Overview of the regulatory framework of European biobanking

October 16, 2013

Unless you have an education in law, it is almost impossible to find your way through the regulatory landscape of European biobanking, or to understand the motives behind the proposed new general data protection regulation.

However, a helpful overview and discussion can be found in this article by Evert-Ben van Veen:

The article also contains some interesting thinking on a number of important issues, like the concept of personal data, the need for a third category of data between personal data and anonymous data, and the role of trust in institutions.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Idling biobank policy?

October 9, 2013

If you allow researchers to do brain imaging on you for some research purpose, and they incidentally discover a tumor, or a blood vessel with thin walls, you probably want them to inform you about this finding. There are no doubts about the finding; the risks are well-known; it is actionable.

Suppose instead that you donate a blood sample to a biobank. Suppose that researchers studying the sample discover a genetic variant that, depending on a number of interacting factors, might result in disease in three years’ time, or in thirty years, or not at all. It is difficult to predict! Do you still want to know?

How should these incidental findings be handled that increasingly often will be made in genetic biobank research? We are all different, so finding variants with some statistical relation to disease is more or less expected.

A common approach to this question within attempts to develop a policy for incidental biobank findings is to formulate general conditions for when researchers should inform participants. Like: if the finding is analytically valid; if it has clinical significance; if it is actionable – then participants should be informed.

The problem is: we already knew that. We know what these conditions mean in imaging studies when a tumor or a damaged blood vessel is discovered. In these cases, the conditions can be assessed and they make it reasonable to inform. But what about genetic risk information, which often is more multidimensional and has unclear predictive value?

This question is discussed in a recent article in the European Journal of Human Genetics, written by Jennifer Viberg together with Mats G. Hansson, Sophie Langenskiöld, and me:

Viberg argues when we enter this new and more complex domain, we cannot rely on analogies to what is already known in a simpler domain. Nor can we rely on surveys of participants’ preferences, if these surveys employ the same analogies and describe the findings in terms of the same general conditions.

Time is not yet ripe for a policy for incidental genetic findings, Viberg and colleagues conclude. Formulating a policy through analogies to what is already known is to cover up what we do not know. The issue requires a different form of elucidation.

That form of elucidation remains to be developed.

Pär Segerdahl

We participate in debates - 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


Being human; representing life

September 10, 2013

A new article reconsiders Henrietta Lacks and the immortal HeLa cells that were obtained from her rare cancer tumor in the 1950s; cells that still replicate and are used in biomedical laboratories all over the world:

The article is written by Anna Lydia Svalastog and Lucia Martinelli, both members of the Culture, Health and Bioethics network at CRB.

There is a lot going on in the article, making it difficult to summarize. As I understand it, though, the article focuses on two fields of tension when biological samples from humans are used in biomedical research – tensions between:

  1. being human; and representing biological life,
  2. the value of the one; and the value of the many.

Both fields of tension intersect in the case of Henrietta Lacks:

  1. Henrietta Lacks was a human being, existing in a human world; but HeLa cells function as “bio-objects” representing biological life.
  2. Henrietta Lacks was one unique individual; but HeLa cells have come to represent humanity.

These tensions highlight the interchange between research and society. We exist as human beings; but by donating samples to research, we also contribute to representing biological life. We are unique individuals; but through our samples, we also contribute to representing what is general.

The authors cite the European biobank infrastructure, BBMRI, as an approach to governance and ownership of knowledge and property that begins to address these tensions in interesting, new ways. The article also speaks in favour of interdisciplinary collaboration between the life sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, to understand the fields of tension that arise when individual human beings contribute to medical research.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


The diversified uses of biological samples

August 28, 2013

As a reminder of how diversified the collection and use of biological samples is, I recommend a paper by Takako Tsujimura-Ito, Yusuke Inoue (currently a guest researcher at CRB), and Ken-ichi Yoshida:

Departments of forensic medicine obtain samples from autopsies in order to secure evidence that can be used in court. These samples, often whole organs, typically need to be stored for long periods, since cases sometimes require re-examination of the evidence. The samples are stored also for secondary use in research advancing both clinical and forensic medicine.

The problem addressed in the paper concerns the communication with bereaved families. Families are often not contacted by the forensic departments in Japan, since such contacts can be seen to threaten the neutrality of the evaluation of the evidence.

Emphasizing that stored samples from autopsies benefit bereaved families, patients and society as a whole, the paper recommends more effective ways of communicating with families, to avoid damage to public confidence when families inadvertently get to know that samples from deceased family members are stored or used in research.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


The specific study misconception of biobank infrastructure

August 5, 2013

It is comprehensible that a patient who agrees to participate in a clinical trial expects to get access to a new effective therapy that will restore health. It is comprehensible that it is difficult to convey objective, dispassionate information that such an expectation is unrealistic, given randomization and other features of clinical trials.

Participation in biobank research ought to be simpler to understand. How can you expect to get healthy by giving a blood sample and allowing future research to combine the genetic data that can be obtained from the sample with data accumulating over time in health registries? The therapeutic misconception ought to be less tempting in biobank research, making the relationship between researchers and participants more straightforward.

For this reason, I was surprised to read on the Science Codex Blog about a study indicating difficulties to understand participation in biobank research; difficulties similar to those that more comprehensibly arise for participation in clinical trials.

What surprised me even more, however, was the discussion about this finding that was quoted on the blog. The fact that participants in biobank studies cannot expect a new and better therapy was presented as a shortcoming vis-à-vis clinical trials, as if such an expectation was not a misconception. Moreover, hopes were expressed that a change is underway:

  • “Some new models for biobank studies are more inclusive of the research subject, offering on-going contact and return of results that may impact their health, says Dr. McBride.”

I do not exclude that such models might work for some restricted biobank studies about specific diseases, which might require on-going contact with a particular patient group to get the research done.

But biobanking is more and more about building infrastructures where samples are stored indefinitely for future research that cannot be specified in advance. Making participation in such infrastructures more like participation in specific clinical trials – supporting the therapeutic misconception where it ought to be most distant! – appears fundamentally misguided.

The infrastructural nature of modern biobanking remains to be understood. It needs to be freed from what might be termed the specific study misconception.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : 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


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