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Research Ethics

A Hot Take on a Cold Body

21 Nov, 16 | by Iain Brassington

It’s good to see Nils’ post about the recent UK cryonics ruling getting shared around quite a bit – so it should.  I thought I’d throw in my own voice, too.

About 18 months ago, Imogen Jones and I wrote a paper musing on some of the ethical and legal dimensions of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige.  One dimension of this was a look at the legal status of the bodies produced as a result of the “magic” trick – in particular, the haziness of whether they were alive or dead; the law doesn’t have any space for a third state.  The paper was something of a jeu d’esprit, written to serve a particular function in a Festschrift for Margot Brazier.  If I say so myself, I think it’s a pretty good paper – but it’s also meant to be fun, and is clearly rather less serious than most ethico-legal scholarship (or anything else in the book, for that matter).

coldlazarus5

Not quite “Cold Lazarus”, but close enough…

So it’s a bit of a surprise to see relevantly similar themes popping up in the news.  If we’re freezing people in the hope of curing terminal illness in the future, what’s the status of the bodies in the meantime (especially if the death certificate has been signed)?  There’s a load of questions that we might want to ask before we get too carried away with embracing cryonics.

Right from the start, there’s a question about plausibility.  For the sake of what follows, I’m going to treat “freezing” as including the process of defrosting people successfully as well, unless the context makes it clear that I mean something else.  Now, that said, the (moral) reasons to freeze people rely on the plausibility of the technology.  If the technology is not plausible, we have no reason to make use of it.  It wouldn’t follow from that that using it’d be wrong – but since the default is not to act in that way, it’s positive reasons that we need, rather than negative ones.  Neither could we really rely on the thought that we could cryopreserve someone in the hope that the freezing-and-thawing process becomes more plausible in future, because we’d have no reason to think that we’d chosen the right version of the technology.  We can only cryopreserve a person once: what if we’ve chosen the wrong technique?  How would we choose the best from an indefinitely large number of what we can at best treat as currently-implausible ones?

So how plausible is it to put a body on ice, then revive it many years later?  It’s been pointed out by some that we currently do preserve embryos without apparent ill-effect, with the implication that there’s no reason in principle why more developed humans couldn’t be frozen successfully.  However, whole humans are a wee bit more complex than embryos; it’s not at all clear that we can extrapolate from balls of a few cells to entire humans.  Even the admittedly limited experimental evidence that it’s possible to freeze whole organs won’t show us that, since we’re systems of organs.  One can accept that an organ is a system, too; but all that means is that we’re systems of systems – so we’ve squared the complexity.  And, of course, the timescales being considered here are tiny compared with the kind of timescales envisaged in cryonic fantasies. more…

Dissenting from care.data: an analysis of opt out forms

14 Nov, 16 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Paraskevas Vezyridis

Article: Dissenting from Care.data: An Analysis of Opt-out Forms

In our article, which is part of a wider project examining the technical, social and ethical challenges of big data in primary care, we simply wanted to explore how varied opt out forms can be when there is no standardised form available. We took as our case study opt out forms from care.data; the highly controversial (scrapped in July 2016) programme of work by NHS England and the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) to extract and link (in one central database) healthcare information from GP practices and other NHS and social care services for all sorts of administrative and research purposes. This was an important research question for us since wordings, available options and even design layouts could influence the decision of patients whether to allow the sharing of their GP record for the care.data programme.

While it relies on the individual’s inertia (and often lack of awareness) an opt out is usually considered a more practical and valid approach to consent when compared to an opt in, particularly for low risk, population level studies where highly representative samples are required. For care.data, two types of opt outs were possible: data would either not be extracted from GP records and/or shared outside of the HSCIC in any identifiable form. However, there was no standardised opt out form released, like with the Summary Care Records (SCR). GPs had to come up with their own forms to register patients’ dissent. We searched websites of GP practices to retrieve around 100 unique forms. We did not examine the information provided on GP practices’ websites. While there are around 8,000 GP practices in England, we believe that our sample was big enough to study any evident variability and make a point about the need to standardise these forms so that everyone, from GPs to patients, is on the same page.

What was striking for us was that, while the majority of these forms provided patients with the 2 types of objection, there were some forms that provided only one option (opt out from care.data altogether). There was also variability in other information provided: who was responsible for this programme (HSCIC and NHS England), what was it about and it was important for the NHS and researchers, where patients could have found more information, how data was to be protected, who could had access to this data and whether the programme had any support, for example, by a healthcare professional association.

more…

The End is Not What it Seems – Feasibility of Conducting Prospective Research in Critically Ill, Dying Patients.

14 Oct, 16 | by miriamwood

Guest Post by Amanda Van Beinum

Re: Feasibility of conducting prospective observational research on critically ill, dying patients in the intensive care unit

Collecting information about how people die in the intensive care unit is important. Observations about what happens during the processes of withdrawal of life sustaining therapies (removal of breathing machines and drugs used to maintain blood pressure) can be used to improve the care of dying patients. This information can also be used to improve processes of organ donation. But when the Determination of Death Practices in Intensive Care Units (DDePICT) research group first proposed to start collecting prospective data on dying and recently dead patients, a common response from other clinical researchers was, “You’re going to do what?” The research community did not believe that prospective research using an informed consent model would be possible in patients dying after withdrawal of life sustaining therapies in the intensive care unit.

While the clinical research community supported the “big picture” idea behind conducting this research, they were skeptical about our prospective research design and our intent to obtain full informed consent from all families prior to the patient’s death. Some also felt that we would have a hard time obtaining institutional ethics board approval or would encounter barriers from research coordinators uncomfortable with approaching families for consent at a difficult and emotional time in the patient’s care. However, the DDePICt group was persistent, and succeeded in their efforts to design the first prospective, observational pilot study in Canada of patients dying in the intensive care unit after withdrawal of life sustaining therapies. As part of the study design, the DDePICt pilot study collected data for an ethics sub-study to investigate how these anticipated challenges were overcome. The ethics sub-study sought an answer to the question; can we conduct ethical, prospective, observational research on a critically ill and imminently dying population in the intensive care unit?

more…

Where to Publish and Not to Publish in Bioethics

5 May, 16 | by bearp

Guest Post by Stefan Eriksson & Gert Helgesson, Uppsala University

* Note: this is a cross-posting from The Ethics Blog, hosted by the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) at Uppsala University. The link to the original article is here. Re-posted with permission of the authors.

Introduction

Allegedly, there are over 8,000 so-called predatory journals out there. Instead of supporting readers and science, these journals serve their own economic interests first and at best offer dubious merits for scholars. We believe that scholars working in any academic discipline have a professional interest and a responsibility to keep track of these journals. It is our job to warn the young or inexperienced of journals where a publication or editorship could be detrimental to their career. Even with the best of intent, researchers who publish in these journals inadvertently subject themselves to criticism. We have seen “predatory” publishing take off in a big way and noticed how colleagues start to turn up in the pages of some of these journals. This trend, referred to by some as the dark side of publishing, needs to be reversed.

more…

Circumcision and Sexual Function: Bad Science Reporting Misleads Parents

22 Apr, 16 | by bearp

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)

Introduction

Another day, another round of uncritical media coverage of an empirical study about circumcision and sexual function. That’s including from the New York Times, whose Nicholas Bakalar has more or less recycled the content of a university press release without incorporating any skeptical analysis from other scientists. That’s par for the course for Bakalar.[1]

The new study is by Jennifer Bossio and her colleagues from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada: it looked at penile sensitivity at various locations on the penis, comparing a sample of men who had been circumcised when they were infants (meaning they had their foreskins surgically removed), with a sample of men who remained genitally intact (meaning they kept their foreskins into adulthood).[2]

What did the researchers discover? According to a typical headline from the past few days:

Circumcision does not reduce penis sensitivity.”

But that’s not what the study showed. Before we get into the details of the science, and looking just at this claim from the “headline” conclusion, it might be helpful to review some basic anatomy.

more…

A Tool to Help Address Key Ethical Issues in Research

22 Feb, 16 | by BMJ

Guest post by Rebecca H. Li and Holly Fernandez Lynch

One of the most important responsibilities of a clinical project lead at a biotech company or an academic research team is to generate clinical trial protocols. The protocol dictates how a trial will be conducted and details background information on prior research, scientific objectives, study rationale, research methodology and design, participant eligibility criteria, anticipated risks and benefits, how adverse events will be handled, plans for statistical analysis, and other topics. Many protocol authors use as a starting point a “standardised” protocol template from their funder or institution. These templates often provide standard language, and sections for customisation, sometimes with various “pick-and-choose” options based on the nature of the research. They inevitably cover each of the key topics listed above, but often fail to include ethical principles and considerations beyond the regulatory requirement of informed consent. Indeed, the process of protocol writing has traditionally focused on scientific detail, with ethical analysis often left to institutional review boards (IRBs) and research ethics committees (RECs); unfortunately, robust discussion of specific ethical issues is often absent from clinical trial protocols.

When IRBs and RECs convene to review protocols, they are expected to evaluate whether the study will adequately protect enrolled participants. When the protocol fails to address potential ethical concerns explicitly, reviewers are left to speculate: did the investigator consider the concern, but dismiss it as not relevant in this particular context; did the investigator fail to understand the concern; does the investigator have an appropriate plan in place to resolve the concern, but has left it unstated in the protocol? This uncertainty can contribute to delays as reviewers debate among themselves, and can require lengthy back-and-forth with researchers, including series of protocol revisions and re-reviews until clarity is established. In some cases, it may also be that reviewers with less experience or expertise fail to identify an ethical concern that has not been brought to their attention in a protocol. more…

The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

16 Feb, 16 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/.

Introduction

Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.

more…

What should Investigators be Doing with Unexpected Findings in Brain Imaging Research?

22 Jun, 15 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Caitlin Cole

Incidental findings in brain imaging research are common. Investigators can discover these unexpected findings of potential medical significance in up to 70% of their research scans. However, there are no standards to guide investigators as to whether they should actively search for these findings or which, if any, they should return to research participants.

This complex ethical issue impacts many groups in brain imaging: participants and parents of child participants who may desire relevant health information, but alternatively may suffer from anxiety and financial burden; investigators who must ethically grant their participants autonomy, but who also may suffer from budget and personnel restrictions to manage the review and report of these findings; Institutional Review Board (IRB) members who must provide ethical oversight to imaging research and help mandate institutional standards; and health providers who must interface with their patients and assist with follow up care when necessary.

Our research study shows these groups share some ideas on the ethics of returning incidental findings – the researcher has an ethical responsibility or obligation to tell a subject that there’s something there, however they do it, but just inform the subject, even though it’s not part of the research” – yet also acknowledge the inherent risk in reporting medical research information. As one of our IRB members commented, I mean [in regards to withholding findings] one reason would be to protect the patient from doing something stupid about them.

When participants are asked about incidental findings, they consistently state that they want to receive all information pertinent to their health. Research participants want to make their own medical decisions and feel investigators have a responsibility to keep them informed.

However, it is clear from our research that participants do not always understand the difference between a brain scan for research purposes and a clinical scan. The incidental finding reports that they receive include personal health information, written in medical jargon, discovered during a clinical procedure that may have immediate or long term medical significance. Because of this crossover between conducting research and sharing health information, participants may overestimate the clinical utility of the reported research information. This is a challenge for investigators whose role is to conduct research, not to diagnose participants or offer findings with clinical certainty. Participant assumptions otherwise have the potential to cause downstream legal complications for the research institution.

It is necessary to understand the impact on all parties involved in the process of disclosing incidental findings to determine appropriate management policy. This challenging task should not be underestimated as these groups think differently about the balance between risk and benefit based on their role in this process, whether they be a research participant, a research investigator, an IRB member or a health provider. Overall there is an ethical demand to manage and report unexpected findings discovered in brain imaging research; finding a way to do this while minimizing negative impact for all involved is important.

Read the full paper here.

Research Ethics: You’re Doing it Wrong!

1 Jun, 15 | by Iain Brassington

With any luck, the marking tsunami will have receded by the end of the week, and so I should be able to get back to blogging a bit more frequently soon.

In the meantime, I’ll fill some space by ripping off something from the “Feedback” page of the latest New Scientist:

The TV industry has […] yet another new mantra: “Not just more pixels, but better pixels”.  The marketeers’ problem is that few people can actually see the extra details in their newest, flashiest sets unless they sit very close or the screen is very, very bright.

A colleague found a demonstration unpleasant, especially when the image flashed, and wondered about the possible risk of this triggering photo-epilepsy or migraines.  One company said, yes, this was being looked into- but no, they could not identify the university doing the work.

Then in the tea break at a tech conference a senior engineer from a UK TV station confided the reason: “We are very aware of the risks and would love to do some real research.  But nobody dares to do it because it would involve tests that deliberately push subjects into epileptic fits, and might very possibly kill them.”

In other words: here’s an intuitively plausible risk associated with product p; we could test whether p is safe; but doing that test itself would be unsafe.  Were this a pharmaceutical trial, one would expect that things would stop there – or, at the very least, that things would move very slowly and carefully indeed.  (Maybe if the drug is highly beneficial, and can be used in highly controlled circumstances, it might be worth it.)

But with TVs… well, it looks like journalists have been invited to the product launch already.  My guess is that if the TV is found to be risky, it’d be quietly withdrawn ex post facto – which seems rather late in the day.

It is a bit strange that trials on a product aren’t being done not so much because of what they might reveal, as because even doing the test might be iffy.  Stranger yet that this is unlikely to make much of a dent in the marketing strategy.  Or, given the requirements of consumer capitalism, not all that strange after all: take your pick.

Sometimes, Big Pharma can seem like a model of probity.

Animal Liberation: Sacrificing the Good on the Altar of the Perfect?

24 Apr, 15 | by Iain Brassington

For my money, one of the best papers at the nonhuman animal ethics conference at Birmingham a couple of weeks ago was Steve Cooke’s.*  He was looking at the justifications for direct action in the name of disrupting research on animals, and presented the case – reasonably convincingly – that the main arguments against the permissibility of such direct action simply don’t work.  For him, there’s a decent analogy between rescuing animals from laboratories and rescuing drowning children from ponds: in both cases, if you can do so, you should, subject to the normal constraints about reasonable costs.  The question then becomes one of what is a reasonable cost.  He added to this that the mere illegality of such disruption mightn’t tip the balance away from action.  After all, if a law is unjust (he claims), it’s hard to see how that alone would make an all-else-being-equal permissible action impermissible.  What the law allows to be done to animals in labs is unjust, and so it doesn’t make much sense to say that breaking the law per se is wrong.

Now, I’m paraphrasing the argument, and ignoring a lot of background jurisprudential debate about obligations to follow the law.  (There are those who think that there’s a prima facie obligation to obey the law qua law; but I think that any reasonable version of that account will have a cutoff somewhere should the law be sufficiently unjust.)  But for my purposes, I don’t think that that matters.

It’s also worth noting that, at least formally, Cooke’s argument might be able to accommodate at least some animal research.  If you can claim that a given piece of research is, all things considered, justifiable, then direct action to disrupt it might not have the same moral backing.  Cooke thinks that little, if any, animal research is justified – but, again, that’s another, higher-order, argument.

One consideration in that further argument may be whether you think that there’s a duty to carry out (at least certain kinds of) research. more…

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