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Robert Steiner, co-principal investigator in a fetal cell transplantation study involving the rare, fatal hereditary disease Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis (also known as Batten disease), presented results of a now completed phase 1 study. According to...

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Robert Steiner, co-principal investigator in a fetal cell transplantation study involving the rare, fatal hereditary disease Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis (also known as Batten disease), presented results of a now completed phase 1 study. According to...

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Predictably, the big presidential symposium at ASGCT reserved a slot for Jean Bennett, who led one of the three teams that have tested a gene transfer strategy for a rare genetic form of blindness, Leber's Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). Unpredictably, however, Bennett trotted out one of her "treated" patients, Cory Haas, along with his two parents, who sat up on the podium as Bennett went through her 45 minute presentation, which was titled "An Aye for Gene Therapy."

First, let me say that Bennett's results- as well as those of the other teams- continue to be very encouraging. In adults whose retinal tissues have degenerated, the approach has not restored vision, but it has also not raised any major safety concerns (apart from a surgical complication in one patient). In younger patients, the approach has shown safety with restoration of vision, and Bennett this time presented various functional data, along with neuroimaging data consistent with restoration of vision. And nothing that follows detracts from all the credit she and her team deserve for their smarts, scientific rigor, perseverance, and clinical accomplishments. Second, the family has agreed to go public, and this was not their first time on display. No doubt, they feel that putting themselves on display like his helps bring visibility to this important research. As well, they have their own battles to fight: only one eye has been corrected, and perhaps they feel that going public like this may help nudge regulatory authorities to clear the investigators to apply gene transfer to the second eye.

Nevertheless, I found Bennett's exhibition of her subject, and his parents, a case of poor judgment. And judging from one or two conversations with others in attendance, I was not alone. In my book, I warn against the perils of putting patients on display. It performs a rhetorical function that tends to neutralize critical thinking and indulge sentimentality. I found it particularly problematic that this would occur at a major scientific address: if there were skeptical questions to be asked (as there typically are at scientific meetings), who would dare ask them in front of a child and his parents? At any rate, Bennett used a short question and answer period following her talk by asking Corey and his parents a series of Diane Sawyer-like questions: "are you glad you joined the study?" "what was the most difficult part?" "do you have any questions?" She then elicited a round of applause "for the patients" from the >500 assembled attendees. Was the Q and A scripted? Was this a kind of victory lap for Bennett? Who knows.

Spectacular research, to be sure. But it makes for spectacle science as well. (photo credit: strangejourney 2009)

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Predictably, the big presidential symposium at ASGCT reserved a slot for Jean Bennett, who led one of the three teams that have tested a gene transfer strategy for a rare genetic form of blindness, Leber's Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). Unpredictably, however, Bennett trotted out one of her "treated" patients, Cory Haas, along with his two parents, who sat up on the podium as Bennett went through her 45 minute presentation, which was titled "An Aye for Gene Therapy."

First, let me say that Bennett's results- as well as those of the other teams- continue to be very encouraging. In adults whose retinal tissues have degenerated, the approach has not restored vision, but it has also not raised any major safety concerns (apart from a surgical complication in one patient). In younger patients, the approach has shown safety with restoration of vision, and Bennett this time presented various functional data, along with neuroimaging data consistent with restoration of vision. And nothing that follows detracts from all the credit she and her team deserve for their smarts, scientific rigor, perseverance, and clinical accomplishments. Second, the family has agreed to go public, and this was not their first time on display. No doubt, they feel that putting themselves on display like his helps bring visibility to this important research. As well, they have their own battles to fight: only one eye has been corrected, and perhaps they feel that going public like this may help nudge regulatory authorities to clear the investigators to apply gene transfer to the second eye.

Nevertheless, I found Bennett's exhibition of her subject, and his parents, a case of poor judgment. And judging from one or two conversations with others in attendance, I was not alone. In my book, I warn against the perils of putting patients on display. It performs a rhetorical function that tends to neutralize critical thinking and indulge sentimentality. I found it particularly problematic that this would occur at a major scientific address: if there were skeptical questions to be asked (as there typically are at scientific meetings), who would dare ask them in front of a child and his parents? At any rate, Bennett used a short question and answer period following her talk by asking Corey and his parents a series of Diane Sawyer-like questions: "are you glad you joined the study?" "what was the most difficult part?" "do you have any questions?" She then elicited a round of applause "for the patients" from the >500 assembled attendees. Was the Q and A scripted? Was this a kind of victory lap for Bennett? Who knows.

Spectacular research, to be sure. But it makes for spectacle science as well. (photo credit: strangejourney 2009)

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Another year, another annual meeting of the American Society of Gene Therapy- now rechristened American Society of Gene AND CELL Therapy. The meeting ends today, and I am way behind in posts. There have been, to my knowledge, no startling new revelati...

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Another year, another annual meeting of the American Society of Gene Therapy- now rechristened American Society of Gene AND CELL Therapy. The meeting ends today, and I am way behind in posts. There have been, to my knowledge, no startling new revelati...

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Without missing a beat, President Obama has asked the newly empaneled Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (ever more on this blog to be referred to as PCSBI, because that’s just a mouthful) to do a comprehensive review of the issue of synthetic life on the heel’s of the announcement made by the J. Craig Venter Institute that it had created the first synthetic self-replicating life form.

Why do I say this bodes well for PCSBI? The President had the presence of mind, for one, to remember that he has a bioethics commission and to use it for precisely what it was created to do, to in the words of its charter “identify and examine specific bioethical, legal and social issues related to the potential impacts of advances…in science and technology.” And ta-da!…

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Live from the Center for Practical Bioethics, Dr. Summer Johnson (that’s me) provides a basic introduction to public health and public health ethics.

In addition, I explain how public health ethics differs from traditional ways of analyzing health care ethics problems, and in particular how this applies in the case of public health emergencies.

This podcast is delivered courtesy of The Bioethics Channel.

Summer Johnson, PhD…

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Venter has done it again. But this time, he’s really done it–according to an article in Science, Venter’s team has made a truly living, self-replicating organism made from non-living parts, a bacterium. It’s ALIVE!

To read Art Caplan’s take on what this feat means scientifically and ethically, click here or read the full text below.

Summer Johnson, PhD

First synthetic lifeform holds promise, peril
Scientists alter genes to create living bacteria from non-living parts
by Arthur Caplan, PhD

What does it mean to be alive?

That’s a weighty question that scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over for eons.…

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So what does it take to keep medical research a well-oiled enterprise that efficiently and effectively delivers cures? Lots of cooperation–or so I argue, along with co-authors Alex John London and Marina Emborg in a piece appearing in Science [a publicly accessible version of the essay is available at Science Progress]. Unfortunately, we argue, the way or system of drug development currently thinks about the ethics of clinical research does not presently place sufficient emphasis on the conditions necessary to sustain this cooperation.

Right now, oversight of clinical research is focused almost exclusively on protecting the personal interests of human subjects by obtaining valid informed consent and ensuring that risks are reasonable in relation to benefits. We suggest that this ostensibly private transaction between investigators and patient-volunteers has a public dimension in at least three ways. First, such private transactions inevitably draw on public resources. Second, such transactions have externalities- adverse events occurring on one trial have potential to disrupt collaborations elsewhere in the research system. Third, lax oversight of such private transactions creates conditions where consumers have difficulty identifying (and hence rewarding) producers of high quality goods (namely, trials that are well designed).

We suggest that, when considering whether to initiate highly innovative clinical trials that draw on such public goods, proper oversight and analysis must take into consideration factors that lie beyond the personal interests of human volunteers. (photo credit: McKillaboy, Cataglyphis velox 22, 2009)

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