Gattaca Revisted

I teach ethics, bioethics and other philosophy-related courses at a Christian college. So I was not shocked, but nonetheless mildly surprised, when a student recently handed in a paper supporting human genetic enhancement. Actually, the paper was a critical response to an article by Michael J. Sandel, “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong With Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, And Genetic Engineering?” Sandel maintains that genetically enhanced children would “never be fully free” because the improvements are imposed upon them without their consent. Moreover, genetically altered children will excel above normal children; this creates an unfair gap between the enhanced and the unenhanced.

To the argument that genetically enhanced children aren’t truly free, the student responded that no one is completely free, regardless of whether he has been enhanced or not. All humans are unavoidably saddled with the genes they have been given at birth. So why not improve the odds, so to speak, and do what can be done to overcome human limitations? In the student’s words, “It is not a sin to excel, and one should strive in lifting themselves above the norm; there is nothing admirable to be in the norm. We are not created to live in the mediocrity of the norm, but rather to reach above it, and to work on becoming the best possible person one can be.” And, “There is no blessing in being at the mercy of nature; blessing is being in control… Responsibility is what I strive for, not what I avoid at any price, because my goal in life is to become the best person that I can be…”

As I reflect on the argument for enhancement, several thoughts come to mind. First, I agree with the sentiment that we should not live in mediocrity but strive for excellence. I too want to become the best person I can be. But is genetic enhancement a better path to excellence?

Two situations come to mind. Currently, I am halfway through an 8-week program to lose some weight and improve my BMI (body mass index). I’m less than 10 lbs. “overweight,” but I am determined to get down to a healthier BMI. But suppose I could have been genetically engineered so that I would never become overweight no matter what I ate? Think of the benefits – fewer health-related problems due to excess fat in the body (not to mention my unrestrained enjoyment of food). Would this really be to my advantage? Indeed, perhaps I would be physically fit, but there is something to be said about the continuous discipline (those seemingly endless reps, crunches, pushups, etc.) it takes to maintain a healthy BMI. I feel better about myself as a person if I have worked diligently to stay in shape. Without the effort, I would not appreciate what it takes to achieve my goals.

The same could be said about academic achievements. Suppose it was possible to genetically enhance human intelligence? Again, I’m not convinced that this is a better option. I look back on the many hours of intense research it took to earn academic credentials. I come away from that experience with a deep sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and the virtue of perseverance. Moreover, I can echo David’s words – I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful…” (Ps. 139:14).

Exaggerated response to a limited clinical study

A preliminary report was published online on 1/23/12 in Lancet about the first two patients in safety studies of injecting retinal pigment epithelium cells derived from human embryonic stem cells into the eyes of patients with different kinds of retinal blindness. What can be concluded from the studies is that no tumor formation or rejection was noted in these two patients four months after the injections. That is not enough information to make any conclusions about the safety of this treatment and safety is the only thing these studies are designed to assess. There are some who have questioned why such limited data would even be published, but the headlines in the press were amazing. They ranged from “Early Success in a Human Embryonic Stem Cell Trial to Treat Blindness” (Time) and “Blindness eased by historic stem cell treatment” (New Scientist) to “Embryonic stem cells: can we make the blind see?” (Forbes).

Why would very limited initial results from preliminary safety studies have such an exaggerated response? Part of it undoubtedly has to do with our culture’s desire to find miraculous cures in science. In fact the Forbes article says “Restoring sight to the blind is, literally, a miracle…when the cells inside the eye are damaged, there is nothing we can do. Until now.” Another part may be due to economics. These studies are being funded by a private company, Advanced Cell Technologies, which stands to benefit from any positive publicity. The company’s Chief Scientific Officer, Robert Lanza, was quoted in the New Scientist article emphasizing the improvement in the vision of one of the patients. The studies are not designed to assess the effectiveness of the treatments to improve vision and vision was only measured to look for deterioration as a possible side effect. One of the other researchers involved noted that the other patient was found to have some slight improvement in vision in both of her eyes, even though only one was treated, suggesting any improvement was due to the immunosuppressant drugs used or a placebo effect.

Scientific discoveries can at times be very beneficial, but we need to take very preliminary studies such as this one as what it is – preliminary. We should not induce false hopes in people with retinal blindness that they are going to be cured. We should not forget that there may be some studies and treatments that should not be done, such as those which require the destruction of human embryos when other methods for deriving retinal pigment epithelial cells could have been used.

The procurement of organs for transplantation: China vs. the WMA

Can a convict sentenced to death give truly free and informed consent to the harvesting of his or her organs after execution?

There is great difficulty obtaining organs for transplant in China. Much of this is blamed on cultural factors, although suspicion of corruption in the medical profession is also a significant reason. Whatever the reasons, between 2003 and 2009 there were only 130 voluntary organ donations in all of China. Yet in 2006, there were 11,000 organ transplants performed.

So where are all of these organs that are not voluntary donations coming from? Answer: executed prisoners. To its credit, China does try to make sure that prisoners give informed consent. According to Bing-Yo Shi MD and Li-Ping Chen PhD, writing in Wednesday’s JAMA, “If a sentenced convict [in China] would like to donate his organs, the convict and his family must submit an official application and sign an informed consent statement with a lawyer present. Before execution, the convict is asked to confirm his organ donation again, and if consent is reneged, organ procurement is explicitly prohibited.”

However, the World Medical Association (WMA) in its Statement on Human Organ Donation and Transplantation explicitly states that “Because prisoners and other individuals in custody are not in a position to give consent freely and can be subject to coercion, their organs must not be used for transplantation except for members of their immediate family.” (Section F par. 4) In a 2005 resolution the WMA addressed China specifically, stating unequivocally that “The WMA demands that China immediately cease the practice of using prisoners as organ donors.”

In a society such as China’s with such strong biases against organ donation, what are we to make of this large number of sentenced convicts apparently consenting to donation? Are they simply the most altruistic segment of the Chinese population? In the absence of another explanation, one must wonder whether the fact of imminent execution itself is somehow a form of coercion, an external constraint on behavior. In the absence of another explanation, one must wonder whether China or the WMA is right:

Can a convict sentenced to death give truly free and informed consent to the harvesting of his or her organs after execution?

 

(Information for this post came from the letters, “Organ Transplantation and Regulation in China,” and its reply, published on pages 1863-4 of the November 2nd issue of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, which were in response to the article “Regulation of Organ Transplantation in China: Difficult Exploration and Slow Advance,” by Shi and Chen, published on pages 434-5 of the July 27th issue.)

Managing Patients

Many people remember C.S. Lewis not only as a gifted thinker but also as someone who was very funny.  Funny in a typically British, understated, often-profound way.  When reading That Hideous Strength, the last book of his Space Trilogy, I laughed again and again at his many references to the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments.  Yes, you got that right: the N.I.C.E.  This vast array of committees and investigators would finally bring a “really scientific era” to managing society, and eventually all the ills of the country would be deciphered and cured.   And of course building this grand enterprise meant bulldozing a large part of a quiet university town—all for the sake of noble, or at least “nice,” goals.  True, one might have to keep the citizenry in the dark on what actually was going on inside the N.I.C.E., but of course this would be for their benefit.  (“You musn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!”)  The book is great commentary on misguided human endeavors and is prescient on many of the bioethics matters of today.  But what is most entertaining is that the N.I.C.E. is indeed alive and well in the United Kingdom: the National Institute for Health Clinical Excellence, a.k.a. NICE.  More on this in a moment.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman by Germain-Jean Drouais (1784)

During the past five weeks of my Psychiatry Clerkship, I’ve seen that we are often in a position to simply do the best for patients with the little we have.  Many of our patients suffer from life-long substance abuse, others are being monitored because of signs they might harm someone, and others are there at the request of the courts.  It’s easy to fall into a “managing patients” mode of just keeping things from getting out of hand but never really helping the patient recover from his illness.  (Especially when the patio re-modeling keeps some patients from being able to go outside for two weeks.)

One of the populations that figure prominently into “patient management” is that group diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.  NICE has dual concerns of managing resources as well as managing antisocial patients who may cause harm to society in the form of criminal activity, for instance.  NICE working groups have to come up with guidelines for handling these patients.  For instance:

Pharmacological interventions should not be routinely used for the treatment of antisocial personality disorder or associated behaviours of aggression, anger, and impulsivity.  Pharmacological interventions for comorbid mental disorders, in particular depression and anxiety, should be in line with recommendations in the relevant NICE clinical guideline.

Psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, on the other hand, were found to be wise uses of funds in working with these patients.

It is easy to click through a patient roster quickly in order to carry out management guidelines and lose a sense of the human being who is at dis-ease because of an illness.  This is why I think Christian hospitals and places of rest for the mentally ill offer something that our modern health care systems do not: their reason for being is first the healing ministry of Jesus, seeing that the ill become whole.

For more information

Why do people buy snake oil?

There a lot of ethical concerns about stem cell research.  Many have to do with the destruction of embryos for embryonic stem cell research.  Those of us who oppose embryo destructive research frequently promote the potential for adult stem cell research as a better and less ethically problematic alternative.  But adult stem cell therapy has a different problem. It is becoming the most recent version of snake oil.

While legitimate research involving adult stem cells should be supported, everyone from Texas Governor Perry to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning have been getting unproven adult stem cell treatments outside of valid research protocols.  Why would otherwise intelligent people subject themselves to unproven and potentially risky treatments?

Part of it may have to do with our human tendency to believe that something is true when we strongly desire for it to be true.  Our desires can be so strong they cloud our ability to reason and there are plenty of people who understand they can take advantage of that for their own profit.  They sell everything from snake oil to mangosteen juice to stem cells to people whose desire for a cure makes them vulnerable.

Another part may be our society’s unrealistic belief that scientific medicine should be able to cure everything.  Researchers’ hopeful expression of what may be possible with treatments such as stem cell therapy can make people with medical problems for which there are not effective treatments susceptible to trying an unproven treatment because of that potential.

Then again there is always the possibility that an unproven treatment may work.  Snake oil was actually a traditional Chinese remedy that used the fat of the Chinese water snake that was high in a prostaglandin precursor to help relieve inflamed joints.  When used correctly it may work.  Adult stem cell therapy may turn out to be effective for some of the things it is being used for by those selling unproven treatments.  But we won’t know unless those treatments are done in properly controlled trials.

A Lesson from the “Ethically Impossible” Guatemalan STD studies

Yesterday the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues announced the release of its report titled “Ethically Impossible” detailing its investigation into the U.S. Public Health Service studies conducted in Guatemala in the 1940s that involved intentionally exposing vulnerable populations to sexually transmitted diseases without the subjects’ consent. They concluded that “the Guatemala experiments involved unconscionable basic violations of ethics, even as judged against the researchers’ own recognition of the requirements of the medical ethics of the day.”  Commission Chair Amy Gutmann said, “A civilization can be judged by the way that it treats it most vulnerable individuals…in this dark chapter of our medical history we grievously failed to keep that covenant.”

It seems to me that people are likely to respond to this report by saying, “Of course that was wrong.  No one would do that today.” But I think the most important lesson to learn from the report is why those who approved these obviously unethical studies did so.  The report shows that they justified what they did by citing the urgent need for proven methods to treat and prevent STDs in the military forces fighting World War II.  They were being good utilitarians.  When there is much good that can be done for many people by doing something it is easy to overlook those who are being hurt and whose inherent value as human beings is being ignored.

It happens when the need for organs to be transplanted causes people to suggest paying donors for their organs without considering the value of those who will be exploited.  Or when the desire to provide cures for spinal cord injuries or Parkinson’s disease leads people to destroy embryos to use their stem cells for research.  If we focus solely on what we can accomplish without being concerned about protecting those who are unable to protect themselves we fall too easily into immoral behavior.

Doing Drugs for Science

 

There is a place in Chicago where you can be paid to take mind-altering drugs.

In the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Chicago, psychiatry professor Harriet de Wit studies various licit and illicit mind-altering drugs, from caffeine to Ecstasy, by testing their effects on human volunteers. The purpose of the research is to find out how different people react to different drugs, in order to answer the central question of drug abuse research: Why do some people become addicted to drugs when most people who try them do not?

Study subjects must be between the ages of 18 and 35 and have no history of drug abuse, except those volunteers participating in the studies of Ecstasy, who must already have tried the drug.  After the studies are completed, there is no long-term follow-up of volunteers.

The story in which I first read of these studies was on the front page of the August 7th Sunday Chicago Tribune. The studies are approved by two review boards and the national advisory council of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; yet, reading about the research, I felt a bit uneasy. I believe that research done on human subjects is supposed to have at least a potential benefit to the subjects under study. Will the knowledge gained in these studies really have enough of a potential benefit to the subjects to outweigh the risk? According to the story, “studies have shown that experiments like these do not make subjects more likely to use illicit drugs.” But that does not rule out the possibility that someone who takes part in these studies could thus become exposed and addicted to an illegal drug they might otherwise never have encountered. I vividly recall patients describing to me the stories of how they became addicts the first time they took a drug (cocaine and meth are the two I remember in particular), and I can easily imagine that happening in a study such as those described; in fact the story tells of one subject who was given methamphetamine and liked the feeling of the drug: “I felt extra happy . . . I was cheerful and peppy.”

Am I overly cautious?  Am I too obstructionist?  Is the knowledge gained from these studies worth the chance that even one person might, through participation in the study, become addicted to an illegal drug?  In other words, is this ethical human-subject research?

 

Cybrid-gate in the UK

In last week’s blog (July 26), I highlighted an article from Wired magazine (August 2011) titled “Extreme Science”  in which Wired explores seven “shocking experiments” that scientists could learn from if they were willing to set aside their ethical concerns.  One experiment involves cross-breeding humans with chimpanzees in order to better understand human development.

What I find fascinating about all of this is that the Wired article was written as if unethical experiments don’t occur; as if, in reality, scientists are guided by a moral compass.  But are they?  Just 2 days before I wrote my blog, The Daily Mail (a British publication) reported that over a 3-year span scientists “have created more than 150 human-animal hybrid embryos in British laboratories.”  So, what Wired posed as a hypothetical thought experiment was already happening (albeit secretly) in the UK.

According to The Daily Mail, “155 ‘admixed’ embryos, containing both human and animal genetic material, have been created since the introduction of the 2008 Human Fertilization Embryology Act.  This legalized the creation of a variety of hybrids, including an animal egg fertilized by a human sperm; ‘cybrids’, in which a human nucleus is implanted into an animal cell; and ‘chimeras’, in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos.”  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2017818/Embryos-involving-genes-animals-mixed-humans-produced-secretively-past-years.html

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008, Section 4A, contains some of the following prohibitions:

“(1) No person shall place in a woman –

(a) a human admixed embryo,

(b) any other embryo that is not a human embryo, or

(c) any gametes other than human gametes.

(2) No person shall –

(a) mix human gametes with animal gametes,

(b) bring about the creation of a human admixed embryo, or

(c) keep or use a human admixed embryo…”

So far, so good.  Or so I thought.  The Act continues:  It is illegal to do #2 above (i.e., mix human gametes) “except in pursuance of a license.

In other words, it is still possible, with government authorization, to mix human gametes with animal gametes to create an admixed embryo.  The only restriction, according to the Act, is that the admixed embryo cannot be kept or used after the first 14 days of its existence.  Indeed, it is also possible, according to the wording of the Act, to create an admixed embryo, store it (i.e., freeze it) over a period of time, and then at some future point do research on it, as long as it is not allowed to live beyond 14 days.

(To view The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008, go to:  http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/22/contents)

But the story’s intrigue deepens.  The creation of the cybrids” in the UK was apparently done in secret.  As noted in a recent Christian Medical Fellowship blog (July 26): “there seems to be a murky mix of confusion and secrecy from which the true facts and figures are difficult to extract.”  But why the secrecy if research was being done within the guidelines of The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act?

Furthermore, the research was not carefully documented.  It is less than clear the exact numbers of cybrids that were created.  The Christian Medical Fellowship reports that, “According to The Independent “many more cybrid embryos were created – 278.  That large number is naturally of concern, but also of concern is that the numbers don’t match the figure of 155 released last week.  The Government has avoided answering that question.  Moreover, if all funding (apparently) stopped in 2010 and the licence was revoked from the only researcher, when were these 155 (or 278) embryos created?  Were they all created before 2010?  Or are they still being created?  If so, by whom?” http://www.cmfblog.org.uk/2011/07/26/155-animal-human-embryos-created-in-the-uk-%E2%80%93-we-think/?doing_wp_cron

In other words, in spite of government oversight, an assortment of so-called “ethical guidelines,” and the best intentions of scientists, it’s less than obvious that research is done within any firm restrictions.  The CMF concludes that “the glaring discrepancies in the figures issued by The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority shows it is not fit for purpose when it comes to regulating the scientists.  It is incapable of keeping accurate records and is unable to keep on top of what is going on in research, either with embryos or eggs.”

I ended last week’s blog with the following observation:  “Humans have also demonstrated a natural tendency to push the moral envelope, to give priority to what can be done over what should be done.  Time will tell whether experiments that are now considered unethical will one day be the norm.”  Apparently we no longer need to wait for “time” to make this announcement.

Going where no man should go

In a recent article titled “Extreme Science” (August, 2011), Wired magazine broaches a topic that few mainstream publications would be willing to touch.  What could be accomplished if scientists were prepared to set aside the “moral compass” that guides them (assuming there is one)?  Imagine the advances waiting to be made.  As Wired observes, in the real world (as opposed to the sci-fi world), “Most scientists will assure you that ethical rules never hinder good research – that there’s always a virtuous path to testing any important hypothesis.  But ask them in private… and they’ll confess that the dark side does have its appeal.”  http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_swr/

For example, scientists could separate sets of twins at birth in order to control and monitor their individual environments right from the start.  The gain from such an experiment is a possible solution to the nature vs. nurture dilemma.  Think about a twin study in which both individuals are eventually identified as gay, regardless of their distinct upbringing.  This could offer proof that homosexuality is all nature and not nurture.  In another example, Wired considers the possibility of “womb swapping,” i.e., switching “the embryos of obese women with those of thin women.”  Again, the experiment would determine whether environment or genetic factors determine an individual’s weight.  Then there is an experiment right out of a science fiction movie, one that cross-breeds a human with a chimpanzee.  Wired reports that the technique would be “frighteningly easy” and it would teach us much about human development.

But what actually prevents unethical research from happening?  It could be argued that these experiments are blatant violations of individual autonomy.  But the fact of the matter is that human autonomy is already disregarded with other procedures (e.g., human embryonic stem cell research, abortion, etc.).  In other words, what is the essential moral difference between destroying an early embryo in lieu of subjecting it to controlled research?  One may even maintain that the twins, separated at birth, are at least alive as opposed to embryos that are destroyed.

Then again, one could argue that the main difference is that twins will eventually come to understand their situation and realize that their autonomy has been violated.  On the other hand, destroyed embryos will never know their fate.  Fair enough.  But if morality is governed by utilitarian concerns, as it already is, it would seem that the value gained by subjecting embryos to questionable research outweighs their future concern for autonomy.  And if “awareness of one’s autonomy” is the key moral criterion, then research could be extended to any human lacking awareness (e.g., newborns, coma patients, etc.).

In short, humans have the rational capacity to consider all options to achieve an objective.  Humans have also demonstrated a natural tendency to push the moral envelope, to give priority to what can be done over what should be done.  Time will tell whether experiments which are now considered unethical will one day be the norm.

STEPS in the wrong direction

One of the major tasks of bioethics since its inception has been to ensure the ethical conduct of scientific experiments involving human subjects.  One of the cornerstones of ethical experimentation (indeed of all medical treatment that respects the human dignity of the patient) is the concept of informed consent:  the study participant should know up front the purpose, potential benefits, and potential risks of participating in the study.

In the 1990’s, Parke-Davis, the manufacturer of the anti-epileptic medication Neurontin (generic name: gabapentin), conducted a trial called Study of Neurontin:  Titrate to Efficacy, Profile of Safety (STEPS).  This was a Phase 4 trial (performed after the medication was already on the market) whose professed objective was to study the efficacy, safety, tolerability, and quality of life among gabapentin users as the drug’s dose was increased.  Parke-Davis recruited physicians to enroll patients into the trial;  in all, 772 physician-investigators enrolled a total of 2759 patients into the trial.  The study resulted in two published papers.

It all sounds innocuous enough, no?

Recently, through legal action, all of Parke-Davis’s internal and external documentation relating to STEPS became available for review.  In these documents, a different picture of the trial’s objective comes to light.  A few quotes from the company’s internal memos:

– “Some indicators of [the study’s] success include 20% increase in new patients’ starts in March and a 3% market share in new prescriptions. . .”

– “STEPS is the best tool we have for Neurontin and we should be using it wherever we can.”

– “. . .at the very least, we should be looking to place as many managed-care patients as feasible in [STEPS] to prevent Lamictal [a competitor’s drug] starts.”

– Multiple strategic planning documents cite the STEPS trial itself, not the trial’s findings, as a key marketing tool for gabapentin.

– Parke-Davis monitored and analyzed the physician-investigators’ prescribing habits, finding increased prescribing of gabapentin among STEPS participants compared to a control group of non-participants.

Apparently, contrary to the trial’s stated objective, the purpose of STEPS was not science, but marketing;  the true subjects of the trial were not the patients, but the physicians.  The most important measured outcome of the trial was not the safety or efficacy of gabapentin, but whether and how much doctors changed their prescribing behavior as a result of participating in the trial.

Is this an ethical trial?  Some might say, sure, there was nondisclosure of the true intent of the trial, but c’mon, it wan’t Tuskegee, right?  I mean, nobody was hurt (unless you count the 11 patients who died, the 73 who experienced serious adverse events, and the 997 who experienced less serious adverse effects).

No, this was an unethical trial.  There could not be informed consent, as the true purpose of the trial was not revealed to physicians, patients, or IRBs.  In addition, using any human being in such a deceptive manner for monetary ends is inconsistent with respect for human dignity.

 

An article that reviewed STEPS and provided the quotes above appeared in the June 27 Archives of Internal Medicine;  the abstract can be accessed here.