Some Commentary on How to Think About Secondary Research with Biospecimens

The public comment period on the NPRM to revise the Common Rule has just closed, and now we wait to see what happens (if anything), and when.  One of the most controversial proposals in the NPRM would require at least broad consent for secondary research with biospecimens (i.e., research on specimens originally collected for another purpose, either clinical care or a different study), regardless of whether those specimens retain identifiers.  This is a substantial change from the status quo, which does not require consent for such research with de-identified specimens.  How should we feel about this status quo, and the proposed change?  My own view is that it’s really not so bad: the risks to individual research participants are quite low, and the current approach facilitates critically important scientific advancement.  There is certainly room for improvement, e.g., to impose punishment on those who would act to re-identify de-identified specimens without permission, to inform the public that such research takes place, and to educate them about its value, perhaps allowing those who still feel very strongly that they prefer not to be included an opportunity to opt-out.  But what has been actually proposed has more problems than what it would replace, and in fact, wouldn’t solve some of those it seems to be a response to.

Rebecca Skloot feels otherwise.  She is the author of a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which chronicles the origin of one particularly important cell line – HeLa  – derived from cells that had been excised from Ms. Lacks in the course of a 1951 surgery to treat her cancer, and later used for research without her knowledge or permission.  Ms. Lacks was poor, uneducated, and black, and her descendants have also faced more than their fair share of adversity.  Ms. Skloot paints a compelling story of exploitation, but in my opinion, it is much more effective as a narrative about the horrible and enduring legacy of racism in this country than as proof that researchers who conduct secondary research with biospecimens without consent (as permitted under the current regulations, remember) or even without profit-sharing have behaved badly. After all, if individual risks are low and social benefits high – both true – then what’s the problem?  And it is far from clear that specimen sources deserve compensation for no other reason than that their discarded material actually proves valuable to scientists.  Nonetheless, the book has been used as a rallying cry by people from all walks of life who believe that they should be allowed to control whether, and potentially how, their specimens are used for research. Indeed, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is probably the single most important development that pushed the proposed revisions to the Common Rule forward, for the first time since they were released in 1991.

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NPRM Symposium: How Should We Think About Whether To Donate Our Leftover, Non-Identified Tissue to Research?

By Michelle Meyer

Proposed changes to the federal Common Rule would ask patients for the first time to decide whether to allow their non-identified, leftover tissue to be used for research or thrown away. For that choice to be meaningful, the public needs to be aware of the nature, risks, and benefits of biospecimens research, and of what the proposed changes will—and will not—do. In my latest Forbes essay, “No, Donating Your Leftover Tissue To Research Is Not Like Letting Someone Rifle Through Your Phone,” I consider the power of analogies and other reflections on Rebecca Skloot’s recent New York Times op-ed on the NPRM.

Blog Series on NPRM at PRIM&R’s “Ampersand”

Our colleagues at PRIM&R are hosting a series on “Unpacking the NPRM.” Check it out at their blog Ampersand, or by clicking on the links below!

The Common Rule NPRM: Biospecimens

By: Academic and Clinical Research Group at Verrill Dana LLP

[Crossposted from the The Common Rule NPRM Blog Series on the Endpoints Blog]

As we previously announced, sixteen federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), recently published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) in the Federal Register outlining changes to the existing regulations protecting human subjects (the “Common Rule”).  The Common Rule NPRM is the latest development since the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) was published on July 26, 2011.  The Academic and Clinical Research Group (“ACRG”) will be publishing a series of topic-specific blogs in the coming weeks to assist institutions in digesting various aspects of the proposed regulations, preparing to submit any comments by the December 7, 2015 deadline, and grappling with implementation changes once the final rule issues.  We have also prepared an unofficial redline of the proposed changes against the existing regulations and a set of decision charts to assist with navigating the proposed revisions.

In this installment, we discuss the NPRM’s proposed changes to biospecimens research.  The NPRM did not back down from one of the more controversial aspects of the ANPRM, proposing a fundamental shift in the applicability of the human subjects protection framework to non-identified biospecimens research.  However, once the shock of the new definition of “human subject” wears off, the reality is that most of the changes codify how the research community has tried to apply the existing Common Rule to the challenging arena of biobanking, secondary research, and genomic and other “omics” research.  That said, many of the carve-outs (i.e., exclusions and exemptions) intended to balance this shift are more restrictive than at first they seem.

ACRG Rapid Rundown:  Six Things You Need to Know Read More

23andMe Releases Transparency Report About Law Enforcement Requests for Customers’ Data

By Katherine Kwong

The direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe was widely discussed in the news recently after it announced it would resume providing health information to customers. Less widely reported was another important announcement: for what appears to be the first time, 23andMe has released a public report about the number of requests it has received from law enforcement seeking its customers’ genetic information. According to the Transparency Report, 23andMe has received four requests for user data from law enforcement, with five different affected users.

Although 23andMe has thus far successfully fought off all of the law enforcement requests for its users’ data, there has long been concern about the potential release of 23andMe’s customers’ information to law enforcement. The 23andMe Privacy Statement states, “23andMe will preserve and disclose any and all information to law enforcement agencies” when it believes it is required to do so. Even though 23andMe has not yet disclosed any of its users’ information, the day may soon come when it is required to do so. That disclosure could have significant impacts for not only users who consented to the use of their data, but for users’ families, who may be implicated through familial DNA searches.

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NPRM Symposium: More Resources, Now from OHRP

The Office for Human Research Protections (HHS) has released a series of 6 webinars to help the public better understand the goals and impact of the NPRM.  Happy viewing:

  1. Overview of the NPRM (approx. 34 mins.), Jerry Menikoff, Director, OHRP
  2. Exclusions and Exemptions (approx. 30 mins.), Jerry Menikoff, Director, OHRP
  3. Informed Consent (approx. 28 mins.), Jerry Menikoff, Director, OHRP
  4. IRB Review and Operations (approx. 18 mins.), Julia Gorey, Policy Analyst, Division of Policy and Assurances, OHRP
  5. Research with Biospecimens (approx. 22 mins.), Julie Kaneshiro, Deputy Director, OHRP
  6. Secondary Research Use of Data (approx. 21 mins.), Ivor Pritchard, Senior Advisor to the Director, OHRP

NPRM Symposium: Resources from PRIM&R

Our colleagues at PRIM&R (Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research) have compiled several resources to help those interested in the proposed changes to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, or the Common Rule.  These include an NPRM Resources page, with a chart comparing the current Common Rule with the proposed changes by section, and other materials.  PRIM&R has also recently released a freely available (till December 11, when it becomes available only to members) annotated version of the current Common Rule, which provides the regulatory text, hyperlinked to further information in the form of guidance, frequently asked questions, and regulatory resources from the Office for Human Research Protections.

PRIM&R will be blogging about the NPRM in the coming weeks, and we will cross-post here.  Stay tuned.