The Wearables Revolution: Personal Health Information as the Key to Precision Medicine

By Ernesto Ramirez, PhD (Director of Research & Development, Fitabase)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

Personal health data has historically been controlled by the healthcare industry. However, much has changed in the last decade. From wearable devices for tracking physical activity, to services that decode the personal microbiome, there has been an explosion of methods to collect and understand our personal health and health behavior. This explosion has created a new type of data that has the potential to transform our understanding of the deep interactions of health behaviors, exposure, and outcomes — data that is large-scale, longitudinal, real-time, and portable.

New devices, applications, and services are creating large amounts of data by providing methods for collecting information repeatedly over long periods of time. For example, I have tracked over 20 million steps since 2011 using a Fitbit activity tracker. Many of the new tools of personal health data are also connected to the Internet through Bluetooth communication with smartphones and tablets. This connectivity, while commonly used to update databases as devices sync, also provides an opportunity to view data about ourselves in real-time. Lastly, there is an increasing interest in making this data accessible through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow third parties to access and analyze data as is becomes available. Already we are seeing unique and useful tools being developed to bring consumer personal health data to bear in clinical settings, health research studies, and health improvement tools and services.

The availability of this type of personal health data is having a big impact. The examples provided by the #WeAreNotWaiting and #OpenAPS communities showcase the groundbreaking potential of portable, usable, personal data. It is transforming the quality of life for individuals living with type 1 diabetes. Through access to data from continuous glucose monitors and wireless control of insulin pumps, over 100 individuals have implemented their own version of an artificial pancreas. These pioneering individuals are at the forefront of a revolution using personal health data to take charge of care and customize treatment decisions.

Personal health data will play a major role in the future of precision medicine, healthcare, and health research. Sensors will continue to improve. New data streams will become available. More analytical tools will surface. There will be more support for portable and sharable data. The availability of large-scale, longitudinal, and real-time personal health data will improve not only the ability of individuals to understand their own health, but when pooled, may produce new insights about what works, for what people, under what conditions.

Patient-Driven Medical Innovations: Building a Precision Medicine Supply Chain for All

Kingshuk K. Sinha, PhD (Department Chair and Mosaic Company-Jim Prokopanko Professor of Corporate Responsibility Supply Chain and Operations Department, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

While the promise and potential of precision medicine are clear, delivering on that promise and making precision medicine accessible to all patients will require clinical adoption and a reliable and responsible supply chain. We already know this is a big problem in pharmacogenomics technology; the science is advancing rapidly, but clinical adoption is lagging. While Big Data can be a powerful tool for health care – whether it be an individual’s whole genome or an online aggregation of information from many patients with a particular disease – building implementation pathways to analyze and use the data to support clinical decision making is crucial. All of the data in the world doesn’t mean much if we can’t ensure that the development of precision medicine is linked with the efficient, safe, and equitable delivery of precision medicine.

Effective implementation means addressing the stark realities of health disparities. Leveraging citizen science to develop and deliver precision medicine has the potential to reduce those disparities. Citizen science complements more traditional investigator-driven scientific research and engages amateur and non-professional scientists, including patients, patients’ families, and communities across socio-economic strata as well as country boundaries.

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Organs and Overdoses (Part II): ‘Higher risk’ donors

By Brad Segal

In my last post I characterized how overdoses from the surging opioid epidemic have become the fastest-growing cause of mortality among organ donors. In this update, I raise one potential consequence with ethical and policy implications: so-called donor-derived infections. To be clear, I focus primarily on organ recipients as deaths from drug overdose, and drug addiction more broadly, should be prevented regardless of any implications for transplantation. With this in mind, consider how the population of injection drug users shoulders a heavy burden of HIV, hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) (Table 1). First I will focus on screening guidelines, and then will move on to transplantation of organs known to carry an infection. table-1

Screening guidelines can help reduce the incidence of donor-derived infections, but the lab tests recommended in any policy must balance two potential concerns. First, lab tests have a rate of false negative results. Transplants of these organs will accidentally increase donor-derived infections. The policy question, then, is whether or not transplanting organs donated by individuals with higher risk of recent disease exposure will expose an unacceptable proportion of recipients to infection. This unintentional harm could undermine a duty of non-maleficence to organ recipients. Further complicating a potential screening policy is that the basic lab tests for HIV, HBV, and HCV detect the presence of human antibodies, which work well among a low-risk population, but antibodies might not appear in the blood until weeks after infection (Table 2).Recent infections are better detected by nucleic acid amplification (NAT) testing.To mitigate risk of infection,then, transplant screening policies should require a heightened level of surveillance among donors with a history of illicit drug use. Read More

A Common Morality?

By Seán Finan

600px-lab_mouse_mg_3244Last week, a patent application in India was refused, apparently on the basis that the invention under review could have been used to counterfeit money. This practice of denying patents on the basis of public policy or morality is almost as old as the practice of granting patents. For example, the State of Monopolies was enacted in England in 1624 to prohibit monopolies where they would be “mischievous to the State”. In many other jurisdictions, patents on food and medicines were prohibited, on the basis that the public good served by these products outweighed any claims of monopoly rights by the inventor. The other approach is preferred in the US. Cases like Diamond v Chakrabarty removed much of the normative question from American patent law and it has been strongly argued that a patent application “is not an ethical event.”

Whether a patent can be refused on the basis of morality is a difficult enough question, but the problem is compounded once the “morality” in question is not confined to a single jurisdiction. The harmonization of patent law across Europe in the last fifty years has forced the European Patent Office (EPO) to consider how to make a moral judgement on behalf of all the contracting states to the European Patent Convention. Its approach has been neither consistent between cases nor consistent with the underlying treaties. I would like to give a quick sketch of the contrast between the European legal framework and its manifestation in the decisions of the EPO.

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Use of Estimated Data Should Require Informed Consent

Guest post by Donna M. Gitter, Zichlin School of Business, Baruch College, based on Professor Gitter’s presentation at the Petrie-Flom Center’s 2016 Annual Conference, “Big Data, Health Law, and Bioethics,” held May 6, 2016, at Harvard Law School.

Cross-posted from the Hastings Center’s Bioethics Forum.

The Icelandic biotech firm deCODE Genetics has pioneered a means of determining an individual’s susceptibility to various medical conditions with 99 percent accuracy by gathering information about that person’s relatives, including their medical and genealogical records. Of course, inferences have long been made about a person’s health by observing and gathering information about her relatives. What is unique about deCODE’s approach in Iceland is that the company uses the detailed genealogical records available in that country in order to estimate genotypes of close relatives of individuals who volunteered to participate in research, and extrapolates this information in order to make inferences about hundreds of thousands of living and deceased Icelanders who have not consented to participate in deCODE’s studies. DeCODE’s technique is particularly effective in Iceland, a small island nation that, due to its largely consanguineous population and detailed genealogical records, lends itself particularly well to genetic research.

While Iceland’s detailed genealogical records enable the widespread use of estimated data in Iceland, a large enough U.S. database could be used to make similar inferences about individuals here. While the U.S. lacks a national database similar to Iceland’s, private companies such as 23andme and Ancestry.com have created rough gene maps of several million people, and the National Institutes of Health plans to spend millions of dollars in the coming years sequencing full genome data on tens of thousands of people. These databases could allow the development of estimated data on countless U.S. citizens.

DeCODE plans to use its estimated data for an even bolder new study in Iceland. Having imputed the genotypes of close relatives of volunteers whose DNA had been fully catalogued, deCODE intends to collaborate with Iceland’s National Hospital to link these relatives, without their informed consent, to some of their hospital records, such a surgery codes and prescriptions. When the Icelandic Data Protection Authority (DPA) nixed deCODE’s initial plan, deCODE agreed that it will generate for only a brief period a genetic imputation for those who have not consented, and then delete that imputation from the database. The only accessible data would be statistical results, which would not be traceable to individuals.

Are the individuals from whom estimated data is gathered entitled to informed consent, given that their data will be used for research, even if the data is putatively unidentifiable? In the U.S., consideration of this question must take into account not only the need for privacy enshrined in the federal law of informed consent, but also the right of autonomy, which empowers individuals to decline to participate in research. Although estimated DNA sequences, unlike directly measured sequences, are not very accurate at the individual level, but rather at the group level, individuals may nevertheless object to research participation for moral, ethical, and other reasons. A competing principle, however, is beneficence, and any impediment to deCODE using its estimated data can represent a lost opportunity for the complex disease genetics community.

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NPRM Symposium: Quick Take on New Analysis of the Comments on the NPRM to Amend the Common Rule (and the Challenge for Bioethics and the Public)

The Council on Governmental Relations (COGR), with support from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), undertook “to review and analyze the 2,186 public comments submitted in response to the 2015 Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects” or “Common Rule” Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

I am going to discuss some highlights of their just released report, but this is far from exhaustive and you should read the whole report.

For the non-cognoscenti this is the most important revision to the rules for U.S. human subjects research since their inception. The report is largely unfavorable to several key proposed rule changes on my first read, but you should read it yourself to make up your own mind.

I’ll share some choice passages from the analysis

The results of our review (Table 2) find significant opposition to most major proposals, with mixed support for mandated use of a single IRB and extending the Common Rule and greater support for the concept of standard security safeguards. In addition, a number of responses suggested that the NPRM is overly complex, poorly written, and not supported by data; highlighted areas that could have a substantial impact on a final rule but were not included in the NPRM (e.g., proposed security safeguards, a consent template, a list of minimal risk studies and a decision tool); and suggested that some of the proposals would adversely affect human health with little perceived benefit.

Turning to Biospecimens, where we had a conference last year that will soon generate a book with MIT press:

The majority of responses, approximately 1,520, addressed one or more of the proposed changes detailed above involving non-identified biospecimens. Of these responses, 94 – 100% of patients and members of the research community, including researchers, universities, medical centers and industry, opposed the changes. Those commenting suggested that the proposed changes will significantly reduce the availability of biospecimens for research, will have a significant negative impact on medical advances, and will adversely affect human health. Per one patient, “I am asking for life saving policy not life ending policies.” From a biorepository, “Respecting autonomy at the expense of patient lives is a significant ethical concern.”

More surprising was their finding that “Among members of the general public, 55% opposed and 45% supported one or more of the major proposed changes related to biospecimens.” (They do a better breakdown of the various sub-constituencies in the report).

Turning to “broad consent” for biospecimen use:

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Proposed CMS Sanctions Threaten Theranos’ Future

By Katherine Kwong

The news for blood testing company Theranos has gotten even worse since this blog’s last discussion of the company’s woes. Despite the company’s statements at the end of March that it would correct all of the issues CMS had found, new reports have emerged that Theranos’ California lab may see its federal license revoked. Additionally, Theranos’ founder, Elizabeth Holmes, and Theranos’ president, Sunny Balwani, may be banned from owning or operating any testing laboratories for two years. These potential sanctions have been proposed after regulators concluded Theranos has failed to adequately address concerns raised about its tests by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

How did Theranos get to this point? Read More

Additional Troubles for Theranos

By Katherine Kwong

The onslaught of bad news for Theranos, the start-up laboratory services company plagued with troubles since last October, continued this week with a new round of reports and press coverage. First, on March 28, the Journal of Clinical Investigation published an article that found that Theranos’ tests tended to produce more irregular results than those of two other laboratory services companies. Then, on March 31, an inspection report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was released, revealing numerous problems at Theranos that led to quality control problems, possibly leading to inaccurate test results for patients. The article and report both raise additional questions about Theranos’ claims and long-term viability – a steep letdown from early hype about the company, which promised to revolutionize the laboratory testing industry. The story of Theranos’ troubles highlights how scientific flaws and regulatory mishaps can lead to serious problems for companies seeking to innovate in the health sciences space.

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NPRM Symposium: Consent and Consistency in the NPRM

By Luke Gelinas, Guest Blogger

  1.  Interpreting the proposed consent requirement

One of the most discussed and controversial aspects of the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM), which stands to change the federal regulations governing research with human beings, is a new consent requirement for secondary research on bio-specimens.  ‘Secondary research’ involves leftover blood or tissue samples that are re-purposed for research after their original use as clinical samples or in prior research studies has been served.  Whereas the current regulations permit re-purposed samples to be used in research without consent so long as the samples are anonymized or de-identified, the new rule would require individuals to be notified that their samples will be used in research, and to give broad permission or consent for such use, before research using them is permitted.

One possible justification for the new consent requirement is what I will call the ‘rights-violation’ interpretation.  The rights-violation approach maintains that consent for research with biospecimens is ethically required to avoid a rights-violation—which is what, the view claims, using someone’s samples without their consent amounts to.

Defenders of this view face the challenge of saying precisely which right is violated by research with re-purposed specimens.  One idea is that the samples still count as part of the individual’s body, even if they are no longer spatially continuous with it, so that using them without consent infringes a bodily right.  A second possibility is that, even if donated specimens are not part of one’s body in the relevant sense, we yet have ownership interests in and claims to our biological materials, so that  something closer to a property right at stake.  A third view focuses on the personal health information that can be garnered from certain sorts of research with bio-specimens (e.g., research involving whole genome sequencing), claiming that privacy rights stand to be infringed when specimens are used without consent.  Each of these views raises complex ethical (and indeed in some cases metaphysical) issues that defenders of the rights-violation interpretation must work out.  Read More