The Danger of Speaking for the Dying Patient with “Intellectual Disabilities”

After suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for more than two decades, my grandma quietly passed away at a nursing home in California several years ago. This may sound like a story too common to tell in the United States. However, my grandma never wanted to go to a nursing home in the first place. As someone who spent the majority of her life in China, she only immigrated to the United States to reunite with her family after my grandpa passed. When her conditions first developed, her own children (my extended family who lived with her) considered her a burden and liability, and sent her away against her will – a stark violation of Confucian filial piety cherished in my culture. After being admitted to a public nursing home with very few Mandarin speaking staff and patients, her condition deteriorated rapidly, partly as a result of language barriers and general isolation from family and friends. She soon lost most of her basic functioning and remained in a borderline vegetative state for the last few years of her life.

I could not help but think about my grandma when I read a recently published piece in New York Times. In “A Harder Death for People with Intellectual Disabilities,” Tim Lahey, M.D., argues that current laws make it too difficult for the “loved ones” and legal guardians of patients with “intellectual disabilities” to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of patients who cannot speak for themselves. Based on his own experience with patients in intensive care units, he criticizes the burdensome legal procedures required in some states to allow legal guardians to “decline life-sustaining therapies” and medical providers to “avoid giving unwanted care that isn’t likely to heal” these patients. From his point of view, questions a judge may ask such as “how sure is the guardian or family member of the patient’s wishes?” and “what’s the doctors’ best estimate at a prognosis?” are slowing down the “prompt, patient-centered, bedside care that all of us deserve.” Read More

What can an 11th century Islamic philosopher teach us about 21st century neuroscience?

There is a lot of fascinating research about the brain coming out of Stanford University, with some exciting, cutting-edge work being done there. Early last month I reported on the findings made by neuroscientists at Stanford in understanding how mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Today, I’ll outline the recent advances made by a team led by Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and discuss some of the ethical implications of this research.

Pasca’s method enables him to culture cells in order to form brain organoids with robust structures that are not compromised by cells from other parts of the body, thereby allowing him to more accurately replicate distinct brain regions. Doing so provides greater structural organization and also allows him and his team of researchers to better study and understand pathological mechanisms and perhaps one day to examine the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels of a person’s neurons. This is a promising method and a big step toward greater understanding of psychiatric and neurological disease, leading Pasca to declare, “This is our doorway into personalized psychiatry.” At the same time—although these “brain balls” are not brains, nor do they receive sensory inputs from the outside world—it is clear that as scientists progress in both the techniques and complexity of replication, major ethical questions and dilemmas will arise.

Chief among these will undoubtedly be the perennial ethical debate about the ontology of a human being. Is it only physical, material, social—in which case we might think of ourselves as technicians—or is it spiritual, religious, metaphysical—in which case we would more likely consider ourselves custodians? When we speak about attributing rights to animals or consciousness to AI, it is because at bottom we hold some fundamental belief: about dignity, a soul, being, or about what life might mean in a relational or social and emotional sense. This is no different with Pasca’s brain balls; in fact, it is an even more pressing quandary. As Bruce Goldman notes in his article, “One of the most amazing things about their brain balls was that, with not much chemical guidance, they tended to take on a default structure that’s a facsimile of the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain: the human cerebral cortex, with all six layers you find in a living human brain.” The ethics of growing human organs are one thing, but the ethics of growing brain balls, which might eventually lead to more and more complex synaptic connections followed by even more elaborate renditions of an actual brain, will become especially contentious given the meaning and significance that we associate with the brain—both biologically and existentially.

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Systemic Oversight: a new approach for precision medicine and digital health

By Alessandro Blasimme and Effy Vayena

Imagine a clinical research protocol to test the efficacy of a nutritional regime on the aging trajectory of the participants. Such a study would need to be highly powered and include thousands of people in order to observe a credible effect size. Participants would remain enrolled in the study for many years, maybe decades. Endpoints would include novel measures of healthy aging such as functioning (the capacity to perform certain activities) and the quality of social life. Participants would thus be asked to provide enormous amounts of personal data covering at the same time their health state, their habits and their social activities – most likely with the help of smart appliances, sensor-equipped wearables, mobile phones and electronic records.

In a different scenario a research team aims to develop clinical protocols for cancer treatment according to the unique genomic signature of their tumor. They will need patients, willing to undergo whole genome germline and tumor sequencing right at the moment of diagnosis and be included in a basket trial. Therapy would then be targeted to the specific genetic alterations of each individual in the hope that a combination of targeted drugs would generate better medical outcomes than the current standard of care.

These two scenarios correspond to the prototypical form of, respectively, precision medicine and precision oncology studies. The first is likely to require large (very large) longitudinal cohorts of extensively characterized individuals – like the All of Us Research Program. The second will require sustained sharing of genomic data, information on patients’ clinical history and response to treatment, and possibly a unique repository in which such information would flow to – something akin the NCI’s Genomic Data Common.

This kind of data-intense research, in particular, introduces game changing features: increased uncertainty about foreseeable data uses, expanded temporal span of research activities due to virtually unlimited data lifecycles, and finally, the relational nature of data. This last feature refers both to the fact that, for instance, zip codes contain other types of sensitive information like information about ethnic background (redundant encoding); and to the fact that data about one person contain information about others– as is the case, for instance, with genetic data among family members. Read More

Wishes at the end of life: comparing the right to try and right to die

By Oliver Kim

After an initial procedural hiccup, the House of Representatives passed a modified version of a federal “right to try” bill, legislation that would allow pharmaceutical companies to bypass the federally-prescribed clinical trial process to allow terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs. Similar legislation passed the Senate as part of a horse-trade in order to allow the swift passage of the FDA user fee reauthorization before that program expired. A majority of the states have passed right-to-try legislation, which is largely ineffective given federal preemption.

Much has been written about the ethical and legal questions surrounding the right to try as well as the political forces behind it. Proponents argue that the right to try is based on notions of mercy, compassion, and autonomy.

What has interested me about this debate is that often those same notions are used to justify the “right to die,” or aid in dying usually for terminally ill patients. I’ve written (and will be publishing a longer piece) and will be speaking about this question and if there are lessons that proponents of the right to die can learn from the political success of the right-to-try movement.

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Simulated Side Effects: FDA Uses Novel Computer Model to Guide Kratom Policy

By Mason Marks

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement on Tuesday about the controversial plant Mitragyna speciosa, which is also known as kratom. According to Gottlieb, kratom poses deadly health risks. His conclusion is partly based on a computer model that was announced in his recent statement. The use of simulations to inform drug policy is a new development with implications that extend beyond the regulation of kratom. We currently live in the Digital Age, a period in which most information is in digital form. However, the Digital Age is rapidly evolving into an Age of Algorithms in which computer software increasingly assumes the roles of human decision makers. The FDA’s use of computer simulations to evaluate drugs is a bold first step into this new era. This essay discusses the potential risks of basing federal drug policies on computer models that have not been thoroughly explained or validated (using the kratom debate as a case study).

Kratom grows naturally in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia where it has been used for centuries as a stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years, the plant has gained popularity in the United States as an alternative to illicit and prescription narcotics. Kratom advocates claim it is harmless and useful for treating pain and easing symptoms of opioid withdrawal. However, the FDA contends it has no medical use and causes serious or fatal complications. As a result, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may categorize kratom in Schedule I, its most heavily restricted category.

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Innovation Gaps on Life Science Frontiers

Join us in wonderful Copenhagen at our CeBIL Kick-Off Conference: ”Innovation Gaps on Life Science Frontiers? From Antimicrobial Resistance & the Bad Bugs to New Uses, AI & the Black Box”. The  Conference marks the start of the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Collaborative Research Programme in Biomedical Innovation Law which is carried out within a unique network of international core partners, including internationally renowned experts at Harvard Law School’s Petrie Flom Center, Harvard Medical School/Brigham & Women’s Hospital, University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, and UCPH’s Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO).

Leading international experts, including i.a. our distinguished Bill of Health colleagues Glenn Cohen, Aaron Kesselheim; Nicholson Price, and Kevin Outterson, will discuss legal, economic, societal and scientific aspects of selected Life Science areas.

Time: Monday, 5 March 2018 09:00 – 18:00 (followed by a reception in the Gobelin Hall)

Venue: The Ceremonial Hall (Festsalen), University of Copenhagen, Main Building, Frue Plads 4, DK-1168 Copenhagen K

More information on  speakers, agenda and registration is available here and here.

Extended background:

Biomedical innovation is experiencing changes of epic proportions. Rapid progress in many scientific areas, such as gene editing, pharmacogenomics, artificial intelligence and big data-driven precision medicine, has greatly advanced the promises and opportunities of the health and life sciences. Nevertheless, the total number of truly new and innovative drugs receiving market approval is unsatisfactory. At the same time, some of the more innovative therapies that actually could reach patients have become extremely expensive or ethically problematic. These new technological possibilities raise many complex scientific, legal and ethical issues affecting many stakeholders, such as medical practitioners, regulators, patients and the industry.

To support the in depth study of these developments, the Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a grant of DKK 35 million for a new Collaborative Research Programme in Biomedical Innovation Law (CeBIL). CeBIL’s overall aim is to help translate ground-breaking biomedical research into affordable and accessible therapies by scrutinizing the most significant legal challenges to biomedical innovation and public health from a holistic cross-disciplinary perspective. CeBIL is hosted by a new Centre for Advanced Studies at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Law. The research is carried out within a unique network of international core partners, including internationally renowned experts at Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, and UCPH’s Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO). Moreover, CeBIL will collaborate with a broad network of stakeholder organizations and international experts within law, economics, life science, medicine, sociology and pharmacy.

This Kick-Off Conference marks the start of CeBIL which opened its’ doors on January 1st, 2018. Reflecting the research projects that will be at the focus CeBIL’s research during the first 5 years, leading international experts will discuss legal, economic, societal and scientific aspects of selected life science areas and debate future challenges and opportunities.

 

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The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part II: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Ignored Promising Medical Treatments

By Mason Marks

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids kill an estimated 91 Americans each day and are responsible for most drug-related deaths in the US. This public health crisis requires solutions that are supported by science and reason instead of emotion and political ideology. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In this second part of the series, I explore how the Opioid Commission ignored medical interventions that are used successfully in the U.S. and abroad. In Part III, I will discuss non-medical interventions such as drug checking and safe injection sites. The Commission’s failure to consider these options is likely driven by emotions such as fear and disgust rather than a careful review of scientific evidence.

Medical marijuana is currently accepted in 29 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. It is also permitted in at least 10 countries. However, the Opioid Commission outright rejected calls to consider the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for managing pain. Prior to the Commission’s first meeting, it solicited input from industry and members of the public on how to address the opioid crisis. In response, it received over 8,000 public comments. According to VICE News, which obtained the documents by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, most comments were submitted by individuals urging the Commission to “consider medical marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic.” A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a body of the Executive Branch that provides administrative support to the Opioid Commission, reports receiving “more than 7,800 public comments relating to marijuana.” Despite these comments, in its final report, the Commission dismissed the notion that marijuana should play a role in treating chronic pain and opioid addiction. Its report cited a recent study from the American Journal of Psychiatry, which concluded that marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of opioid abuse. However, this study relied on data that was collected over twelve years ago. One of its authors, Columbia Medical School Professor Mark Olfson, told CNN that if the data were collected today, they could yield different results.

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The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part I: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Misinterpreted Scientific Studies

By Mason Marks

The opioid crisis kills at least 91 Americans each day and has far-reaching social and economic consequences for us all. As lawmakers explore solutions to the problem, they should ensure that new regulations are based on scientific evidence and reason rather than emotion or political ideology. Though emotions should motivate the creation of policies and legislation, solutions to the opioid epidemic should be grounded in empirical observation rather than feelings of anger, fear, or disgust. Legislators must be unafraid to explore bold solutions to the crisis, and some measured risks should be taken. In this three-part series on evidence-backed solutions to the opioid crisis, I discuss proposals under consideration by the Trump Administration including recent recommendations of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Though the Commission made some justifiable proposals, it misinterpreted the conclusions of scientific studies and failed to consider evidence-based solutions used in other countries. This first part of the series focuses on the misinterpretation of scientific data.

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids are responsible for most of these deaths. By comparison, the National Safety Council estimates about 40,000 Americans died in auto crashes last year, and the Centers for Disease Control reports that 38,000 people were killed by firearms. Unlike deaths due to cars and firearms, which have remained relatively stable over the past few years, opioid deaths have spiked abruptly. Between 2002 and 2015, U.S. opioid-related deaths nearly tripled (from about 12,000 deaths in 2002 to over 33,000 in 2015). Last year, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl contributed to over 20,000 deaths and accounted for the sharpest increase in opioid fatalities (See blue line in Fig. 1 below). Read More

Bioethics in Islam: Principles, Perspectives, Comparisons

An important questions in Islam, recurrent across time and space, is whether Islamic political theory recognizes rights claims against the state as distinct from rights claims against other members of the community. This continues to be an important subject today, intersecting the fields of law, religion, and moral philosophy. The classical tradition is divided on the matter, with the legal theory of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence saying that rights are to be accorded viareligious authority, while the Hanafi school emphasized the universality of the notion of human inviolability (dhimma)—and the innate rights that derive from it—as God-given, universal, and applicable to all societies from the beginning of time.

Whereas in Western law there is generally a separation between law and ethics, in the Islamic tradition, there is more of a dialectical tension between the two: Where religious inwardness is more highly developed, attitude and intention are weighed more heavily, whereas in its absence however formalism and legalism are advanced as the ethical ideal.

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Medicine and Ethics: Religious or Secular?

By Yusuf Lenfest

There is no lack of controversy when talking about religion and medicine in America today. Medicine is studied, practiced, and firmly rooted in the corporal world while religion draws inspiration from texts, traditions, and the incorporeal. Yet from an historical perspective, religious pasts do shape the present, particularly in the realm of ethics and moral reasoning. Indeed, whatever one’s spiritual or philosophical predilections, religion continues to play a major role in the dialogue on medicine and health care in Western society.

Bioethics in particular has become a topic of growing interest in America, but there has been little critical discussion about its contextual underpinnings, which stem largely from a Western Christian perspective. This is not to say that another religion would arrive at radically different system of morals. While differences do exist amongst religious traditions, across both space and time, experience and common sense tell us that diverse religious traditions do in fact share in much of the same moral principles and foundations. So what might other religious traditions say about, or contribute to, the discourse on bioethics? Should religion even be included in the conversation, especially given that health care and healing belong to the sphere of medicine?

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