Dr. Conville Brown, a cardiologist-researcher in The Bahamas, is at the helm of a fascinating worldwide project: He's leading a movement to help accelerate innovation by providing scientists and patients from around the globe with a legal, cost-effective, and ethically rigorous place to conduct medical research, as well as to offer commercial therapies that are already approved in some jurisdictions, but not others. He recently spoke with Editor-In-Chief Kira Peikoff about The Bahamas' emerging ascendance in the scientific world. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
"You don't want to take shortcuts from the perspective of not giving proper due diligence to the process, but you also don't want it to be overwhelmed with red tape."
Tell me about the work you do in the Bahamas – what is the research focus?
We have a couple research opportunities here. Several years ago, we established the Partners Clinical Research Centre, the idea being that we can partner with different people in different territories in the world, including the United States, and be able to perform ethical research as would be defined and adjudicated by an institutional review board and a properly constituted ethics committee. We do all of this with FDA rigor, but in a non-FDA jurisdiction.
By doing this, we want to look for the science behind the research, and want to know that there is a sound clinical hypothesis that's going to be tested. We also want to know that the safety of the human subjects is assured as much as possible, and of course, assess the efficacy of that which you're testing. We want to do this in the same manner as the FDA, except in a more accelerated and probably less bureaucratic manner. You don't want to take shortcuts from the perspective of not giving proper due diligence to the process, but you also don't want it to be overwhelmed with red tape, so that what could be 3 months takes 3 years. A jet ski turns around a lot faster than the Queen Mary.
Why do you think the clinical research process in other countries like the U.S. has become burdened with red tape?
The litigious nature of society is a contributing factor. If people are negligent, they deserve to be sued. Unfortunately, all too often, some things get taken too far, and sometimes, the pendulum swings too far in the wrong direction and then it's counterproductive, so the whole process then becomes so very heavily regulated and financially burdensome. A lot of American companies have gone outside the country to get their clinical trials and/or device testing done because it's too phenomenally expensive and time-consuming. We seek to make sure the same degree of diligence is exercised but in a lesser time frame, and of course, at a much lower cost.
The other aspect, of course, is that there are certain opportunities where we have major jurisdictions, as in Europe, that have determined that a therapy or device is safe. Those services and devices we can utilize in the Bahamas--not as a clinical research tool, but as a therapy, which of course, the United States is not able to do without FDA approval. That could easily take another five years. So there is an opportunity for us in that window to make available such therapies and devices to the North American community. I like to call this "Advanced Medical Tourism" or "Advanced TransNational Medical Care." Instead of somebody flying nine hours to Europe, they can also now fly to the Bahamas, as little as half an hour away, and as long as we are satisfied that the science is sound and the approvals are in place from a senior jurisdiction, then we can legally serve any patient that is eligible for that particular therapy.
Dr. Conville Brown
Are you seeing an influx of patients for that kind of medical tourism?
The numbers are increasing. The stem cell legislation has now been in place for two to three years, so we have a number of entities including some large international companies coming to the shores of the Bahamas to provide some therapies here, and others for research. The vast majority of our clientele are from abroad, particularly the U.S. We fully plan to increase the traffic flow to the Bahamas for medical tourism, or preferably, TransNational Medical Care, Advanced and Conventional.
How do patients find out about available therapies and trials happening there?
Advertising in the international arena for something that is perfectly legal within the confines of Bahamas is par for the course. But the marketing efforts have not been that heavy while all the processes and procedures are being fine-tuned and the various entities are set up to handle more than 100 people at a time.
"We were able to accelerate those programs, and do it a lot less expensively than can be done in continental countries, but just as well."
What kind of research is being done by companies who have come to the Bahamas?
We've been involved in first-in-man procedures for neuromodulation of the cardiovascular system, where we inserted a device into the blood vessels and stimulated the autonomic nervous system with a view to controlling patients' blood pressure and heart rate in conditions such as congestive heart failure. We have also looked at injectable glucose sensors, to continually monitor the blood glucose, and via a chip, can send the blood glucose measurement back to the patient's cell phone. So the patient looks at his phone for his blood sugar. That was phenomenally exciting, the clinical trial was very positive, and the company is now developing a final prototype to commercialize the product. We were able to accelerate those programs, and do it a lot less expensively than can be done in continental countries, but just as well. The Bahamas has also crafted legislation specifically for regenerative medicine and stem cell research, so that becomes an additional major attraction.
Do you ever find that there is skepticism around going to the Caribbean to do science?
When it comes to clinical research and new medical devices, one might be skeptical about the level of medical/scientific expertise that is resident here. We're here to show that we do in fact have that expertise resident within The Partners Clinical Research Centre, within The Partners Stem Cell Centre, and we have formed our partnerships accordingly so that when prudent and necessary, we bring in additional expertise from the very territories that are seeking to accelerate.
Have you seen a trend toward increasing interest from researchers around the world?
Absolutely. One company, for example, is interested not only in the clinical side, but also the preclinical side--where you can have animal lab experiments done in the Bahamas, and being able to bridge that more readily with the clinical side. That presents a major opportunity for parties involved because again, the financial savings are exponential without compromising standards.
"A person who is 75 and frail, he doesn't want to wait to see if he will make it to 80 to benefit from the agent if it's approved in five years. Instead he can come to our center."
Where are some of these researchers from?
The United States, the Czech Republic, Russia, Canada, and South America. I expect significantly more interest once we promote the idea of European products having a welcome niche in the Bahamas, because we accept federal approvals from the U.S., Canada, and the European Union.
What do you think will be the first medical breakthrough to come out of research there?
One of the biggest killers in the world is heart disease, and we have the opportunity to implement a number of cardiac protocols utilizing stem cell therapy, particularly for those with no options. We just completed a state-of-the art medical center that we fashioned after the University of Miami that is getting ready for prime time. The sky will be the limit for the cardiac patient with respect to stem cell medicine.
Second, we are extremely pleased to be involved with a company called Longeveron, which is looking at how one might age better, and age more slowly, particularly with the administration of young blood and mesenchymal stem cells to frail, elderly candidates. Healthy young men have their mesenchymal stem cells harvested, expanded, and then administered to frail, elderly individuals with a view to improving their Frailty Index and functionality (feeling younger). There is a lot of interest in this arena, as one could imagine.
And herein lies the classical scenario for the Bahamas: Longeveron is now recruiting patients for its phase IIB double blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial at multiple sites across the U.S., which will add some two to three years to its data collection. Originally this work was done with NIH support at the University of Miami's Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute by Dr. Joshua Hare, and published in the Journal of Gerontology. So now, during the ongoing and expanded clinical trial, with those positive signals, we are able to have a commercially available clinical registry in the Bahamas. This has been approved by the ethics committee here, which is comprised of international luminaries in regenerative medicine. Longeveron will also be conducting an additional randomized clinical trial arm of same at our Centre in The Bahamas, The Partners Stem Cell Centre.
Can you clarify what you mean by "registry"?
In other words, you still have to fit the eligibility criteria to receive the active agent, but the difference is that in a placebo-controlled double-blind clinical trial, the physician/researcher and the patient don't know if they are getting the active agent or placebo. In the registry, there is no placebo, and you know you're getting the active agent, what we call "open label." You're participating because of the previous information on efficacy and safety.
A person who is 75 and frail, he doesn't want to wait to see if he will make it to 80 to benefit from the agent if it's approved in five years. Instead he can come to our center, one of the designated centers, and as long as he meets the inclusion criteria, may participate in said registry. The additional data from our patients can bolster the numbers in the clinical trial, which can contribute to the FDA approval process. One can see how this could accelerate the process of discovery and acceptance, as well as prove if the agent was not as good as it was made out to be. It goes both ways.
"We would love to be known as a place that facilitates the acceleration of ethical science and ethical therapies, and therefore brings global relief to those in need."
Do you think one day the Bahamas will be more well-known for its science than its beaches?
I doubt that. What I would like to say is that the Bahamas would love to always be known for its beautiful beaches, but we would also like to be known for diversity and innovation. Apart from all that beauty, we can still play a welcoming role to the rest of the scientific world. We would love to be known as a place that facilitates the acceleration of ethical science and ethical therapies, and therefore brings global relief to those in need.
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.