethical concern. Quality of care carries moral weight too.

Perhaps we are prepared to accept certain access to our patient histories, if such access is a precondition to maintaining and developing high standards of health care?

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - 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


Genetic exceptionalism and unforgivingness

August 30, 2012

What fuels the tendency to view genetic information as exceptionally private and sensitive? Is information about an individual’s genetic disposition for eye color more sensitive than the fact that he has blue eyes?

In Rethinking Informed Consent in Bioethics, Neil C. Manson and Onora O’Neill make heroic efforts against an avalanche of arguments for genetic exceptionalism. For each argument meant to reveal how uniquely private, how exceptionally sensitive, and how extraordinarily risky genetic information is, Manson and O’Neill find elucidating examples, analogies and comparisons that cool down tendencies to exaggerate genetic information as incomparably dangerous.

What fuels the exceptionalism that Manson and O’Neill fight? They suggest that it has to do with metaphors that tempt us to reify information; temptations that, for various reasons, are intensified when we think about DNA. Once again, their analysis is clarifying.

Another form of genetic exceptionalism strikes me, however; one that has less to do with information. I’m thinking of GMO exceptionalism. For thousands of years, humans improved plants and animals through breeding them. This traditional way of modifying organisms is not without environmental risks. When analogous risks appear with GMO, however, they tend to change meaning and become seen as extraordinary risks, revealing the ineradicable riskiness of genetic manipulation.

Why are we prepared to embrace traditionally modified organisms, TMO, when basically the same risks with GMO make us want to exterminate every genetically manipulated bastard?

Unforgivingness. I believe that this all-too familiar emotional response drives genetic exceptionalism, and many other forms of exceptionalism.

Consider the response of becoming unforgiving. Yesterday we laughed with our friend. Today we learn that he spread rumors about us. His familar smile immediately acquires a different meaning. Yesterday it was shared joy. Today it is an ugly mask hiding an intrinsically untrustworthy individual who must be put in quarantine forever. Every trait of character turns into a defect of character. The whole person becomes an objection; an exception among humans.

Manson and O´Neill are right when they analyze a tendency to reify information in genetic exceptionalism. But I want to suggest that what fuels this tendency, what makes us more than willing to yield to the temptation, is an emotional state of mind that also produces many other forms of exceptionalism.

We need to acknowledge the emotional dimension of philosophical and ethical thinking. We don’t think well when we are unforgiving towards our subject matter. We think dogmatically and unjustly.

In their efforts to think well about genetic information, Manson and O’Neill can be understood as doing forgiveness work.

They calm us down and patiently show us that our friend, although he sometimes does wrong, is not that intrinsically bad character we want to see him as, when we are in our unfortunate unforgiving state of mind.

We are helped towards a state of mind where we can think more freely and justly about the risks and benefits of genetics.

Pär Segerdahl

We want to be just - the Ethics Blog


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