Broad and deep consent for biobanks

November 18, 2019

Pär SegerdahlA new article on consent for biobanks manages to surprise me. How? By pointing out what ought to be obvious! If we want to judge what kind of consent works best for biobanks, then we should look at today’s biobanks and not look back at more traditional medical research.

The risks in traditional medical research are mainly physical. Testing new substances and interventions on human subjects can harm them. Potential research participants must therefore be informed about these physical risks, which are unique to each specific project. For this reason, study-specific informed consent is essential in traditional medical research.

In biobank research, however, the risks are primarily informational. Personal data may end up in the wrong hands. The risks here are not so much linked to the specific projects that use material from the biobank. The risks are rather linked to the biobank itself, to how it is governed and controlled. If we want to give biobank participants ethical protection through informed consent, it is information about the biobank they need, not about specific projects.

In the debate on consent for biobanks, study-specific consent figured as a constant requirement for what informed consent must be. However, in the context of biobanks, that requirement risks placing an irrelevant demand on biobanks. Participants will receive the wrong protection! What to do?

Instead of looking back, as if study-specific consent were an absolute norm for medical research, the authors formulate three requirements that are relevant to today’s biobanks. First, potential participants should be informed about relevant risks and benefits. Second, they should be given an opportunity to assess whether research on the biobank material is in line with their own values. Finally, they should be given ethical protection as long as they participate, as well as opportunities to regularly reconsider their participation.

In their comparison of the various forms of consent that have figured in the debate, the authors conclude that broad consent particularly well satisfies the first criterion. Since the risks are not physical but concern the personal data that the biobank stores, information to participants about the biobank itself is more relevant than information about the specific projects that use the services of the biobank. That is what broad consent delivers.

However, the authors argue that broad consent fails to meet the latter two criteria. If potential participants are not informed about specific projects, it becomes difficult to judge whether the biobank material is used according to their values. In addition, over time (biobank material can be saved for decades) participants may even forget that they have provided samples and data to the biobank. This undermines the value of their right to withdraw consent.

Again, what to do? The authors propose a deepened form of broad consent, meant to satisfy all three requirements. First, the information provided to participants should include a clear scope of the research that is allowed to use the biobank material, so that participants can judge whether it is consistent with their own values, and so that future ethical review can assess whether specific projects fall within the scope. Secondly, participants should be regularly informed about the activities of the biobank, as well as reminded of the fact that they still participate and still have a right to withdraw consent.

Ethical reasoning is difficult to summarize. If you want to judge for yourself the authors’ conclusion that broad and deep consent is best when it comes to biobanks, I must refer you to the article.

In this post, I mainly wanted to highlight the originality of the authors’ way of discussing consent: they formulate new relevant criteria to free us from old habits of thought. The obvious is often the most surprising.

Pär Segerdahl

Rasmus Bjerregaard Mikkelsen, Mickey Gjerris, Gunhild Waldemar & Peter Sandøe. Broad consent for biobanks is best – provided it is also deep. BMC Medical Ethics volume 20, Article number: 71 (2019)

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In-depth critique of dynamic consent

August 28, 2019

Pär SegerdahlBiobanks are getting bigger and the human biological samples that are stored in the freezers have increasingly long-term utility for research. The samples can be used not only in one study, but also in several different studies. Not only in today’s research, but also in future research. This creates research ethical tensions.

Ethics requires that research participants are informed about and consent to the specific purpose of the project they are asked to participate in. However, when a large-scale biobank is being constructed, such specific information cannot be provided. Future research purposes do not exist yet and cannot be specified. Not until researchers in the future design new studies. How then can biobank research be conducted ethically?

In recent years, a technical solution has been launched: Transform research participants into users of new information and communication technologies (ICT)! Through their computers, tablets or cell phones, they can continuously be informed about new research projects. Sitting in front of their screens, they can give specific consent, or refrain from it, as new projects take shape and researchers apply for access to the biobank’s collected samples. The solution is named dynamic consent.

Dynamic consent certainly seems like an ingenious technical solution to the ethical tensions surrounding today’s increasingly long-term and large-scale biobanks. Moreover, is it not also democratic and politically progressive? Does it not give research participants greater power over the research? Is it not as if all these hundreds of thousands of donors of biological material voted on the direction of future research? Simply by deciding on the use of their own samples.

I recently read an in-depth critique of this belief in a technical solution to the ethical problem. The article is written by Alexandra Soulier at CRB, and focuses on ethical and political consequences of turning research participants into ICT users. Here are some comments that I want to highlight:

The public good that we associate with research is not the sum of isolated individuals’ private preferences in front of their computer screens. Dynamic consent is in tension with the collective and long-term nature of biobank research, and with the notion of the public good which research aims at.

If individual ICT users’ private decisions replace the joint discussions, considerations and functions of ethical committees, the governance of biobanks can be impaired. This, in turn, poses a risk to the participants themselves.

Dynamic consent might transform research participants into seducible audiences. Researchers may want to sell their projects to these audiences through clever communication strategies. Research participants are then treated as manipulable rather than as a rational public to be convinced.

Dynamic consent is not a referendum. Research participants do not vote on research policy issues. They only express their private preferences about their own research participation, project by project, without regard to any research policy implications for the long-term activities of the biobank.

Research participants who do not want to spend years in front of the screen in order to make decisions in real time about their participation in biobank research may feel forced to choose the option (through their technical device) to give exactly the open consent to future research that originally was considered problematic. How can what was considered to be the ethical problem be allowed to be included in the seemingly smart solution?

In summary, the proposed individual-centered technical solution to the ethical challenges of biobank research short-circuits the possibility of jointly taking political and ethical responsibility for these challenges.

I regret that I cannot do justice to Alexandra Soulier’s subtle discussion. I have not read such in-depth criticism in a long time. Read it!

Pär Segerdahl

Soulier, Alexandra. Reconsidering dynamic consent in biobanking: ethical and political consequences of transforming research participants into ICT users. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, June 2019: 62-70

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Global data sharing, national oversight bodies

November 8, 2017

Pär SegerdahlScience has an international character and global research collaboration is common. For medical research, this means that health data and biological samples linked to people in one nation often are transferred to researchers in other nations.

At the same time, the development of new information and communication technology increases the importance of people’s data protection rights. To provide satisfying data protection in the new internet world, data protection regulations are tightening, especially within the EU.

In an article in Health and Technology, lawyer Jane Reichel discusses challenges that this development poses for biomedical research.

I am not a lawyer, but if I understand Reichel right, legislation can accompany personal data across national borders. For example, the EU requires that the foreign receiver of European data subjects’ personal data will handle the data in accordance with EU legislation – even if the receiver is a research group in the United States or Japan.

The fact that one nation may need to follow a foreign nation’s legislation not only challenges concepts of sovereignty and territoriality. It also challenges the responsibility of research ethics committees. These committees operate administratively at national level. Now it seems they might also need to monitor foreign rights and global standards. Do these national bodies have the expertise and authority for such an international task?

Read the article about these exciting and unexpected legal issues!

Pär Segerdahl

Reichel, J. Health Technol. (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12553-017-0182-6

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Acknowledging the biobank and the people who built it

October 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlBiomedical research increasingly often uses biological material and information collected in biobanks. In order for a biobank to work efficiently, it is important not only that the biological material is stored well. The material must also be made available to science so that researchers easily and responsibly can share samples and information.

Creating such a biobank is a huge effort. Researchers and clinicians who collect bioresources might even be reluctant to make the biobank openly available. Why make it easy for others to access to your biobank if they do not give you any recognition?

In an article in the Journal of Community Genetics, Heidi C. Howard and Deborah Mascalzoni, among others, discuss a system that would make it more attractive to develop well-functioning biobanks. It is a system for rewarding researchers and clinicians who create high quality bioresources by making their work properly acknowledged.

The system, presented in the article, is called the Bioresource Research Impact Factor (BRIF). If I understand it, the system may work the following way. A biobank is described in a permanent “marker” article published in a specific bioresource journal. Researchers who use the biobank then quote the article in their publications and funding grants. In this way, you can count citations of bioresources as you count citations of research articles.

The article also describes the results of a study of stakeholders’ awareness of BRIF, as well as an ethical analysis of how BRIF can contribute to more responsible biobanking.

If you are building a biobank, read the article and learn more about BRIF!

Pär Segerdahl

Howard, H.C., Mascalzoni, D., Mabile, L. et al. “How to responsibly acknowledge research work in the era of big data and biobanks: ethical aspects of the Bioresource Research Impact Factor (BRIF).” J Community Genet (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12687-017-0332-6

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Open data access is regulated access

November 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWe usually associate open access with the publication of scientific articles that anyone with internet access can read, without price barrier.

The concept “open access” is now being used also for research data. I have written about this trend towards open data earlier on the Ethics Blog: Openness as a norm.

In many cases, research data are made as freely available as the open access articles that anyone can read; often in connection with the publication of results based on the data. This occurs, for example, in physics.

There is a strong trend towards open data also in medical research; but here the analogy with articles that anyone can read is no longer valid. Biobank and register-based research work with sensitive personal data, to which a number of laws regulating data access apply.

Yet one could speak of a trend towards open data also in this domain. But it then means something different. It’s about making data as accessible as possible for research, within the regulations that apply to this type of data.

Since the relevant laws and ethical frameworks are not only opaque but also differ between countries, the work is largely about developing common models for researchers to work within. One such attempt is made in an article by, among others, Deborah Mascalzoni and Mats G. Hansson at CRB:

The article formulates 15 principles for sharing of biological samples and personal data between researchers. It also includes a template of the written agreements that scientists can make when one research group transfers data or materials to another research group.

Take a look at these principles, and the template of the agreements, and you’ll soon get an idea of how many strict conditions that must be met when biological samples and personal data are shared for research purposes.

Given how open access often is associated with the possibility for anyone at any time to read articles without price barrier, one should perhaps avoid using the term in this context. It may mislead, since this form of data access is heavily regulated, although the aim is to support researchers to share their data and samples.

Pär Segerdahl

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Bioethicists suggest broad consent for biobank research

September 2, 2015

Pär SegerdahlIt is still unclear what kind of consent should be used when collecting biological samples for future research. Different forms of consent are practiced, which creates another uncertainty: which research is actually permitted with the collected samples?

This haphazard situation leads to unintended constraints on research. But it also leads to research sometimes being carried out without consent.

Against this background, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) organized a workshop to discuss whether it is ethically reasonable to manage these uncertainties by using broad consent for future research when collecting biological samples.

The group of bioethicists who attended the workshop, including Mats G. Hansson, recently published their thoughts and conclusions in the American Journal of Bioethics:

The group’s proposal is that broad consent is ethically reasonable and often the best option, if it has three components:

  1. Consent is conducted initially, in connection with sample collection.
  2. There is a system for oversight and approval of future research.
  3. As far as possible, there should be ongoing communication with, and information to, donors.

Biological samples are collected in a variety of contexts. It is here that the haphazard situation arises, if different forms of consent are used, or perhaps no consent at all. By initially informing potential donors of the wide range of research that can be carried out, they can take a position on risks and benefits of donation (given the oversight and the general conditions of the future research that they are informed about).

The group emphasizes that broad consent gives donors control over the use of samples, while minimizing costs and burdens for both donors and researchers.

They also point out that empirical studies show that most people want to decide if their samples may be used for research. Most respondents also say that the decision is not influenced by the specific details of the future research (e.g. what diseases are studied, what techniques are used, or which parts of the sample are studied).

Of course there are examples of research that can be perceived as controversial, such as human cloning. But broad consent can be combined with specific restrictions. Oversight moreover considers whether research proposals can be said to comply with the donors’ values.

If donors still hesitate, they are free to choose not to donate the sample.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Open research platforms and open data

February 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlToday, I recommend reading about two major changes in current research. Both changes are reflected in the December issue of the newsletter:

The changes concern researchers’ relation to their material.

The first change has been discussed on the Ethics Blog. It is that samples and data that individual research groups collect begin to be saved, documented and analyzed in joint biobanks. The material is then made available to other researchers, both nationally and internationally.

This requires an attitude change among researchers who are used to store their data material locally and then use it locally. Now, one sends the material to the biobank instead, which takes care of it and provides service to researchers in the form of analysis, access to more data, advice, and more. Perhaps researchers need not always collect their own material, if relevant data are available via the biobank infrastructure.

This change is discussed in the editorial by Joakim Dillner, Acting director of BBMRI.se, and in an interview with Mark Divers, Head of the biobank facility that BBMRI.se built up at Karolinska Institutet.

The second change has not been discussed on this blog. It is featured in an interview in the newsletter with a researcher in cognitive neurophysiology, Gustav Nilsonne. It is closely related to the first, but requires a change in attitude to what it means to make research available through publication in scientific journals.

The change is about making research open not only through Open Access publication of scientific articles, but also by making raw data available. Such a change is significant in several ways:

  1. Data collected with efforts of many research participants can be used multiple times instead of disappearing in forgotten archives.
  2. Published findings can be critically examined; it becomes more difficult to cheat or be negligent.
  3. It becomes easier to make meta-analysis of data from many studies.

These changes can of course be seen as two sides of the same coin. Researchers seeking services from the biobank facility must accept that other researchers apply for access to “their” data … which thereby become open.

Pär Segerdahl

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