Hundred dollar bills rolled up in a pill bottle

Aducanumab: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

By Emily Largent

On June 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used the Accelerated Approval pathway to approve aducanumab, which will go by the brand name Aduhelm, to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Aducanumab, developed by Biogen, is the first novel therapy approved for AD since 2003. This news has left many experts stunned.

I have at least one colleague, Dr. Jason Karlawish, who has publicly stated that he will not prescribe aducanumab. Other clinicians have said they will only prescribe it reluctantly. These are individuals who have dedicated decades of their lives to treating patients with AD, to conducting path-breaking research and serving as investigators in clinical trials, and to advocating for public policies that will better serve AD patients and their families. Many have also seen their own families affected by AD. My colleagues are hardly indifferent to the suffering wrought by AD and would like to have a meaningful treatment to offer to patients and their families. But, they have concluded, aducanumab is not it.

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State-Level Solutions to Discrimination in Organ Transplants 

By Emily Largent

organ transplant
Doctors in North Dakota perform a kidney transplant. (Photo by ndguard/Flickr)

In recent years, alleged instances of discrimination against people with disabilities in organ transplantation have captured public attention.

In 2012, for example, the parents of Amelia Rivera, a child with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, alleged that they were told their daughter was not a candidate for a kidney transplant because of her “mental retardation.” The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia denied “disqualify[ing] transplant patients on the basis of intellectual ability.” Nevertheless, more than 51,000 individuals signed a petition demanding that the hospital “allow the life saving [sic] transplant four-year-old Amelia Rivera needs to survive.”  Ultimately, Rivera received a living donor kidney transplant from her mother.

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Remembering Alan Wertheimer

By Emily Largent

A week ago, I received the sad news that Alan Wertheimer had passed away. Alan made many important contributions to the philosophical literature, including Coercion and Exploitation. And while Alan would tell you that he did not identify as a bioethicist, he made significant contributions to the bioethics literature as well. I am certain his work will continue to be influential in many areas.

On a personal note, Alan was a mentor and friend. I truly appreciated his intellectual generosity and his many kindnesses toward me.

I met Alan while I was a pre-doctoral fellow in the Department of Bioethics at the NIH. My initial impressions of him were shaped by the vivid and incisive hypotheticals he offered for our consideration; the pointed questions he asked in the Department’s Works in Progress sessions (which have a reputation for “combative collegiality”); the thoughtful and rapid comments he made on manuscripts; and a surprisingly competitive bowling outing that Alan took with the Department of Bioethics fellows. Read More

Pay Disparities in Nursing

By Emily Largent

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I had a past life as a nurse.  Therefore, I wanted to call attention to an important new study that has just come out in JAMA: Salary Differences Between Male and Female Registered Nurses in the United States.  The study found that “[m]ale RNs outearned female RNs across settings, specialties, and positions.”  On average, male nurses make $5,150 more per year than female colleagues in similar positions.  This salary gap affects 2.5 million female RNs.

There is speculation that a male nurse may be perceived as more expert simply because he is a man. This explanation is deeply ironic.  Decades  of legal barriers kept men out of the field, and historically, some nursing schools refused to admit men due to sex stereotypes that categorized caring as a feminine trait.  The Supreme Court deemed this practice unconstitutional in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan.  While that decision came down in 1982, research suggests that men continue to face pervasive barriers in nursing school (e.g., hearing anti-male remarks from faculty).

Ongoing identification of nursing as “women’s work” and the presence of gender bias in nursing can affect male nurses in different, seemingly contradictory ways.  On the one hand, the 2000 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses found that men leave nursing at a higher rate in their first four years of practice.  Some have attributed that attrition to the harmful effects of gender bias.  On the other hand, it has been observed that–unlike women who enter male-dominated professions–male nurses who enter this female-dominated profession typically encounter structural advantages that tend to enhance their careers.

There is a need for more nurses.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Employment Projections, the RN workforce is expected to grow to 3.24 million in 2022.  That is a 19% increase.  Nursing is a context that highlights how gender stereotyping hurts everyone–men who encounter discrimination, women who earn less than their male counterparts, and patients who benefit most when nursing recruits and retains excellent people.

I personally found nursing to be very rewarding.  I hope this study motivates employers to scrutinize their pay structures but also to appreciate and address the broader effects of gender bias on the profession.

M.C. v. Aaronson – Update

By Emily Largent

In 2013, M.C. (a minor child), by and through his adoptive parents, filed a complaint in federal district court against the physicians who recommended and performed M.C.’s sex assignment surgery and the South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS) officials who authorized it.  This was the first lawsuit of its kind filed on behalf an intersex child who was given sex assignment surgery while too young to give informed consent.

By way of background, M.C. was born with ovotesticular difference/disorder of sexual development (DSD).  Ovotesticular DSD is a condition in which an infant is born with the internal reproductive organs of both sexes; the external genitalia are usually ambiguous but can range from normal female to normal male.  Shortly after birth, M.C.’s biological parents expressed their desire to relinquish their parental rights, and M.C. was placed in the custody of SCDSS.  A team of physicians subsequently evaluated M.C’s condition and recommended to SCDSS officials that M.C. undergo sex assignment surgery in order to make his body appear female.  SCDSS consented to the surgery, which was performed in April 2006.

M.C. was adopted in December 2006.  Initially, his adoptive parents raised M.C. as a female in accordance with his assigned gender.  M.C., however, refused to be identified as a girl.  His adoptive mother has described being “really sad that that decision [regarding surgery] had been made for him. . . . And it’s becoming more and more difficult just as his identity has become more clearly male.”  M.C. is now living as a boy with the support of his family, friends, school, and others.

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By Emily Largent

Before law school, I worked as a nurse at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.  The work was interesting, as was the news.  I was there when the Los Angeles Times published an investigation revealing that Japanese gang figures received liver transplants at UCLA and when the Times reported on UCLA employees illegally viewing medical records of celebrities.

This week, UCLA made headlines once again when officials announced that nearly 180 patients may have been exposed to a potentially deadly superbug from contaminated duodenoscopes.  Seven UCLA patients–two of whom died–were infected with carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) after a procedure known as endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).  CRE are a family of germs that are difficult to treat because they have high levels of antibiotic resistance, and CRE can lead to death in up to 50% of patients who become infected.

This problem is not unique to UCLA.  The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center had a duodenoscope-related outbreak in 2012. Last month, Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle acknowledged that 32 patients were sickened by contaminated endoscopes from 2012 to 2014.  Eleven of those patients died.  From January 2013 to December 2014, the FDA received 75 Medical Device Reports (MDRs) related to possible microbial transmission from duodenoscopes.

The FDA issued a safety communication yesterday, February 19th, which warned doctors that the complex design of duodenoscopes may impede effective reprocessing.  Reprocessing is a multi-step process to clean and disinfect or sterilize reusable devices.  The FDA noted that multi-drug resistant infections have been associated with reprocessed duodenoscopes “even when manufacturer reprocessing instructions are followed correctly.” (UCLA stated that its scopes had been sterilized in line with the manufacturer’s standards.)  Nevertheless, the FDA urged medical providers to carefully follow manufacturers’ cleaning instructions and talk to patients about the benefits and risks of undergoing procedures involving duodenoscopes.

Some have argued that this did not go far enough.  What other options are available to the FDA?

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Vaccines and the Presidential Campaign

By Emily Largent

The 2016 Presidential race is gathering steam, and this has led me to wonder what–if any–effect the recent measles outbreak might have on campaigns.  While a majority of the public holds the view that vaccinating kids is the right thing to do, a growing number of people are eschewing vaccinations.  Moreover, it has been said that skepticism about inoculations is “one of those issues that . . . grab people across the political spectrum.”

I was, therefore, interested to see that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who launched a political action committee last month ahead of a likely run for the GOP presidential nomination, said on Monday that parents “need to have some measure of choice” about vaccinating their children.  See also here. Read More

2014: A Great Year for Orphan Drugs

By Emily Largent

In America, an orphan disease or condition is defined by law as one that affects fewer than 200,000 people.  Six to seven-thousand different rare diseases have been identified, and new rare diseases are regularly described in the medical literature.  Many of these are conditions for which few or no drugs are available.  The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 sought to counterbalance market forces and spur orphan drug development by offering pharmaceutical companies a variety of incentives, including market exclusivity, tax credits, and research grants.  The act has resulted in many drugs for rare diseases coming to market and many more coming down the research pipeline. 

I have previously written about the ethics of allocating scarce resources, e.g., through insurance plans, to pay for orphan drugs.  Therefore, it is with great interest that I recently noted that 17 of the 41 novel new drugs that FDA approved in 2014 (i.e., 41%) were approved to treat rare diseases.  Examples include Impavido, which treats leishmaniasis, and Sylvant, which treats multicentric Castleman’s Disease, a disorder similar to lymphoma.  A complete list of the 2014 novel new orphan drugs can be found here. Read More

Caffeine and the Law

By Emily Largent

Generally speaking, law school goes more smoothly when the law student is caffeinated.  Consider that Justice Elena Kagan was known at Harvard Law School as the “coffee dean” for instituting free coffee for students (and, as an aside, expects to be known as the “frozen yogurt justice” for bringing frozen yogurt to the SCOTUS cafeteria).

Last year, the deaths of Logan Stiner and James Wade Sweatt drew attention to another place where caffeine intersects with the law: the regulation (or lack thereof) of powdered caffeine by the FDA.  Both men died after ingesting powdered caffeine.  One teaspoon of powdered pure caffeine is roughly equivalent to 25 cups of coffee.  Manufacturers encourage consumers to take between 1/16 and 1/64 teaspoon (see, e.g., here), though measuring such minute amounts with common kitchen tools may be impossible.  On it’s blog, FDA observes that the people most drawn to powdered pure caffeine are “children, teenagers, and young adults.”  It is not clear how common it is for individuals to overdose on caffeine powder, as the cause of death may be listed as “heart attack” in many cases.

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