Genetic risk: Should researchers let people know?

September 24, 2018

Should researchers inform research participants if they happen to discover individual genetic risks of disease? Yes, many would say, if the information is helpful to the participants. However, the value of complex genetic risk information for individuals is uncertain. Jennifer Viberg Johansson suggests that this uncertainty needs to be acknowledged by both geneticists and ethicists.

One reason people want to participate in large genetic studies is the comprehensive health checks researchers often offer to collect data. In the future, people could also be offered information about genetic risks. According to Jennifer Viberg Johansson, there are some factors researchers should consider before offering these kinds of results.

Providing genetic risk information may not be as helpful to individuals as one may think. Knowing your genetic make-up is not the same as knowing your own probability for disease. In addition, the genetic risk information from research is not based on symptoms or personal concerns, as it would be in the healthcare system. It is thus less “personalised” and not connected to any symptoms.

Genetic risk information is complex and can be difficult to understand. To the research participants interviewed by Jennifer Viberg Johansson, risk information is something that offers them an explanation of who they are, where they are from, and where they may be heading. To them, learning about their genetic risk is an opportunity to plan their lives and take precautions to prevent disease.

Whether research participants want genetic risk information or not is more complex. Research participants themselves may change their answer depending on the way the question is asked. Risk research shows that we interpret probabilities differently, depending on the outcome and consequences. Jennifer Viberg Johansson’s work points in the same direction: probability is not an essential component of people’s decision-making when there are ways to prevent disease.

People have difficulties making sense of genetic risk when it is presented in the traditional numeric sense. It is hard to interpret what it means to have a 10 per cent or 50 per cent risk of disease. Instead, we interpret genetic risk as a binary concept: you either have risk, or you don’t. Based on her results, Jennifer Viberg Johansson suggests we keep this in mind for genetic counselling. We need to tailor counselling to people’s often binary perceptions of risk.

Communicating risk is difficult, and requires genetic counsellors to understand how different people understand the same figures in different ways.

Jennifer Viberg Johansson defended her dissertation September 21, 2018.

Anna Holm

Viberg Johansson J., (2018), INDIVIDUAL GENETIC RESEARCH RESULTS – Uncertainties, Conceptions, and Preferences, Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

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Nurses’ vulnerable position when care and research coincide

September 10, 2018

Pär SegerdahlA new article highlights ethical challenges that nurses face in their profession when more and more clinical trials are conducted on cancer patients.

Nursing alone is stressful. Studies have shown how heavy workload and being pressed for time can cause moral blindness and emotional immunization among nurses. In clinical trials, the situation is even more complicated, due to dual professional roles. The nurses have to accommodate both the values of care and the values of research. Caring for cancer patients coincides with recruiting patients as research participants and coordinating clinical trials on them according to detailed research protocols.

The article by Tove Godskesen et al. describes challenges faced by nurses burdened with this dual professional identity. The most difficult challenges concern cancer patients near the end of life, who no longer respond to the standard therapy. They often hope desperately that research participation will give them access to the next generation of cancer drugs, which may work more efficiently on them. This unrealistic hope creates difficulties for the nurses. They must recruit cancer patients to clinical trials, while the patients often are so terminally ill that they, from a perspective of caring, perhaps rather should be allowed to end their lives in peace and quiet.

An additional complication, next to the heavy workload in nursing and the dual identity as a nurse in the service of research, is that the number of clinical trials increases. There is a political ambition to accelerate the development, to support the Nordic pharmaceutical industry. This means that more and more nurses are engaged to coordinate trials: a task for which they rarely were trained, for which they hardly have time to prepare, and over which they lack power, given their position in the hierarchy of healthcare.

In view of the political ambition to increase the number of clinical trials, there should be a corresponding ambition to support the increasing number of nurses who will have to assume dual professional roles. Godskesen’s study indicates that there is a lack of systematic strategies to handle the situation. Nurses who coordinate trials on patients support each other, to the best of their abilities, over a quick cup of coffee.

Godskesen recommends more strategic training and better support for nurses working with clinical trials. For the nurses’ sake, and not least for the sake of patient safety.

Pär Segerdahl

Tove E. Godskesen, Suzanne Petri, Stefan Eriksson, Arja Halkoaho, Margrete Mangset, Merja Pirinen, Zandra Engelbak Nielsen. 2018. When Nursing Care and Clinical Trials Coincide: A Qualitative Study of the Views of Nordic Oncology and Hematology Nurses on Ethical Work Challenges. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics. doi.org/10.1177/1556264618783555

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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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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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Internal investigation of research misconduct often fails

May 30, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhat characterizes a research scandal? In a short article in Hastings Center Report, Carl Elliott uses as an example the case of Paolo Macchiarini at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet.

Macchiarini’s deadly experiments with stem cell-covered artificial trachea, transplanted to patients who did not have life-threatening diseases, have unique features linked to the personality and charisma of the researcher. However, the scandal resembles other scandals on one point, Elliott says. Whistle-blowers who use internal channels at the home university to handle research misconduct often fail. Justice is not done until the press reveals the scandal. In this case, a Swedish documentary film, The Experiments, exposed the scandal.

If Elliott is right, I personally draw two conclusions. The first is that investigative journalism is important. It reveals misconduct that would otherwise not be exposed. My second conclusion is that we cannot be satisfied with this.

Angry customers who want to force the shop assistant to correct what they think went wrong can threaten: “If you don’t fix this, I’ll contact the local newspaper.” A responsible person who suspects research misconduct should not have to act in a way that others can interpret as partial exercise of power. It poisons the situation and increases the risk for the whistle-blower.

If internal channels often fail to handle research misconduct, as Elliott claims, a system of external management is required. Therefore, it is good that a Swedish public inquiry recently suggested that an independent agency should investigate suspected research misconduct.

Contacting the media should not have to be “the way” of effectively exposing research misconduct; it is a way out if the standard way fails. If the way out often is required, something is wrong with the way.

Pär Segerdahl

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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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