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Conflicts of Interest in the Hospital Sector: A Q&A with Rina K. Spence

By Chloe Reichel

Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently made headlines when the Boston Globe reported that the hospital’s president, Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, held a seat on the board of Moderna, a Cambridge biotech company that is working to develop an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital has a major role in a national study of the vaccine.

The hospital maintained that safeguards were put in place to protect against conflicts of interest during the collaboration. Nevertheless, amid public outcry, Nabel stepped down from the board.

But this story is just one high-profile case of what is commonplace in the hospital sector. A 2014 research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 40 percent of pharmaceutical company boards of directors had at least one member who also held, at the same time, a leadership role at an academic medical center.

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an ambulance parked at the entrance of an emergency department

Racial Disparities Persist in Human Subjects Research

By Beatrice Brown

Human subjects research has long been plagued by racial inequality. While flagrant abuses have been curtailed, disparities have, unfortunately, persisted.

One area ripe for scrutiny is clinical trial enrollment. A 2018 study by William Feldman, Spencer Hey, and Aaron Kesselheim in Health Affairs documents racial disparities in trials that are exempt from typical requirements for informed consent from study participants.

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Researcher works at a lab bench

New Study Provides Insights into Potential Regulatory Treatment of COVID-19 Drugs

By Beatrice Brown

As the global pandemic continues, trials have been established to test whether existing drugs such as hydroxychloroquine could be repurposed to treat patients with COVID-19. There are also hopes that a novel drug will surface. But questions remain about when treatments and vaccines will become available.

There is currently great optimism that a treatment or vaccine will be developed quickly, but there is no assurance that such a vaccine or treatment will be highly effective or that normalcy will return in any particular timeframe. A recent study published in the Lancet ID by Jonathan J. Darrow, Mehdi Najafzadeh, Kristina Stefanini, and Aaron S. Kesselheim provides data that might help to temper enthusiasm with evidence.

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Vials of medications with syringe and needle.

Is “Implied Consent” Ethically Permissible in WHO’s Malaria Vaccine Pilot Introduction?

By Beatrice Brown

A recent BMJ article has exposed ethical concerns with the informed consent process in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) large, randomized cluster trial of the world’s first licensed malaria vaccine, RTS,S, known as Mosquirix. The study is being conducted in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya, and 720,000 children will receive the vaccine. The vaccine is currently limited to pilot implementation because of residual safety concerns from previous clinical trials, including: a tenfold rate of meningitis in those who received the vaccine versus those who did not, “increased cerebral malaria cases, and a doubling in the risk of death in girls.” Rather than engaging in the traditional informed consent process, the WHO is utilizing an implied consent process, leading several bioethicists, including Charles Weijer, Christine Stabell Benn, and Jonathan Kimmelman, to voice concern.

The WHO has defended their use of implied consent to BMJ on the grounds that “the study is a ‘pilot introduction’ and not a ‘research activity.'” A WHO spokesperson explained that in an implied consent process, “parents are informed of imminent vaccination through social mobilisation and communication, sometimes including letters directly addressed to parents. Subsequently, the physical presence of the child or adolescent, with or without an accompanying parent at the vaccination session, is considered to imply consent.” However, as Weijer rightly points out, this is not truly consent, as “We have no assurance that parents, in fact, received information about the study let alone that they understood it.” After the publication of the original article criticizing the WHO for going against international ethical standards for research involving human participants, the WHO released a response in BMJ and on their own website, contending that this implied consent process is “used for all vaccines provided through the Expanded Programme on Immunization” and that the study is in accordance with international ethical standards. Here, I further explore whether this implied consent process is ethically permissible in this specific trial by exploring the guidelines set out by two organizations.

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The Birth of GINA: An Interview with Jeremy Gruber

By Kaitlyn Dowling

Illustration of a gavel made out of a DNA helixIn a new, year-long series on Bill of Health, we’ll be exploring the legal scholarship on genetic non-discrimination. We’ll talk more about GINA and state laws protecting citizens from genetic discrimination. We hope these posts help shed light on this complex and ever-more-relevant area for legal scholars, policymakers, and the public at large.

The following is an interview with Jeremy Gruber, Senior Vice President at Open Primaries and the former President and Executive Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics. Jeremy Gruber led the passage of the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act and other state-based genetic nondiscrimination legislation. As part of our series on GINA, he offered insights into GINA’s creation and what the future may hold for genetic nondiscrimination. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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The Funding Effect: How Drug Manufacturers Design Clinical Trials to Produce Favorable Results

By Ryan J. Duplechin

Many consumers are unaware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) does not test drugs in the approval process. Instead, drug manufacturers test their drugs and submit their own results to the FDA for review. Hoping to convince the FDA and investors of the safety and effectiveness of their new drug, manufacturers go to great lengths to report positive results in clinical trials. Read More

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Nobody Reads the Terms and Conditions: A Digital Advanced Directive Might Be Our Solution

Could Facebook know your menstruation cycle?

In a recent Op-ed Piece, “You Just Clicked Yes. But, Do you Know Terms and Conditions of that Health App?,” I proposed that a mix of factors have given rise to the need to regulate web-based health services and apps. Since most of these applications do not fall under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), few people actually read through the Terms and Conditions, and also, the explosive growth of web-based health applications, the need for solutions is dire. Read More

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Machine Learning in Medicine: Addressing Ethical Challenges

Machine learning in medicine is accelerating at an incredible rate, bringing a new era of ethical and regulatory challenges to the clinic.

In a new paper published in PLOS Medicine, Effy Vayena, Alessandro Blasimme, and I. Glenn Cohen spell out these ethical challenges and offer suggestions for how Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), medical practitioners, and developers can ethically deploy machine learning in medicine (MLm). Read More

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Data-driven Medicine Needs a New Profession: Health Information Counseling

By Barbara Prainsack, Alena Buyx, and Amelia Fiske

Have you ever clicked ‘I agree’ to share information about yourself on a health app on your smartphone? Wondered if the results of new therapy reported on a patient community website were accurate? Considered altering a medical device to better meet your own needs, but had doubts about how the changes might affect its function?

While these kinds of decisions are increasingly routine, there is no clear path for getting information on health-related devices, advice on what data to collect, how to evaluate medical information found online, or concerns one might have around data sharing on patient platforms.

It’s not only patients who are facing these questions in the age of big data in medicine. Clinicians are also increasingly confronted with diverse forms of molecular, genetic, lifestyle, and digital data, and often the quality, meaning, and actionability of this data is unclear.

The difficulties of interpreting unstructured data, such as symptom logs recorded on personal devices, add another layer of complexity for clinicians trying to decide which course of action would best meet their duty of beneficence and enable the best possible care for patients.

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Bill of Health Blog Symposium: Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science: Challenges & Solutions

We are pleased to host this symposium featuring commentary from participants in the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences event, “Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science: Challenges and Solutions.”  Below, Susan M. Wolf tees up the issues.  All posts in the series will be available here.

By Susan M. Wolf, JD (Chair, Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences; McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy; Faegre Baker Daniels Professor of Law; Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota)

Trustworthy science is crucial to progress in scientific understanding, patient care, and product development. Yet threats to the integrity of science and to public confidence loom large. Researcher misconduct, inadequate education of new researchers, concerns over the reproducibility and rigor of scientific research, predatory journals that fail to perform thorough peer review, and oversight lapses all constitute significant threats to sound science and public trust.

A 2017 report from the National Academies on Fostering Integrity in Research carefully analyzed “detrimental research practices.” The report called for significant changes in the policies and practices of journals, research institutions, and researchers. Among the proposals was creation of a Research Integrity Advisory Board (RIAB) as an independent nonprofit. Further recommendations called for changes to allow researchers to reproduce results, including archiving datasets and code.

In March 2018, the University of Minnesota responded to the emerging research challenges and solutions by sponsoring a conference on “Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science: Challenges and Solutions.” We invited leading analysts to address the challenges for researchers, journals, and research institutions. In this blog symposium, plenary speakers from the conference examine three foundational elements of credible research:

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