Can blockchain help solve the Henrietta Lacks problem?
Science has come a long way since Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore, succumbed to cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951 -- only eight months after her diagnosis. Since then, research involving her cancer cells has advanced scientific understanding of the human papilloma virus, polio vaccines, medications for HIV/AIDS and in vitro fertilization.
Today, the World Health Organization reports that those cells are essential in mounting a COVID-19 response. But they were commercialized without the awareness or permission of Lacks or her family, who have filed a lawsuit against a biotech company for profiting from these “HeLa” cells.
While obtaining an individual's informed consent has become standard procedure before the use of tissues in medical research, many patients still don’t know what happens to their samples. Now, a new phone-based app is aiming to change that.
Tissue donors can track what scientists do with their samples while safeguarding privacy, through a pilot program initiated in October by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Precision Medicine. The program uses blockchain technology to offer patients this opportunity through the University of Pittsburgh's Breast Disease Research Repository, while assuring that their identities remain anonymous to investigators.
A blockchain is a digital, tamper-proof ledger of transactions duplicated and distributed across a computer system network. Whenever a transaction occurs with a patient’s sample, multiple stakeholders can track it while the owner’s identity remains encrypted. Special certificates called “nonfungible tokens,” or NFTs, represent patients’ unique samples on a trusted and widely used blockchain that reinforces transparency.
Blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors.
“Healthcare is very data rich, but control of that data often does not lie with the patient,” said Julius Bogdan, vice president of analytics for North America at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a Chicago-based global technology nonprofit. “NFTs allow for the encapsulation of a patient’s data in a digital asset controlled by the patient.” He added that this technology enables a more secure and informed method of participating in clinical and research trials.
Without this technology, de-identification of patients’ samples during biomedical research had the unintended consequence of preventing them from discovering what researchers find -- even if that data could benefit their health. A solution was urgently needed, said Marielle Gross, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“A researcher can learn something from your bio samples or medical records that could be life-saving information for you, and they have no way to let you or your doctor know,” said Gross, who is also an affiliate assistant professor at the Berman Institute. “There’s no good reason for that to stay the way that it is.”
For instance, blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors. Gross estimated that less than half of breast cancer patients are tested for mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 — tumor suppressor genes that are important in combating cancer. With normal function, these genes help prevent breast, ovarian and other cells from proliferating in an uncontrolled manner. If researchers find mutations, it’s relevant for a patient’s and family’s follow-up care — and that’s a prime example of how this newly designed app could play a life-saving role, she said.
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app -- called de-bi, which is short for decentralized biobank -- before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer in November, after it was diagnosed on a routine mammogram. She often takes part in medical research and looks forward to tracking her tissues.
“Anytime there’s a scientific experiment or study, I’m quick to participate -- to advance my own wellness as well as knowledge in general,” said Burton, 49, a life insurance service representative who lives in Carnegie, Pa. “It’s my way of contributing.”
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer.
The pilot program raises the issue of what investigators may owe study participants, especially since certain populations, such as Black and indigenous peoples, historically were not treated in an ethical manner for scientific purposes. “It’s a truly laudable effort,” Tamar Schiff, a postdoctoral fellow in medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said of the endeavor. “Research participants are beautifully altruistic.”
Lauren Sankary, a bioethicist and associate director of the neuroethics program at Cleveland Clinic, agrees that the pilot program provides increased transparency for study participants regarding how scientists use their tissues while acknowledging individuals’ contributions to research.
However, she added, “it may require researchers to develop a process for ongoing communication to be responsive to additional input from research participants.”
Peter H. Schwartz, professor of medicine and director of Indiana University’s Center for Bioethics in Indianapolis, said the program is promising, but he wonders what will happen if a patient has concerns about a particular research project involving their tissues.
“I can imagine a situation where a patient objects to their sample being used for some disease they’ve never heard about, or which carries some kind of stigma like a mental illness,” Schwartz said, noting that researchers would have to evaluate how to react. “There’s no simple answer to those questions, but the technology has to be assessed with an eye to the problems it could raise.”
To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification.
As a result, researchers may need to factor in how much information to share with patients and how to explain it, Schiff said. There are also concerns that in tracking their samples, patients could tell others what they learned before researchers are ready to publicly release this information. However, Bogdan, the vice president of the HIMSS nonprofit, believes only a minimal study identifier would be stored in an NFT, not patient data, research results or any type of proprietary trial information.
Some patients may be confused by blockchain and reluctant to embrace it. “The complexity of NFTs may prevent the average citizen from capitalizing on their potential or vendors willing to participate in the blockchain network,” Bogdan said. “Blockchain technology is also quite costly in terms of computational power and energy consumption, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
In addition, this nascent, groundbreaking technology is immature and vulnerable to data security flaws, disputes over intellectual property rights and privacy issues, though it does offer baseline protections to maintain confidentiality. To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification, said Robyn Shapiro, a bioethicist and founding attorney at Health Sciences Law Group near Milwaukee.
The Henrietta Lacks story is a prime example, Shapiro noted. During her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, Lacks’s tissue was de-identified (albeit not entirely, because her cell line, HeLa, bore her initials). After her death, those cells were replicated and distributed for important and lucrative research and product development purposes without her knowledge or consent.
Nonetheless, Shapiro thinks that the initiative by the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins has potential to solve some ethical challenges involved in research use of biospecimens. “Compared to the system that allowed Lacks’s cells to be used without her permission, Shapiro said, “blockchain technology using nonfungible tokens that allow patients to follow their samples may enhance transparency, accountability and respect for persons who contribute their tissue and clinical data for research.”
Read more about laws that have prevented people from the rights to their own cells.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”