[Editor's Note: Our Big Moral Question this month is, "Do government regulations help or hurt the goal of responsible and timely scientific innovation?"]
After biomedical scientists demonstrated that they could make dangerous viruses like influenza even more dangerous, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented a three-year moratorium on funding such research. But a couple of months ago, in December, the moratorium was lifted, and a tight set of rules were put in its place, such as a mandate for oversight panels.
"The sort of person who thinks like a bureaucratic regulator isn't the sort of person who thinks like a scientist."
The prospect of engineering a deadly pandemic virus in a laboratory suggests that only a fool would wish away government regulation entirely.
However, as a whole, regulation has done more harm than good in the arena of scientific innovation. The reason is that the sort of person who thinks like a bureaucratic regulator isn't the sort of person who thinks like a scientist. The sad fact of the matter is that those most interested in the regulatory process tend to be motivated by politics and ideology rather than scientific inquiry and technological progress.
Consider genetically engineered crops and animals, for instance. Beyond any reasonable doubt, data consistently have shown them to be safe, yet they are routinely held in regulatory limbo. For instance, it took 20 years for the AquAdvantage salmon, which grows faster than ordinary salmon, to gain approval from the FDA. What investor in his right mind would fund an entrepreneurial scientist who wishes to create genetically engineered consumer goods when he is assured that any such product could be subjected to two decades of arbitrary and pointless bureaucratic scrutiny?
Other well-intentioned regulations have created enormous problems for society. Medicine costs too much. One reason is that there is no international competition in the U.S. marketplace because it is nearly impossible to import drugs from other countries. The FDA's overcautious attitude toward approving new medications has ushered in a grassroots "right-to-try" movement, in which terminal patients are demanding access to potentially life-saving (but also potentially dangerous) treatments that are not yet federally approved. The FDA's sluggishness in approving generics also allowed the notorious former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli to jack up the price of a drug for HIV patients because there were no competitors on the market. Thankfully, the FDA and politicians are now aware of these self-inflicted problems and are proposing possible solutions.
"Other well-intentioned regulations have created enormous problems for society."
The regulatory process itself drags on far too long and consists of procedural farces, none more so than public hearings and the solicitation of public comments. Hearings are often dominated by activists who are more concerned with theatrics and making the front page of a newspaper rather than contributing meaningfully to the scientific debate.
It is frankly absurd to believe that scientifically untrained laypeople have anything substantive to say on matters like biomedical regulation. The generals at the Pentagon quite rightly do not seek the public's council before they draw up battlefield plans, so why should scientists be subjected to an unjustifiable level of public scrutiny? Besides, there is a good chance that a substantial proportion of feedback is fake, anyway: A Wall Street Journal investigation uncovered that thousands of posts on federal websites seeking public comment on topics like net neutrality are fraudulent.
In other cases, out-of-date regulations remain on the books, holding back progress. For more than 20 years, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment has tied the hands of the NIH, essentially preventing it from funding any research that must first create human embryos or derive new embryonic stem cell lines. This seriously impedes progress in regenerative medicine and dampens the potential revolutionary potential of CRISPR, a genome editing tool that could someday be used in adult gene therapy or to "fix" unhealthy human embryos.
"Regulators and especially politicians give the false impression that any new scientific innovation should be made perfectly safe before it is allowed on the market."
Biomedicine isn't the only science to suffer at the hands of regulators. For years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – an organization ostensibly concerned about nuclear safety – instead has played politics with nuclear power, particularly over a proposed waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain. Going all the way back to the Reagan administration, Yucca has been subjected to partisan assaults, culminating in the Obama administration's mothballing the project. Under the Trump administration, the NRC is once again reconsidering its future.
Perhaps the biggest problem that results from overregulation is a change in the culture. Regulators and especially politicians give the false impression that any new scientific innovation should be made perfectly safe before it is allowed on the market. This notion is known as the precautionary principle, and it is the law in the European Union. The precautionary principle is a form of technological timidity that is partially to blame for Europe's lagging behind America in groundbreaking research.
Besides, perfect safety is an impossible goal. Nothing in life is perfectly safe. The same people who drive to Whole Foods to avoid GMOs and synthetic pesticides seem not to care that automobiles kill 30,000 Americans every single year.
Government regulation is necessary because people rightfully expect a safe place to work and live. However, charlatans and lawbreakers will always exist, no matter how many new rules are added. The proliferation of safety regulations, therefore, often results in increasing the burden on innovators without any concomitant increase in safety. Like an invasive weed, government regulation has spread far beyond its proper place in the ecosystem. It's time for a weedkiller.
[Ed. Note: Check out the opposite viewpoint here, and follow LeapsMag on social media to share your perspective.]
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.”