Society Needs Regulations to Prevent Research Abuses
[Editor's Note: Our Big Moral Question this month is, "Do government regulations help or hurt the goal of responsible and timely scientific innovation?"]
Government regulations help more than hurt the goal of responsible and timely scientific innovation. Opponents might argue that without regulations, researchers would be free to do whatever they want. But without ethics and regulations, scientists have performed horrific experiments. In Nazi concentration camps, for instance, doctors forced prisoners to stay in the snow to see how long it took for these inmates to freeze to death. These researchers also removed prisoner's limbs in order to try to develop innovations to reconnect these body parts, but all the experiments failed.
Researchers in not only industry, but also academia have violated research participants' rights.
Due to these atrocities, after the war, the Nuremberg Tribunal established the first ethical guidelines for research, mandating that all study participants provide informed consent. Yet many researchers, including those in leading U.S. academic institutions and government agencies, failed to follow these dictates. The U.S. government, for instance, secretly infected Guatemalan men with syphilis in order to study the disease and experimented on soldiers, exposing them without consent to biological and chemical warfare agents. In the 1960s, researchers at New York's Willowbrook State School purposefully fed intellectually disabled children infected stool extracts with hepatitis to study the disease. In 1966, in the New England Journal of Medicine, Henry Beecher, a Harvard anesthesiologist, described 22 cases of unethical research published in the nation's leading medical journals, but were mostly conducted without informed consent, and at times harmed participants without offering them any benefit.
Despite heightened awareness and enhanced guidelines, abuses continued. Until a 1974 journalistic exposé, the U.S. government continued to fund the now-notorious Tuskegee syphilis study of infected poor African-American men in rural Alabama, refusing to offer these men penicillin when it became available as effective treatment for the disease.
In response, in 1974 Congress passed the National Research Act, establishing research ethics committees or Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), to guide scientists, allowing them to innovate while protecting study participants' rights. Routinely, IRBs now detect and prevent unethical studies from starting.
Still, even with these regulations, researchers have at times conducted unethical investigations. In 1999 at the Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Hospital, for example, a patient twice refused to participate in a study that would prolong his surgery. The researcher nonetheless proceeded to experiment on him anyway, using an electrical probe in the patient's heart to collect data.
Part of the problem and consequent need for regulations is that researchers have conflicts of interest and often do not recognize ethical challenges their research may pose.
Pharmaceutical company scandals, involving Avandia, and Neurontin and other drugs, raise added concerns. In marketing Vioxx,OxyContin, and tobacco, corporations have hidden findings that might undercut sales.
Regulations become increasingly critical as drug companies and the NIH conduct increasing amounts of research in the developing world. In 1996, Pfizer conducted a study of bacterial meningitis in Nigeria in which 11 children died. The families thus sued. Pfizer produced a Nigerian IRB approval letter, but the letter turned out to have been forged. No Nigerian IRB had ever approved the study. Fourteen years later, Wikileaks revealed that Pfizer had hired detectives to find evidence of corruption against the Nigerian Attorney General, to compel him to drop the lawsuit.
Researchers in not only industry, but also academia have violated research participants' rights. Arizona State University scientists wanted to investigate the genes of a Native American group, the Havasupai, who were concerned about their high rates of diabetes. The investigators also wanted to study the group's rates of schizophrenia, but feared that the tribe would oppose the study, given the stigma. Hence, these researchers decided to mislead the tribe, stating that the study was only about diabetes. The university's research ethics committee knew the scientists' plan to study schizophrenia, but approved the study, including the consent form, which did not mention any psychiatric diagnoses. The Havasupai gave blood samples, but later learned that the researchers published articles about the tribe's schizophrenia and alcoholism, and genetic origins in Asia (while the Havasupai believed they originated in the Grand Canyon, where they now lived, and which they thus argued they owned). A 2010 legal settlement required that the university return the blood samples to the tribe, which then destroyed them. Had the researchers instead worked with the tribe more respectfully, they could have advanced science in many ways.
Part of the problem and consequent need for regulations is that researchers have conflicts of interest and often do not recognize ethical challenges their research may pose.
Such violations threaten to lower public trust in science, particularly among vulnerable groups that have historically been systemically mistreated, diminishing public and government support for research and for the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Centers for Disease Control, all of which conduct large numbers of studies.
Research that has failed to follow ethics has in fact impeded innovation.
In popular culture, myths of immoral science and technology--from Frankenstein to Big Brother and Dr. Strangelove--loom.
Admittedly, regulations involve inherent tradeoffs. Following certain rules can take time and effort. Certain regulations may in fact limit research that might potentially advance knowledge, but be grossly unethical. For instance, if our society's sole goal was to have scientists innovate as much as possible, we might let them stick needles into healthy people's brains to remove cells in return for cash that many vulnerable poor people might find desirable. But these studies would clearly pose major ethical problems.
Research that has failed to follow ethics has in fact impeded innovation. In 1999, the death of a young man, Jesse Gelsinger, in a gene therapy experiment in which the investigator was subsequently found to have major conflicts of interest, delayed innovations in the field of gene therapy research for years.
Without regulations, companies might market products that prove dangerous, leading to massive lawsuits that could also ultimately stifle further innovation within an industry.
The key question is not whether regulations help or hurt science alone, but whether they help or hurt science that is both "responsible and innovative."
We don't want "over-regulation." Rather, the right amount of regulations is needed – neither too much nor too little. Hence, policy makers in this area have developed regulations in fair and transparent ways and have also been working to reduce the burden on researchers – for instance, by allowing single IRBs to review multi-site studies, rather than having multiple IRBs do so, which can create obstacles.
In sum, society requires a proper balance of regulations to ensure ethical research, avoid abuses, and ultimately aid us all by promoting responsible innovation.
[Ed. Note: Check out the opposite viewpoint here, and follow LeapsMag on social media to share your perspective.]
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.