Labs are growing human embryos for longer than ever before

That’s only a slight paraphrase of a news feature article this week in Nature.  The clearly-written article is devoid of scientific jargon, with helpful illustrations, open-access online, and readily accessible to the non-specialist.  Check it out.

Key points include:

  • Scientists who do not find it ethically unacceptable to create and destroy human embryos solely for research purposes continue to follow the so-called “14-day rule,” by which such experimentation is limited to the first 14 days after fertilization. At that point, the human nervous system starts to form and the time for twinning is past.
  • The 14-day rule is law in some nations, but until now has not been a practical issue because scientists have been unable to grow human embryos that long in the laboratory.
  • That technical limit has been sufficiently overcome that embryos are now surviving for almost 14 days. Scientists have not directly challenged the 14-day rule yet, but might, and would like to revisit it.
  • Experiments on human embryos in that time have included editing of critical genes to see what happens (sometimes they stop growing), and making hybrids of animal embryos with human cells whose purpose is to “organize” embryonic development rather than remain part of the developing individual.
  • Embryo-like structures, referred to as “embryoids” in the article, and sounding similar to “SHEEFs” (“synthetic human entities with embryo-like features”) are also being created. These entities don’t necessarily develop nervous systems in the same way as a natural embryo, prompting questions of just how much they are like natural embryos, whether the 14-day rule applies, and whether they raise other ethical concerns.

The last paragraph of the article, reproduced here with emphases added, is striking and more than a little ironic in light of arguments that embryos are “just a clump of cells”:

As the results of this research accumulate, the technical advances are inspiring a mixture of fascination and unease among scientists. Both are valuable reactions, says [Josephine] Johnston [bioethicist from the Hastings Center]. “That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings,” she says. “It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

Vaccines: Modern Trolley Car Dilemmas

The Trolley Car dilemma is back in bioethics news. For those unfamiliar with the trolley car dilemma, you alone are responsible to operate a trolley track switch to divert an out-of-control trolley car away from five workers on one section of track only to cause the death of a lone worker on the only alternate section of track. The dilemma: someone is going to die, and you get to decide who. In a recent editorial in the June 13th New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum nicely describes the utilitarian dilemma surrounding the public health risks and benefits associated with a vaccine for the dengue virus, a mosquito-borne virus that annually causes significant severe illness and death worldwide. The dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, is a real-world trolley car dilemma. Dengvaxia presently can protect large numbers of patients from this deadly virus, but at the expense of causing severe illness and death in a much smaller number of patients, mostly children.

Dr. Rosenbaum describes our response to utilitarian thinking, correctly I think. We don’t mind utilitarian rules that negatively affect others, particularly when the rules tend to confer benefit to our group as a whole (the very definition of utilitarianism) but we resist utilitarian thinking when it threatens to affect us negatively as an individual despite overall benefit to the rest of our group. Healthy self-interest often conflicts with the utilitarian calculus that purports to determine the overall benefit to the group. In the case of Dengvaxia, if the deaths caused by the vaccine only occurred in people who would have died from the natural dengue virus anyway, there would be no problem. In other words, by golly, you all were going to die from the widespread disease anyway, and since the vaccine did save some of you from dying, there is really no new or additional loss. Net positive outcome, right?

Sadly, vaccines do not work that way. With Dengvaxia, it may be possible to create a pre-vaccine test for seropositivity for the virus. This would mean determining whether a person previously had a very mild case of the virus such that they would not suffer a catastrophic outcome from receiving the vaccine, thereby allowing them to safely receive the vaccine to prevent a more severe case of dengue in the future. Such a screening test may be possible but it would cost some unknown amount of additional money and would still not be 100% accurate. Even so, no vaccine is 100% safe.

How many lives would need to be saved and at what cost before we are satisfied with the cost/benefit ratio of Dengvaxia (or any vaccine for that matter)? Presently the World Health Organization is recommending a pre-vaccination test be developed and only vaccinate those who test positive for prior exposure. This is effectively saying that the vaccination is not only not required but not even presently recommended in endemic regions, this despite the fact that Dengvaxia clearly significantly reduces overall mortality and morbidity. If the disease were more contagious and more lethal than dengue, at what point does the vaccine, however imperfect, become mandatory? This is the ultimate trolley car switch for public health officials.

Aren’t trolley car dilemmas fun?

More on physician-assisted suicide

Recently, Dr. Arthur Caplan of NYU, on the Medscape service (subscription required), took on the question of whether physician-assisted suicide (PAS) should be allowed for old folks just because they are old, or because they want to die together.  There have been reports of just that.  While he supports PAS for terminal illness but objects that PAS for “suffering” in general is just too fuzzy, and therefore rejects broadening it.  An accompanying poll of doctors reported:  64-36% against PAS for old age, but 69-31% in favor of PAS for terminal illness.  As some advocates of PAS, like the editors of The Economist, have pointed out in the past, however, this distinction is highly difficult to sustain:  if someone is suffering “intolerably,” who are we to overrule that person’s wishes based on a diagnosis of the cause of said suffering?

Better is to recognize, as Neil Skojdlal noted this week, that real palliative care is not PAS, but is the ethical alternative.  And as Mark McQuain noted this week, changing the terminology confuses, rather than clarifies, the issues.  At least Dr. Lo, whose New England Journal of Medicine editorial Mark reviewed, accepted that not all physicians will accept PAS or be willing to offer it or refer for it.  He seemed to make room for that—unlike some advocates.

In a related item, Hastings center president Mildred Solomon “Calls for ‘Moral Leadership’ to Improve End-of-Life Care.”  In essence, she argues that over-emphasis on “autonomy” can be a way for doctors to abdicate their responsibility, and leave patients out to dry without guidance in end of life decision making.  She argues for a more relational approach, rethinking social supports to provide people with broader help in late life.  Makes sense.  She doesn’t address PAS in the brief piece I’m citing here, but I would certainly leave that out of the list of recommendations.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Dr. Bernard Lo, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco and present President and CEO of the Greenwall Foundation, a foundation that sponsors bioethics research, wrote one of the lead editorials in the May 31st NEJM entitled Beyond Legalization – Dilemmas Physicians Confront Regarding Aid in Dying. His main point was that regardless of the physician’s position, given the increasing number of jurisdictions where “Physician Aid in Dying” (his term, hereafter PAD) is now legal, at some point the physician will probably be asked about the process, as well as their position, and whether or not they are willing to participate, so it is better for physicians to have answers to those questions prior to that doctor-patient discussion. I think it is perhaps more important to understand the terminology in which these issues are presently being discussed so I encourage your review of the short editorial in the link before considering my following concerns.

I believe the lumping of all terminal care into the moniker PAD confuses the issue. Physicians have always participated in their patient’s care, including the death of their patients. What is novel is the expectation that physicians will hasten the death itself. A physician treating a dying patient has always been legal. What is becoming legal is physician-assisted suicide (PAS), specifically causing the death via suicide that the terminal illness has, at that point, failed to accomplish. A physician directly administering an agent with the intent to cause death should be physician homicide (PH) or at least physician manslaughter (PM), though it is unclear why the adjective “physician” should change the criminality of the event.

At one point, Dr. Lo appears to include Palliative Care within PAD but later clearly identifies them as distinct and separate options in his provision for patients with terminal illness. This is especially so given his statement that “perceived loss of autonomy and dignity is now a more common reason for requesting PAD than inadequate pain control.” If PAD simply was the preferred term for general end-of-life care then palliative care would obviously be one component. Since it is not, then Dr. Lo is really talking about PAS and he should use the term PAS rather than PAD and be honest about it.

Finally, Dr. Lo discusses the need to consider adverse outcomes “such as deciding whether to call 911 if distressing symptoms develop after lethal medications are ingested.” What does he expect 911 to do? I am assuming he wants their assistance in stopping the suicide process, nevermind that it was physician assisted. If a growing number of physicians are henceforth going to be expected to actively kill their patients, surely we can all agree to keep 911 as an emergency response unit of healthcare providers unambiguously dedicated to keeping their patients alive? A call to 911 seems a tacit admission that supporters of PAS aren’t exactly certain or in common agreement as to what euthanasia (“a good death”) or “Death with Dignity” is supposed to look like, and, perhaps more importantly, an admission that no one can control the dying process as well as they may believe they can. By the way, what does Dr. Lo mean by “distressing symptoms”? I thought the reason for providing PAS was that the original terminal process wasn’t going as desired and this was causing “distressing symptoms”. If the addition of PAS can cause more distressing symptoms, what has been gained through PAS? Certainly not euthanasia or “Death with Dignity”.

Discussing whether or not a physician should hasten their patient’s death for any reason is unfortunately a necessary debate given the present diversity of world views in our society. Describing that process in less specific terms such as “Physician Aid in Dying” does nothing to help that discussion. Like Neil Skjoldal said in yesterday’s blog entry, I also will “continue to advocate strongly against PAS, affirming God’s gift of life whenever and wherever I can.”

Care Dis-integration

The May 3rd edition of the New England Journal of Medicine brings us a powerful story. It is a tale of a patient, named Kenneth, written by his physician brother.

Central to the story is a delay in diagnosis, brought on by unfamiliarity with the patient as a whole person, biases against those with mental illness, presumptions and other errors familiar to those of us with an inside view of what can go wrong. The healthcare system allows these to occur through its “dis-integration.” From the story:

Rosenbaum highlights the larger problem: “Care integration is an attitude.” But this “attitude problem” affects countless U.S. patients, not just those with mental illness (or severe physical disabilities, like quadriplegia).Whose attitude, then, needs adjustment? Many doctors and nurses seethe about the profit-driven dis-integration of our health care “market” yet insist they can’t fix this mess themselves. Kenneth, no stranger to cognitive dissonance, said, Well, if they can’t fix it, who the hell can? This question becomes more urgent as our health care system’s balkanization becomes increasingly “normalized.”

I have just seen this up close. A friend of mine has a terminal illness. While he has long been well-served by his family physician, the onset of the illness brought specialty care, extensive and repeated imaging, hospitalizations, a rehabilitation facility, and no more contact with his physician. It also brought delayed diagnoses which seemed avoidable had he been seen regularly by someone who knew his story and his usual condition.

Wasn’t such familiarity what we always had hoped would come from the “specialty” of family medicine? And that years of familiarity would lead to an understanding no stranger could have? Such an understanding would give us what we longed for in medicine, such as more efficiency, avoidance of excessive and intrusive testing, smoother transitions of care, more acute perception of changes (and quicker diagnoses), and better advice.

Increasingly, however, the family physician of today can no longer fulfill the promise of the profession from decades past. Financial constraints keep him in the clinic exam room, efficiently churning through patients within a narrowing scope of practice— no longer on the wards, or in the nursing home, or performing obstetrics, or even seeing children under two. Unable to venture out because time (equals money) would be lost, he is no longer involved in the care of his patients when they need something beyond his clinic. And it is in those intense moments that he is needed the most.

I would like to have a simple answer. Kenneth’s question stings: “Well, if they can’t fix it, who the hell can?” The financial pressures are enormous, however. Costs are up for countless reasons, and to keep the money flowing, a physician becomes the engine that must keep running… inside the engine room that is the modern day clinic.

Perhaps nothing short of a major disassembling of our medical system will change that. Such change may only come from catastrophe; even then any rebuilding would take a level of insight and courage…and preparation…that are unlikely to appear in future leadership under modern pressures. If we’re ever to move toward a dream of “care integration,” however, we’ll have to start somewhere– with understanding where we are, how we got here, and where we ought to go.

Deep Brain Stimulation: the New Mood Modifier?

A patient of mine recently had a deep brain stimulator (DBS) placed to reduce her severe tremors. The stimulator has worked very well to almost eliminate her tremor but has resulted in a side effect that causes her personality to be more impulsive. Her husband notices this more than the patient. Both agree that the reduction in the tremor outweigh the change in her personality though her husband has indicated that her personality change has been more than he imagined when they were initially considering the surgery. He has commented that if her new impulsivity were any stronger, he might be inclined to reverse the process. As one might imagine, the patient sees no problem with the impulsivity and remains extremely pleased with her newfound lack of tremor.

I share the preceding clinical vignette as backdrop to a recent article in Nature describing research funded by the US military’s research agency, The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA – the same group that sponsored the early development of the Internet), where they are looking into modifying neural activity with the goal to alter mood, and eventually cure mental health disorders. Using patients that already have DBS stimulators in place for treatment of epilepsy or movement disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, scientists are developing algorithms that “decode” a person’s changing mood. Edward Chang, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) believe they have a preliminary “mood map” and further believe that they can use the DBS stimulators to stimulate the brain and modify the local brain activity to alter the patient’s mood. The UCSF group describes this as a “closed-loop” (using the stimulator to both receive and then stimulate the brain). Chang further admits that they have already “tested some closed-loop stimulation in people, but declined to provide details because the work is preliminary.”

If scientists are on the verge of changing your mood, might they not also be on the verge of creating your urges? Professor Laura Cabrera, a neuroethicist, and Professor Jennifer Carter-Johnson, a lawyer, both at Michigan State University, argue we need to begin worrying about that possibility and further that we need to begin considering who is responsible for those new urges, particularly if those urges result in actions that cause harm against other people. The article does a masterful job of the ethical-legal ramifications of just what happens when your DBS causes you to swerve your car into a crowd of people – Is it your fault or did your DBS make you do it?

Returning to my patient, the alteration in her behavior is an unwanted but not a completely surprising result of her DBS to treat her movement disorder. Despite the informed consent, her husband was not prepared for the change in her personality. The treatment to correct my patient’s movement disorder (a good thing) has altered my patient’s personality (a not-so-good thing). My patient’s husband might even argue that his wife is almost a different person post DBS.

When we modify the brain in these experiments, we are intentionally modifying behavior but also risk modifying the person’s actual identity – the “who we are”. As the DARPA experiments proceed and cascade into spin-off research arms, we need to be very clear with patient-subjects in current and future informed consents that the patient who signs the consent may end up very different from the patient who completes the experiment. How much difference in behavior or urges should we tolerate? Could the changes be significant enough that they are considered a new person by their family and friends?

And if that is true, who should consent to the experiment?

New Moral Anesthesia for Abortion

“Is it possible, once again, to hold in tension seemingly opposite ideas about abortion?” This is the main question asked by Dr. Lisa Harris in the lead editorial in the April 12, 2018 NEJM. Her concern is that in her view, since the creation in January of the new Conscience and Religious Freedom division at HHS, subsequent comments by HHS leaders “suggest that they are uninterested in discrimination against health care providers whose consciences compel them to provide care, and uninterested in injuries to patients caused by care refusals.” (emphasis hers) She wants us to return to the time of the 1973 Church Amendment when she argues that lawmakers reached common ground protecting conscious rights of healthcare workers, then holding what she describes as a tension “between abortion as a new fundamental right for U.S. women and the reality that some healthcare providers could not in good conscience participate in it.” Our inability to maintain that tension, she believes, will continue to result in our present extreme divisiveness on the abortion issue. So, specifically, per Dr. Harris: “Can we understand abortion as both something that ‘stops a beating heart’ and a fundamental right, rather than insisting it’s only one or the other?”

Trying to understand abortion as both is the problem. Cognitive dissonance is the word Dr. Harris was looking for, and she is correct that something was needed immediately after Roe v. Wade to ease that dissonance.

With Roe v. Wade in early 1973, the Supreme Court determined that the Constitution prohibits the government from stopping one individual from ending the life of a second individual who was not actively ending the life of the first individual. No one was honestly claiming that we needed Roe v. Wade to allow physicians to perform an abortion to save the life of the mother if the baby/pregnancy was immediately threatening the life of that mother. The Church Amendment, which passed shortly after Roe v. Wade became law, essentially said that no one will be forced to perform an abortion or be discriminated against if they did so – effectively permitting an individual to follow one’s own religious beliefs or moral convictions on the matter. Abortion became just a personal religious or private moral thing.

I believe that the Church Amendment was the necessary moral anesthesia that allowed the Supreme Court to surgically join the opposite ideas that an abortion is both a fundamental right and an act that “stops a beating heart”, the amendment effectively numbing our ethical faculties to what Roe v. Wade would now permit.

Had pro-choice supporters simply adhered to the Church Amendment, there would not have been growing broad demand by pro-life groups for the proposed Conscience Protection Act of 2017 (H.R. 644). I suspect most pro-life supporters hope the creation of the new HHS division will correct the concerns addressed in the failed bill.

I worry the new HHS division will be the new moral anesthesia to lull us into contentment with securing arguably necessary conscience protections at the cost of leaving Roe v. Wade intact.

In his recent blog post, The Child I Want, Neil Skjoldal nicely articulated the dehumanization that results when we create a fundamental right to “stop a beating heart.” But we have known that this would happen since that right was first established. Almost identical concepts were discussed during oral arguments of Roe v. Wade, such as the following exchange between Justice Potter Stewart and attorney Sarah Weddington, who represented Roe. (see LINK for transcript or audio of the second reargument Oct 11, 1972, approximately one-third of the way through):

Potter Stewart: Well, if it were established that an unborn fetus is a person within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, you would have almost an impossible case here, would you not?

Sarah R. Weddington: I would have a very difficult case. [Laughter]

Potter Stewart: You certainly would because you’d have the same kind of thing you’d have to say that this would be the equivalent to after the child was born.

Sarah R. Weddington That’s right.

Potter Stewart: If the mother thought that it bothered her health having the child around, she could have it killed. Isn’t that correct?

Sarah R. Weddington: That’s correct.

So, to answer Dr. Harris: “Can we understand abortion as both something that ‘stops a beating heart’ and a fundamental right, rather than insisting it’s only one or the other?” — I certainly hope not.

Belgian Euthanasia: Volunteers No Longer Necessary?

A recent resignation letter by one member of Belgium’s Euthanasia Commission suggests the slippery slope of who meets the criteria for legal euthanasia is becoming even more slippery. Dr. Ledo Vanopdenbosch sent his resignation letter to members of the Belgian Parliament who oversee the commission. His concern was with one of the main requirements of the law, which demands that the individual patient formally request euthanasia. Vanopdenbosch claims euthanasia occurred on a psychiatric patient without his or her request. His resignation has generated substantial concern not only because Vanopdenbosch is a committee member but also because he is considered a strong advocate of euthanasia. Here is the AP article in Voice of America with the details.

One of the main tasks of the Belgium Euthanasia Commission is to review every euthanasia case to make sure each case meets the legal criteria necessary for euthanasia. Any case in doubt is referred to the public prosecutor’s office. It is perhaps telling that in the last 15 years since legalization of euthanasia in Belgium, over 10,000 individuals have been euthanized but only one case has been referred to prosecutors by the commission with the concern that it may have been performed illegally. Vanopdenbosch argues that the commission is acting in place of the courts, a potential conflict of interest given that those on the commission are generally considered strong supporters of euthanasia. In addition to the slippery slope metaphor used earlier, one might also add that the foxes are guarding the henhouse.

An internal review of this particular case resulted in the committee claiming that what really happened was an accidental death related to palliative care rather than actual involuntary or non-voluntary euthanasia, as is claimed by Vanopdenbosch. The general population will never know, as commission protocol and privacy concerns prevent the details of the case from ever reaching the light of day. In absence of further details, one wonders whether the alleged palliative care for the unknown psychiatric condition was formally requested by an otherwise competent patient or just provided absent his or her formal consent but “in his or her best interest” by the patient’s physician or caregivers.

It is presently unknown whether or not Dr. Vanopdenbosch’s resignation will result in any changes in the structure, function or transparancy of Belgium’s Euthanasia Committee. At the very least, one would expect to see an increase in referrals to the public prosecutor’s office for legal oversight. It is simply unbelievable that the committee has only encountered one case out of 10,000 cases that they found sufficiently suspect to refer to prosecutors for legal review. Perhaps more importantly, I want to believe that even those supporting euthanasia would be against all forms of non-voluntary euthanasia, particularly involuntary euthanasia. Sadly, I am naive. In our post-modern world, how can any death be a “good death” unless, at the very least, the competent patient in question so stipulates?

(For an excellent recent YouTube interview containing a brief history of euthanasia, please see this link of an interview with Dr. Richard Weikart, Professor of History at California State University, Stanislaus. Some highlights: at 10:40 where he touches on Belgium and psychiatric euthanasia, at 19:00 where he discusses the slippery slope argument, and at 21:30 regarding non-voluntary euthanasia)

Psychiatric advance directives

Even though I teach bioethics and teach about advance directives, I was not aware that there was such a thing as a psychiatric advance directive until I read this article in the online magazine STAT, which I found while browsing the articles listed on Bioethics.com.

The concept of a psychiatric advance directive makes so much sense that I am amazed that I hadn’t thought about it or read about it before now. Psychiatric advance directives allow people with a psychiatric illness that causes them at times to be incapable of making decisions about medical care to make and record decisions about treatment during times in which their disease is under control and they have capacity to make those decisions. This allows them to consent in advance to much needed treatment which they might refuse during times of incapacity and give direction on what treatments they would not consent to during those times of incapacity. It allows people with psychiatric illness to have control over their own lives that they commonly lose when the illness takes away their decision-making capacity. It can also help assure that they receive treatment from those that they know and trust.

This is something that many of us who are not psychiatrists need to be aware of so that we can encourage patients to take control of their own care in a positive way. When I investigated this, I discovered that my own state, Indiana, has a law regarding psychiatric advanced directives that makes them legally recognized and outlines the proper way to make such a directive. The National Resource Center on Psychiatric Advance Directives is an excellent resource on this issue.

This is something people need to know about.

Reviewing the ethics of paying human research subjects

Sometimes it is both necessary and proper to pay a person to participate in a clinical trial, of a drug or some other medical intervention, or a data-collection study, or something else that involves people.  An article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine reviews many of the relevant ethical issues.

A link to the article is here.  Correction to initial post:  subscription or purchase does appear required.

Why pay somebody to be in a trial?  The main reasons are to reimburse them for unavoidable expenses, to compensate them for time that would not otherwise be required in the course of standard medical care or normal life, and, indeed, to get them to participate in the first place.  In cancer medicine, where I’ve worked, the subjects are cancer patients who are generally not paid to participate; they usually are willing to do so in the hope of possible benefit, plus, often, a sense of altruism.  But most drugs have their first human testing in healthy volunteers, to begin to identify potential safety concerns and understand how, and how rapidly, the drug is eliminated from the body.  In those cases, the research subjects are almost always paid, sometimes substantially.

Such payments are not necessarily unethical, as long as they are not too big.  If they are, then they could create an undue influence to participate.  That would upset the balance of benefits and risks and compromise true informed consent.  By well-accepted ethical standards for research on human subjects—many of which are codified in regulation—the risks to human subjects must not be excessive, must be avoided or mitigated to the extent reasonably possible and commensurate with the goals of the research, and must not exceed the foreseeable benefits of the research, either to the individual subject or to society overall (e.g., in the form of important medical knowledge), or both.

Payment to a subject is not considered a benefit in and of itself, but should be “neutral” to the benefit/risk assessment.

There’s no hard and fast rule about paying subjects—no single standard “fee schedule,” so to speak.  Rather, each ethics board reviewing a study must also review and approve the amount and timing of payments to subjects.  Again, such payments should be high enough to respect the subject’s contribution to the research, but not too high so as to give them incentive to participate when maybe they should not.  Also, it’s a general principle that payment should be in installments; generally, no more than 10-15% of the total should be held back to the very end of the study.  Why this last point?  Because it’s also a principle that subjects can opt out of a study at any time, but if they think “I have to stay in to the bitter end to get paid,” that could pressure them too much.

Note, BTW, that such pressure is not the same as coercion, which by definition involves a threat, and does not apply to this payment question.

Also, payments must be appropriate so that subjects don’t get a wrong idea about the potential value or efficacy of an experimental drug, or that they might be induced to try to be in more than one study at once.  You might be surprised how significant that last risk is.  In my past IRB work, we just to worry about “professional subjects” who make some level of living by going from one research study to another.  More than one at once means getting two or more drugs at once that probably ought not to be combined, willy-nilly.

And of course, the potential for economic exploitation of low-income individuals must also be considered and respected.

The NEJM article really doesn’t break new ground but is a helpful review for those interested in essential research ethics.  The FDA has also provided guidance, which can be reviewed here.