Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Medical research ethics

In today's NYTimes, there is an OpEd column by bioethicist Carl Elliott about biomedical ethics (or its lack) at the University of Minnesota.  It outlines many what sound like very serious ethical violations and a lack of ethics-approval (Institutional Review Board, or IRB) scrutiny for research.    IRBs don't oversee the actual research, they just review proposals.  So, their job is to identify unethical aspects, such as lack of adequate informed consent, unnecessary pain or stress to animals, control of confidential information, and so on, so that the proposal can be adjusted before it can go forward.

As Elliott writes, the current iteration of IRBs, that each institution set up a self-based review system to approve or disapprove any research proposal that some faculty or staff member wishes to do, was established in the 1970's. The problem, he writes, is that this is basically just a self-monitored, institution-specific honor system, and honor systems are voluntary, subjective, and can be subverted.  More ongoing monitoring, with teeth, would be called for if abuses are to be spotted and prevented.  The commentary names many in the psychiatry department at Minnesota alone that seem to have been rather horrific.

But there are generalizable problems.  Over the years we have seen all sorts of projects approved, especially those involving animals (usually, lab mice).  We're not in our medical school, which has a distant campus, so we can't say anything about human subjects there or generally, beyond that occasionally one gets the impression that approval is pretty lax.  We were once told by a high-placed university administrator at a major medical campus (not ours), an IRB committee member there, that s/he regularly tried to persuade the IRB to approve things they were hesitant about....because the university wanted the overhead funds from the grant, which they'd not get if the project were not approved.

There are community members on these boards, not just the institution's insiders, but how often or effective they are (given that they are not specialists and for the other usual social-pressure reasons) at stopping questionable projects is something we cannot comment on--but should be studied carefully (perhaps it has been).

What's right to do to them?  From Wikimedia Commons

The things that are permitted to be done to animals are often of a kind that the animal-rights people have every reason to object to.  Not only is much done that does cause serious distress (e.g., making animals genetically transformed to develop abnormally or get disease, or surgeries of all sorts, or monitoring function intrusively in live animals), but much is done that is essentially trivial relative to the life and death of a sentient organism.  Should we personally have been allowed to study countless embryos to see how genes were used in patterning their teeth and tooth-cusps?  Our work was to understand basic genetic processes that led to complexly, nested patterning of many traits of which teeth were an accessible example.  Should students be allowed to practice procedures such as euthanizing mice who otherwise would not be killed?

The issues are daunting, because at present many things we would want to know (generally for selfish human-oriented reasons) can't really be studied except in lab animals. Humans may be irrelevant if the work is not about disease, and even for disease-related problems cell culture is, so far, only a partial substitute.  So how do you draw the line? Don't we have good reason to want to 'practice' on animals before, say, costly and rare transgenic animals are used for some procedure that may take skill and experience (even if just to minimize the animal's distress)?  With faculty careers depending on research productivity and, one must be frank, that means universities' interest in getting the grants with their overhead as well as consequent publication productivity their office can spin about, how much or how often is research on humans or animals done in ways that, really, are almost wholly about our careers, not theirs?

We raise animals, often under miserable conditions, to slaughter and eat them.  Lab animals often have protected, safe conditions until we decide to end their lives, and then we do that mostly without pain or terror to them.  They would have no life at all, no awareness experience, without our breeding them.  Where is the line to be drawn?

Similar issues apply to human subjects, even those involved in social or psychological surveys that really involve no risk except, perhaps, possible breach of confidentiality about sensitive issues related to them. And medical procedures really do need to be tested to see if they work, and working on animals can only take this so far. We may have to 'experiment' on humans in disease-related settings by exploring things we really can't promise will work, or that the test subjects will not be worse off.

More disturbing to us is that the idea that subjects are really 'informed' when they sign informed consent is inevitably far off the mark.  Subjects may be desperate, dependent on the investigator, or volunteer because they are good-willed and socially responsible, but they rarely understand the small print of their informedness, no matter how educated they are or how sincere the investigators are. More profoundly, if the investigators actually knew all the benefits and risks, they wouldn't need to do the research.  So even they themselves aren't fully 'informed'.  That's not the same as serious or draconian malpractice, and the situation is far from clear-cut, which is in a sense why some sort of review board is needed.  But how do we make sure that it works effectively, if honor is not sufficient?

What are this chimp's proper civil 'rights'?  From the linked BBC story.

Then there are questions about the more human-like animals.  Chimps have received some protections.  They are so human-like that they have been preferred or even required model systems for human problems.  We personally don't know about restrictions that may apply to other great apes. But monkeys are now being brought into the where-are-the-limits question.  A good journalistic treatment of the issue of animal 'human' rights is on today's BBC website. In some ways, this seems silly, but in many ways it is absolutely something serious to think about.  And what about cloning Neanderthals (or even mammoths)?  Where is the ethical line to be drawn?

These are serious moral issues, but morals have a tendency to be rationalized, and cruelty to be euphemized.  When and where are we being too loose, and how can we decide what is right, or at least acceptable, to do as we work through our careers, hoping to leave the world, or at least humankind, better off as a result?

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