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.
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.