Thousands of Vaccine Volunteers Got a Dummy Shot. Should They Get the Real Deal Now?
The highly anticipated rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine poses ethical considerations: When will trial volunteers who got a placebo be vaccinated? And how will this affect the data in those trials?
It's an issue that vaccine manufacturers and study investigators are wrestling with as the Food and Drug Administration is expected to grant emergency use authorization this weekend to a vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech. Another vaccine, produced by Moderna, is nearing approval in the United States.
The most vulnerable—health care workers and nursing home residents—are deemed eligible to receive the initial limited supply in accordance with priority recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With health care workers constituting an estimated 20 percent of trial participants, this question also comes to the fore: "Is it now ethically imperative that we offer them the vaccine, those who have had placebo?" says William Schaffner, an infectious diseases physician at Vanderbilt University and an adviser to the CDC's immunization practices committee.
When a "gold-standard" measure becomes available, participants in the placebo group "would ordinarily be notified" of the strong public health recommendation to opt for immunization, says Johan Bester, interim assistant dean for biomedical science education and director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine.
"If a treatment or prevention exists that we know works, it is unethical to withhold it from people who would benefit from it just to answer a research question." This moral principle poses a quandary for ethicists and physicians alike, as they ponder possible paths to proceed with vaccination amid ongoing trials. Rigorous trials are double-blinded—neither the participants nor the investigators know who received the actual vaccine and who got a dummy injection.
"The intent of these trials is to follow these folks for up to two years," says Marci Drees, infection prevention officer and hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare in Wilmington, Delaware. At a minimum, she adds, researchers would prefer to monitor participants for six months.
"You can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison."
But in the midst of a pandemic, that may not be feasible. Prolonged exposure to the highly contagious and lethal virus could have dire consequences.
To avoid compromising the integrity of the blinded data, "there are some potentially creative solutions," Drees says. For instance, trial participants could receive the opposite of what they initially got, whether it was the vaccine or the placebo.
One factor in this decision-making process depends on when a particular trial is slated to conclude. If that time is approaching, the risk of waiting would be lower than if the trial is only halfway in progress, says Eric Lofgren, an epidemiologist at Washington State University who has studied the impact of COVID-19 in jails and at in-person sporting events.
Sometimes a study concludes earlier than the projected completion date. "All clinical trials have a data and safety monitoring board that reviews the interim results," Lofgren says. The board may halt a trial after finding evidence of harm, or when a treatment or vaccine has proven to be "sufficiently good," rendering it unethical to deprive the placebo group of its benefits.
The initial months of a trial are most crucial for assessing a vaccine's safety. Differences between the trial groups would be illuminating if fewer individuals who got the active vaccine contracted the virus and developed symptoms when compared to the placebo recipients. After that point, in vaccine-administered participants, "you can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison," says Dial Hewlett Jr., medical director for disease control at the Westchester County Department of Health in New York.
Even outside of a trial, safety is paramount and any severe side effects that occur will be closely monitored and investigated through national reporting networks. For example, regulators in the U.K. are investigating several rare but serious allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine given on Tuesday. The FDA has asked Pfizer to track allergic reactions in its safety monitoring plan, and some experts are proposing that Pfizer conduct a separate study of the vaccine on people with a history of severe allergies.
As the FDA eventually grants authorization to multiple vaccines, more participants are likely to leave trials and opt to be vaccinated. It is important that enough participants choose to stay in ongoing trials, says Nicole Hassoun, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she directs the Global Health Impact program to extend medical access to the poor.
She's hopeful that younger participants and individuals without underlying medical conditions will make that determination. But the departure of too many participants at high risk for the virus would make it more difficult to evaluate the vaccine's safety and efficacy in those populations, Hassoun says, while acknowledging, "We can't have the best of both worlds."
Once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines."
One solution would entail allowing health care workers to exit a trial after a vaccine is approved, even though this would result in "a conundrum when the next group of people are brought forward to get the vaccine—whether they're people age 65 and older or they're essential workers, or whoever they are," says Vanderbilt physician Schaffner, who is a former board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "All of a sudden, you'll have an erosion of the volunteers who are in the trial."
For now, one way or another, experts agree that current and subsequent trials should proceed. There is a compelling reason to identify additional vaccines with potentially greater effectiveness but with fewer side effects or less complex delivery methods that don't require storage at extremely low temperatures.
"Continuing with existing vaccine trials and starting others remains important," says Nir Eyal, professor and director of Rutgers University's Center for Population-Level Bioethics in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "We still need to tell how much proven vaccines block infections and how long their duration lasts. And populations around the world need vaccines that are easier to store and deliver, or simply cheaper."
But once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines," says bioethicist Bester at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine. "One possibility if a new vaccine emerges, is to test it against existing vaccines."
In a letter sent to trial volunteers in November, Pfizer and BioNTech committed to establishing "a process that would allow interested participants in the placebo group who meet the eligibility criteria for early access in their country to 'cross-over' to the vaccine group." The trial plans to continue monitoring all subjects regardless of whether people in the placebo group cross over, Pfizer said in a presentation to the FDA today. After Pfizer has collected six months of safety data, in April 2021, it plans to ask the FDA for full approval of the vaccine.
In the meantime, the company pledged to update volunteers as they obtain more input from regulatory authorities. "Thank you again for making a difference by being a part of this study," they wrote. "It is only through the efforts of volunteers like you that reaching this important milestone and developing a potential vaccine against COVID-19 is possible."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the FDA would be granting emergency "approval" to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, rather than "emergency use authorization." We regret the error.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms are well controlled and when they prevent normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded but, he says, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.