[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.]
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.”