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.
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:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”