Is There a Blind Spot in the Oversight of Human Subject Research?

A scientist examining samples.

(© lily/Fotolia)

Human experimentation has come a long way since congressional hearings in the 1970s exposed patterns of abuse. Where yesterday's patients were protected only by the good conscience of physician-researchers, today's patients are spirited past hazards through an elaborate system of oversight and informed consent. Yet in many ways, the project of grounding human research on ethical foundations remains incomplete.

As human research has become a mainstay of career and commercial advancement among academics, research centers, and industry, new threats to research integrity have emerged.

To be sure, much of the medical research we do meets exceedingly high standards. Progress in cancer immunotherapy, or infectious disease, reflects the best of what can be accomplished when medical scientists and patients collaborate productively. And abuses of the earlier part of the 20th century--like those perpetrated by the U.S. Public Health Service in Guatemala--are for the history books.

Yet as human research has become a mainstay of career and commercial advancement among academics, research centers, and industry, new threats to research integrity have emerged. Many flourish in the blind spot of current oversight systems.

Take, for example, the tendency to publish only "positive" findings ("publication bias"). When patients participate in studies, they are told that their contributions will promote medical discovery. That can't happen if results of experiments never get beyond the hard drives of researchers. While researchers are often eager to publish trials showing a drug works, according to a study my own team conducted, fewer than 4 in 10 trials of drugs that never receive FDA approval get published. This tendency- which occurs in academia as well as industry- deprives other scientists of opportunities to build on these failures and make good on the sacrifice of patients. It also means the trials may be inadvertently repeated by other researchers, subjecting more patients to risks.

On the other hand, many clinical trials test treatments that have already been proven effective beyond a shadow of doubt. Consider the drug aprotinin, used for the management of bleeding during surgery. An analysis in 2005 showed that, not long after the drug was proven effective, researchers launched dozens of additional placebo-controlled trials. These redundant trials are far in excess of what regulators required for drug approval, and deprived patients in placebo arms of a proven effective therapy. Whether because of an oversight or deliberately (does it matter?), researchers conducting these trials often failed in publications to describe previous evidence of efficacy. What's the point of running a trial if no one reads the results?

It is surprisingly easy for companies to hijack research to market their treatments.

At the other extreme are trials that are little more than shots in the dark. In one case, patients with spinal cord injury were enrolled in a safety trial testing a cell-based regenerative medicine treatment. After the trial stopped (results were negative), laboratory scientists revealed that the cells had been shown ineffective in animal experiments. Though this information had been available to the company and FDA, researchers pursued the trial anyway.

It is surprisingly easy for companies to hijack research to market their treatments. One way this happens is through "seeding trials"- studies that are designed not to address a research question, but instead to habituate doctors to using a new drug and to generate publications that serve as advertisements. Such trials flood the medical literature with findings that are unreliable because studies are small and not well designed. They also use the prestige of science to pursue goals that are purely commercial. Yet because they harm science- not patients (many such studies are minimally risky because all patients receive proven effective medications)- ethics committees rarely block them.

Closely related is the phenomenon of small uninformative trials. After drugs get approved by the FDA, companies often launch dozens of small trials in new diseases other than the one the drug was approved to treat. Because these studies are small, they often overestimate efficacy. Indeed, the way trials are often set up, if a company tests an ineffective drug in 40 different studies, one will typically produce a false positive by chance alone. Because companies are free to run as many trials as they like and to circulate "positive" results, they have incentives to run lots of small trials that don't provide a definitive test of their drug's efficacy.

Universities, funding bodies, and companies should be scored by a neutral third-party based on the impact of their trials -- like Moody's for credit ratings.

Don't think public agencies are much better. Funders like the National Institutes of Health secure their appropriations by gratifying Congress. This means that NIH gets more by spreading its funding among small studies in different Congressional districts than by concentrating budgets among a few research institutions pursuing large trials. The result is that some NIH-funded clinical trials are not especially equipped to inform medical practice.

It's tempting to think that FDA, medical journals, ethics committees, and funding agencies can fix these problems. However, these practices continue in part because FDA, ethics committees, and researchers often do not see what is at stake for patients by acquiescing to low scientific standards. This behavior dishonors the patients who volunteer for research, and also threatens the welfare of downstream patients, whose care will be determined by the output of research.

To fix this, deficiencies in study design and reporting need to be rendered visible. Universities, funding bodies, and companies should be scored by a neutral third-party based on the impact of their trials, or the extent to which their trials are published in full -- like Moody's for credit ratings, or the Kelley Blue Book for cars. This system of accountability would allow everyone to see which institutions make the most of the contributions of research subjects. It could also harness the competitive instincts of institutions to improve research quality.

Another step would be for researchers to level with patients when they enroll in studies. Patients who agree to research are usually offered bromides about how their participation may help future patients. However, not all studies are created equal with respect to merit. Patients have a right to know when they are entering studies that are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on medicine.

Ethics committees and drug regulators have done a good job protecting research volunteers from unchecked scientific ambition. However, today's research is plagued by studies that have poor scientific credentials. Such studies free-ride on the well-earned reputation of serious medical science. They also potentially distort the evidence available to physicians and healthcare systems. Regulators, academic medical centers, and others should establish policies that better protect human research volunteers by protecting the quality of the research itself.

Jonathan Kimmelman
Jonathan Kimmelman, PhD, is Professor of Biomedical Ethics / Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University. His research centers on ethical, policy, and scientific dimensions of drug and diagnostics development, and he founded and directs the Studies of Translation, Ethics and Medicine (STREAM). In addition to his book, Gene Transfer and the Ethics of First-in-Human Experiments (Cambridge Press, 2010), major publications have appeared in Science, JAMA, BMJ, and Hastings Center Report. Kimmelman received the Maud Menten New Investigator Prize (2006), a CIHR New Investigator Award (2008), a Humboldt Bessel Award (2014), and is an Elected Fellow of the Hastings Center (2018). He has served on various advisory bodies within the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, the U.S. National Academies of Medicine, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and makes frequent appearances in the news media. He chaired the International Society of Stem Cell Research Guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation revision task force 2015-16, is deputy editor at Clinical Trials, and serves as an associate editor at PLoS Biology.
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on and @linazeldovich.

Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!