Building European infrastructures for research

May 28, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogThe European Union is traditionally about creating an internal market, where goods, services, labor and capital can move freely between member states.

Lately there have been efforts to create also European infrastructures for research, where researchers in the different member states can collaborate more efficiently, and compete on a global “research market.” A new tool for such European governance of research is the European Research Infrastructure Consortium, abbreviated ERIC.

If at least three member states hand in a joint application, the Commission can establish an ERIC – an international organization where the involved member states jointly fund and manage a European infrastructure for research in some area. In November 2013, an ERIC was established for biobank research: BBMRI-ERIC, placed in Graz, Austria.

Understanding what an ERIC is and whether BBMRI-ERIC has tools to make the diverse regulations for biobanking in different EU member states more uniform, is not easy. However, a “Letter” in the European Journal of Human Genetics addresses both issues:

The letter is written by Jane Reichel, Anna-Sara Lind, Mats G. Hansson, and Jan-Eric Litton who is the Director General of BBMRI-ERIC.

The authors write that although the ERIC lacks substantial tools to make the regulative framework for biobanking more uniform, it provides a platform where researchers and member states can collaborate developing better ways of navigating the complex legal and ethical landscape. The ERIC also facilitates administration, owning and running of equipment and employment of staff on a long-term basis, thus enabling a time perspective proper to research infrastructures (rather than individual research projects). It also provides opportunities to develop common standards for biobanking activities (e.g., handling of samples) that make biobanks function better together.

Finally, because of the required regular contacts with the Commission and representatives of all EU member states, channels are opened up through which the interests of research can be communicated and influence policy areas like data protection.

Read the letter if you are interested to know more about this new way of building European infrastructures for research.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


Open biobank landscapes

May 14, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogLast week I wrote about the transition from organizing science as a tree of knowledge that once in a while drops its fruits onto society, to organizing research as part of knowledge landscapes, where the perspective of harvesting, managing and using the fruits is there from the beginning.

That the proud tree is gone might seem sad, but here we are – in the knowledge landscape, and I believe the development is logical. As a comment to the previous post made clear, many fruits fell from the old tree without coming into use.

The notion of knowledge landscapes sheds light on the attempt by BBMRI.se to build infrastructure for biobank research. The initiative can be viewed as an attempt to integrate research in broader knowledge landscapes. Supporting research with an eye to the interests of patients is a new way of managing research, more oriented towards the fruits and their potential value for people than in the era of the tree of knowledge.

The novelty of the infrastructural approach to biobanking isn’t always noticed. In Sweden, for example, the biobank initiative LifeGene was met with suspicion from some quarters. In the debate, some critics portrayed LifeGene as being initiated more or less in the interest of a closed group of researchers. Researchers wanted to collect samples from the population and then climb the tree and study the samples for god knows which purposes.

Those suspicions were based on the old conception of science as a high tree, inaccessible to most of us, in which researchers pursue “their own” interests. The aim with LifeGene, I believe, is rather to integrate research in a knowledge landscape, in which research is governed more by the interests of patients.

We mustn’t underestimate the challenges such a reorganization of research has to deal with, the forces that come into play. I merely want to suggest a new way of surveying and thinking about the transition – as a change from approaching science as a high tree of knowledge to integrating research in open knowledge landscapes.

If you want to read more about research in knowledge landscapes, you find Anna Lydia Svalastog’s article here, and the network where these ideas originated here.

In September 2014, the third conference, HandsOn: Biobanks, is organized, now in Helsinki. Academics, industry, doctors, patient groups, policy makers, public representatives and legislators are invited to share knowledge and experiences. As in previous conferences in the series, there is an interactive part, The Route, in which biobanking processes can be followed from start to finish, with ample opportunities for discussion.

View the conference as part of maintaining open biobank landscapes, with research as one of several integrated components.

Registration is open.

Pär Segerdahl

We like broad perspectives : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


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


%d bloggers like this: