Taboo topics occupy a difficult place in the history of medicine. Society has long been reticent about confronting stigmatized conditions, forcing many patients to suffer in silence and isolation, often with poorer care.
"Classically, doctors don't purposely kill people. That is really the core of the resistance."
AIDS activists recognized this in the 1980s when they coined the phrase Silence = Death to generate public debate and action over a growing epidemic that until then had existed largely in the shadows. The slogan and the activists behind it were remarkably successful at changing the public discourse.
It is not a lone example. Post-World War II medicine is better because it came to deal more forthrightly with a broad range of medical conditions from conception/abortion, to cancer, to sexually transmitted infections. The most recent issue to face such scrutiny is physician-assisted dying (PAD).
"Classically, doctors don't purposely kill people…that is really the core of the resistance" to PAD from the provider perspective, says Neil Wenger, an internist and ethicist at the University of California Los Angeles who focuses on end-of-life issues.
But from the patient perspective, the option of PAD "provides important psychological benefits ... because it gives the terminally ill autonomy, control, and choice," argued the American Public Health Association in support of Oregon's death with dignity legislation.
Jack Kervorkian, "Dr. Death," was one of the first to broach the subject when few in polite society were willing to do so. The modern era truly began twenty years ago when the citizens of Oregon embraced the option of death with dignity in a public referendum, over the objections of their political leaders.
Expansion of the legal option in North America was incremental until 2016 when the Supreme Court in Canada and legislators in California decided that control over one's body extended to death, at least under certain explicit conditions.
An estimated 18 percent of Americans now live in jurisdictions that provide the legal option of assisted death, but exercising that right can be difficult. Only a fraction of one percent of deaths are by PAD, even in Oregon.
Few organizations of healthcare professionals in the U.S. support PAD; some actively oppose it, others have switched to a position of neutrality while they study the issue.
One doctor wanted to organize a discussion of physician-assisted dying at his hospital, but administrators forbade it.
But once a jurisdiction makes the political/legal decision that patients have a right to physician-assisted death, what are the roles and responsibilities of medical stakeholders? Can they simply opt out in a vow of silence? Or do organizations bear some sort of obligation to ensure access to that right, no matter their own position, particularly when they are both regulated by and receive operating funds from public sources?
The law in California and other U.S. jurisdictions reflects ambivalence about PAD by treating it differently from other medical practices, says David Magnus, an ethicist at Stanford University School of Medicine. It is allowed but "it's intentionally a very, very burdensome process."
Medical decisions, including withdrawing life support or a do not resuscitate [DNR] order, are between a physician and the patient or guardian. But PAD requires outside consultation and documentation that is quite rigorous, even burdensome, Magnus explains. He recalls one phone consult with a physician who had to re-have a conversation with a patient at home in order to meet the regulatory requirements for a request for assistance in dying. "So it is not surprising that it is utilized so infrequently."
The federal government has erected its own series of barriers. Roused by the experience in Oregon, opponents tried to ban PAD at the national level. They failed but did the next best thing; they prohibited use of federal funds to pay for or even discuss PAD. That includes Medicare, Medicaid, and the large health delivery systems run by the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs. The restrictions parallel those on federal funding for access to abortion and medical marijuana.
Even physicians who support and perform PAD are reluctant to talk about it. They are unwilling to initiate the discussion with patients, says Mara Buchbinder, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has interviewed physicians, patients, and families about their experience with assisted dying in Vermont.
"There is a stigma for health care workers to talk about this; they feel that they are not supported," says Buchbinder. She relates how one doctor wanted to organize a discussion of PAD at his hospital, but administrators forbade it. And when the drug used to carry out the procedure became prohibitively expensive, other physicians were not aware of alternatives.
"This just points to large inadequacies in medical preparation around end-of-life conversations," says Buchbinder, a view endorsed by many experts interviewed for this article.
These inadequacies are reinforced when groups like the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC), a 140-member organizational alliance that champions improved end-of-life care, dodges the issue. A spokesman said simply, PAD "is not within the scope of our work."
The American Medical Association has had a policy in place opposing PAD since 1993. Two years ago, its House of Delegates voted to reevaluate their position in light of evolving circumstances. Earlier this year the Council of Ethical and Judicial Affairs recommended continued opposition, but in June, the House of Delegates rejected that recommendation (56 to 44 percent) and directed the Council to keep studying the issue.
Only those with the economic and social capital and network of advocates will succeed in exercising this option.
Kaiser Permanente has provided assisted dying to its members in multiple states beginning with Oregon and has done "a wonderful job" according to supporters of PAD. But it has declined to discuss those activities publicly despite a strenuous effort to get them to do so.
Rather than drawing upon formal structures for leadership and guidance, doctors who are interested in learning more about PAD are turning to the ad hoc wisdom of providers from Oregon and Washington who have prior experience. Magnus compares it with what usually happens when a new intervention or technology comes down the pike: "People who have done it, have mastered it, pass that knowledge on to other people so they know how to do it."
Buchbinder says it becomes an issue of social justice when providers are not adequately trained, and when patients are not ordinarily offered the option of a medical service in jurisdictions where it is their right.
Legalization of PAD "does not guarantee practical access, and well-intentioned policies designed to protect vulnerable groups may at times reinforce or exacerbate health care inequalities," she says. Only those with the economic and social capital and network of advocates will succeed in exercising this option.
Canada provides a case study of how one might address PAD. They largely settled on the term medical aid in dying – often shortened to MAID – as the more neutral phrase for their law and civil discourse.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) decided early on to thread the needle; to not take a position on the core issue of morality but to proactively foster public discussion of those issues as the legal challenge to the ban on assisted dying headed to that country's Supreme Court.
"We just felt that it was too important for the profession to sit on the sidelines and not be part of the discussion," says Jeff Blackmer, CMA's vice president for medical professionalism.
It began by shifting the focus of discussion from a yes/no on the morality of MAID to the questions of, "If the court rules that the current laws are unconstitutional, and they allow assisted dying, how should the profession react and how should we respond? And how does the public think that the profession should respond?"
"I had to wear a flack jacket, a bulletproof vest, and there were plainclothes police officers with guns in the audience because it is really really very controversial."
The CMA teamed up with Maclean's magazine to host a series of five town hall meetings throughout the country. Assisted dying was discussed in a context of palliative care, advanced care planning, and other end-of-life issues.
There was fear that MAID might raise passions and even violence that has been seen in recent controversies over abortion. "I had to wear a flack jacket, a bulletproof vest, and there were plainclothes police officers with guns in the audience because it is really really very controversial," Blackmer recalls. Thankfully there were no major incidents.
The CMA also passed a resolution at its annual meeting supporting the right of its members to opt out of participating in MAID, within the confines of whatever law might emerge.
Once legislation and regulations began taking shape, the CMA created training materials on the ethical, legal, and practical consideration that doctors and patients might face. It ordinarily does not get involved with clinical education and training.
Stefanie Green is president of Canadian Association of MAID Assessors & Providers, a professional medical association that supports those working in the area of assisted dying, educates the public and health care community, and provides leadership on setting medical standards. Green acknowledges the internal pressures the CMA faced, and says, "I do understand their stance is as positive as it gets for medical associations."
Back in the USofA
Prohibitionism – the just say no approach – does not work when a substantial number of people want something, as demonstrated with alcohol, marijuana, opioids for pain relief, and reproductive control. Reason suggests a harm reduction strategy is the more viable approach.
"Right now we're stuck in the worst of all worlds because we've made [PAD] sort of part of medicine, but sort of illicit and sort of shameful. And we sort of allow it, but we sort of don't, we make it hard," says Stanford's Magnus. "And that's a no man's land where we are stuck."
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.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.