Pile of colorful pills in blister packs

Could Vioxx Make a Comeback? Recalled Drug Receives Orphan Designation

By Blake N. Shultz and Gregory Curfman

Despite a troubling history, rofecoxib (Vioxx) may be making a comeback.

The voluntary withdrawal of rofecoxib (Vioxx) from the market in September 2004 marked the end of a controversial era for a once highly profitable and widely used drug. It also marked the beginning of years of high-profile product-liability litigation that would cost Merck billions.

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Box of Hydroxychloroquine Tablets

Human Subjects Research in Emergencies: The Texas Nursing Home “Study” (Part II)

By Jennifer S. Bard

This post is the second in a series about conducting human subjects research in emergencies. These posts are being written in response to a rapidly evolving situation and will reflect the state of knowledge at the time of writing.

In April 2020, Dr. Robin Armstrong, medical director of the Resort, a nursing home in Texas City, Texas, reported “signs of improvement” after he gave hydroxychloroquine, a drug approved by the FDA to treat malaria, to 39 of his nursing home patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19.

At about the same time, information was emerging that now represents the current understanding that hydoxychloroquine isn’t only ineffective in treating COVID-19, but also may cause serious harm to patients. Tensions were raised even higher by the seemingly inexplicable enthusiasm for this treatment by the President and some media outlets.

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Surrealist black and white photograph of a person wearing a bowler hat and button down shirt. Ther person's face is obscured totally by a tiny cloud

DNA Phenotyping Experiment on Uighurs Raises Ethical Questions About Informed Consent

By Beatrice Brown

On December 3, The New York Times broke shocking news: China has been using the DNA of Uighurs, a Muslim minority group who have been facing increased persecution, to create an image of a person’s face using a process called DNA phenotyping. The Uighur men were living in Tumxuk (a city in the Xinjiang region), which The New York Times notes being described by Chinese state news media as “one of the gateways and major battlefields for Xinjiang’s security work.” The New York Times introduced many troubling ethical issues, including the potential for increased social surveillance and thus increased “state discrimination” of this vulnerable ethnic minority, but here, I wish to focus on the issue of informed consent.

Informed consent is essential to conducting ethical research. Premised on respecting the autonomy of participants, informed consent requires that participants understand the research that they are consenting to be involved in, including potential risks and benefits of the research. However, what exactly constitutes true, valid informed consent to research is a contentious issue. There are two concerns about the validity of the informed consent process in this DNA phenotyping experiment. Read More

A white hospital hallway

The ‘Nazi Problem’ in Human Subject Research Regulation

As Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day draws near, it is heartening to note that our collective horror against Nazis and Nazism is still sufficiently strong as to make them the archetype evil villains in movies, TV, and dystopian literature. The evil doctor conducting fiendish experiments lives on in fiction because we recall the all-too-real horrific acts of torture conducted by Nazi physicians against children held captive and killed in the millions.

(Here are the Personal Statements of people who survived to tell their stories.)

Yet, as important as it is to never forget these crimes, we should resist the temptation of letting these memories lead us to a false story about the origin of human subject research regulation in the United States. Read More

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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Challenges for Investigators—Generating Reproducible Research Results

This post is part of a series on emerging research challenges and solutions. The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

By John P.A. Ioannidis, MD, DSc, C.F. Rehnborg Chair in Disease Prevention, Professor of Medicine, of Health Research and Policy, of Biomedical Data Science, and of Statistics, and Co-Director, Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS), Stanford University

Generating reproducible research results is not an easy task. As discussions about a reproducibility crisis become more common and occasionally heated, investigators may feel intimidated or even threatened, caught in the middle of the reproducibility wars. Some feel that the mounting pressure to deliver (both quantity and quality) may be threatening the joy of doing science and even the momentum to explore bold ideas. However, this is a gross misunderstanding. The effort to understand the shortcomings of reproducibility in our work and to find ways to improve our research standards is not some sort of externally imposed police auditing. It is a grassroots movement that stems from scientists themselves who want to improve their work, including its validity, relevance, and utility.

As it has been clarified before, reproducibility of results is just one of many aspects of reproducibility. It is difficult to deal with it in isolation, without also considering reproducibility of methods and reproducibility of inferences. Reproducibility of methods is usually impossible to assess, because unfortunately the triplet of software, script/code, and complete raw data is hardly ever available in a complete functional form. Lack of reproducibility of inferences leads to debates, even when the evidence seems strong and well-rounded. Reproducibility of results, when considered in the context of these other two reproducibility components, is unevenly pursued across disciplines. Some fields like genetic epidemiology have long understood the importance of routinely incorporating replication as a sine qua non in their efforts. Others still consider replication as second-class, “me too” research. Nevertheless, it can be shown (see Ioannidis, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in press), that in most circumstances replication has at least the same value—and often more value—than original discovery. However, this leads to the question: how do we reward and incentivize investigators to follow a reproducible research path?

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Challenges for Journals—Encouraging Sound Science

This post is part of a series on emerging research challenges and solutions. The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

By Barbara A. Spellman, Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia School of Law

Journals and scientists should be BFFs. But currently they are frenemies. Or, in adult-speak:

Journals play an important role in ensuring that the scientific enterprise is sound. Their most obvious function is to publish science—good science, science that has been peer-reviewed by experts and is of interest to a journal’s readership. But in fulfilling that mission, journals may provide incentives to scientists that undermine the quality of published science and distort the scientific record.

Journal policies certainly contributed to the replication crisis. As businesses, publishers (appropriately) want to make money; to do so they need people to buy, read, and cite their journals. To make that happen, editors seek articles that are novel, that confirm some new hypothesis, and that have clear results. Scientists know that editors want articles with these qualities. Accordingly, scientists may (knowingly or not) bias the scientific process to produce that type of result.

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Systems Matter: Research Environments and Institutional Integrity

This post is part of a series on emerging research challenges and solutions. The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

By CK Gunsalus, Director, National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (NCPRE), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

We know what it takes for institutions and scholars to produce high-quality, high-integrity research, and yet we do not always act upon that knowledge. As far back as 1988, Paul J. Friedman described both the roots of systemic shortcoming and approaches for conducting trustworthy research. Despite a clear understanding of the issues and steps that would improve our research and educational environments, the academy continues to be dogged by those same systemic issues. A recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine consensus study, Fostering Integrity in Research, in which I participated as a panel member, explores that same disconnect and makes recommendations. The bottom line is this: we must shift our attention and energy away from individual bad actors—though they exist and must be addressed—and toward the highly complex ecosystem within which research is conducted.

An update of an earlier appraisal published 1992, the 2017 NASEM report describes the transformation of research through advances in technology, globalization, increased interdisciplinarity, growing competition, and multiplying policy applications. It identifies six core values underlying research integrity—objectivity, openness, accountability, honesty, fairness and stewardship—and outlines best practices, including checklists, for all aspects of the research enterprise. I encourage you to read it and use these tools in your own work.

All the reports in the world won’t improve research integrity, however, if we don’t do the work in our institutions, departments, and research groups. There are many components to this effort, some of which are discussed in separate posts by my colleagues John P.A. Ioannidis and Barbara A. Spellman elsewhere in this symposium. Let’s focus here on institutional infrastructure.

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The First Human Body Transplant – Ethical and Legal Considerations

By Ana S. Iltis, PhD

brain_glowingprofileTo what lengths should we go to preserve human life? This is a question many are asking after hearing that three men plan to make medical history by conducting the first human head transplant. Or, rather, whole body transplant. Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero and Chinese surgeon Dr. Xiaoping Ren plan to provide a Russian volunteer, Valery Spiridonov, a new body. During the procedure, Spiridonov’s body and head would be detached and, with the help of a crane, surgeons would move the head and attach it to the donor body.  But is this ethical? What role might law and regulation play in monitoring them or in assessing their conduct after the fact?

Critics call the plan crazy, unethical, and sure to fail. The likelihood of success is very low and the risk of Spiridinov dying is high. Spiridonov says that as soon as animal studies confirm the possibility of survival, the risks will be worth taking. He has Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, a genetic disorder that destroys muscle and nerve cells. He is confined to a wheelchair and has lived longer than expected. Body transplantation offers him the best chance at a life worth living. Read More

Conflict of Interests Disclosures Come to PubMed

By Christopher Robertson

Scholars and policymakers have long been concerned that the biomedical science literature — and thus the practice of medicine — is biased by the companies who fund research on their own products.  Prior research has shown that industry-funded studies tend to produce results favorable to their company sponsors.  One solution is disclosure of industry funding, so that physicians and other consumers of the biomedical literature can weigh scientific findings accordingly.

My prior work with Aaron Kesselheim, Susannah Rose, and others has found that adding such disclosures to biomedical abstracts could make a big difference — physicians understand them and will rely upon them.  Nonetheless, most journals bury the disclosures at the end of articles, which are often hidden behind paywalls and not nearly as salient as the methods and findings displayed in the abstract.  For the Institutional Corruption Lab of the Edmond J. Safra Center, I worked with a team of hackers to create a browser extension that proves the feasibility of adding those disclosures into PubMed, a Federal government database of the scientific literature.

Thankfully, that browser extension is becoming obsolete, as the National Library of Medicine (part of the NIH) has begun implementing such disclosures themselves, right in PubMed.   A search reveals that nearly 80,000 abstracts now have such tags.  While a lot in absolute terms, it is a small minority of the 17 million abstracts covered by PubMed.  Commentators have suggested that as much as 70% of the funding for clinical trials comes from industry, so we should expect millions of abstracts to have such disclosures.

Thus we are still a long way from comprehensive and effective disclosure.  There are two problems. Read More