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Author Archive: Jonathan Kimmelman

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Missing Reports: Research Biopsy in Cancer Trials

A growing number of drug trials are collecting tissue to determine whether the drug hits its molecular target.  These studies are called “pharmacodynamics.”  And in cancer, many pharmacodynamics studies involve collection of tumor tissue through biopsies.  These procedures are painful, and are performed solely to answer scientific questions.  That is, they generally have no diagnostic or clinical value.  As such, some commentators worry about their ethics.

In a recent issue of Clinical Cancer Research, my Master’s student Gina Freeman and I report on publication practices for pharmacodynamics studies involving tumor biopsy.  The basic idea is this: the ethical justification for such invasive research procedures rests on a claim that they are scientifically valuable.  However, if they are never published, it is harder to argue that they have a sound scientific justification.  So we set out to determine how frequently results are published, and reasons why some results are never reported. Briefly, we found that a third of promised analyses are not published- which is more or less in line with the frequency of nonpublication for trials in general.  We also find that researchers who perform pharmacodynamics studies regard reporting quality as fair to poor, and many perceive the most common reason for nonpublication to be “strategic considerations” (as in: result does not fit the narrative of the overall trial).

Does our article support a definitive statement about the ethics of research biopsy in cancer trials?  No.  But it does point to a number of ways that the ethical justification can be strengthened- and questions clinical investigators and ethics boards should be asking when designing and/or reviewing protocols involving research biopsy. (graphic: cole007 2011)

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Targeted Cancer Drugs: The "Price of Progress"?

So here is the party line on the newest generation of cancer drugs.  Unlike older generation drugs, which are generalized poisons, newer cancer drugs hone in on very specific molecular targets.  Because of this specificity, they have fewer "o...

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Registration of Trials: A Census

Apologies to the millions of avid followers of Lost in Translation for the long haitus.  In response to an international petition campaign, with several Nobelist signatories, I am cautiously restarting this blog with the aim of (monthly??) blogpos...

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Tea Leaves: Predicting Risk and Benefit in Translation

Every early phase trial begins with a series of predictions: that a new drug will show clinical utility down to road, that risks to study volunteers will be manageable, and perhaps, that patients in trials will benefit. Make a bad prediction here, and...

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Dirty Windows of Drug Development

Think of clinical trial data as a window on the efficacy and safety of a drug. Think of data protection and trade secrecy as soot. The above picture? This is the public view on drug safety and efficacy.According to a recent report in Nature Biotechnolo...

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More Gray Matter: Parkinson’s Disease and Gene Transfer

Several groups are pursuing gene transfer strategies against Parkinson's disease. No small task, because for these approaches to work, investigators have to deliver vectors deep inside the brain using surgery. I have previously written that early phase...

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Icarus, again: Adversity in another Gene Transfer Trial

Two weeks ago brought good news and bad news for gene transfer. First the good news. New England Journal of Medicine beatified a new gene transfer strategy for Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome (WAS). WAS is a primary immunodeficiency that primarily affects boys. It is thus in the same family of disorders that have been, in varying degrees, successfully addressed using retroviral gene transfer. Like other immunodeficiencies, this represents relatively low hanging fruit for an approach like gene transfer, because scientists can access and target stem cells, and because corrected cells should be at a selective advantage for survival compared with uncorrected cells.

The NEJM article reported clinical, functional, and molecular outcomes for two boys in a trial based in Germany. Briefly the two boys were given a type of chemotherapy (in order to make space for genetically corrected cells), and then transplanted with “corrected” blood stem cells. The corrected blood stem cells contained a viral vector similar to those used in previous gene transfer trials of primary immune deficiency. The team saw: 1) stable levels of genetically corrected stem cells that expressed the WAS protein (indicating the genetically modified cells “took,” and produced WAS; 2) recovery of the function of a variety of immune cells; 3) reduction of disease symptoms, including improvement of eczema, and reduced severity of infections.

The article exhaustively ruled out events that have occurred in other, similar gene transfer trials in which children developed leukemias from the vector. Now the bad news. The same day NEJM published the results, American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy (the largest professional society devoted to gene transfer) released a statement saying that the German team just announceda serious adverse event in a gene therapy trial for Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome (WAS)”- one of the ten children in the German trial developed a leukemia.

And so continues the saga of gene transfer: three steps forward, one back. (photo credit: vk-red 2009)

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Are Trials Necessary?

Today's New York Times ran a heartbreaking story by Amy Harmon about two cousins who developed melanoma. One was entered into a cancer clinical trial and received the investigational drug PLX4032. The other was ineligible for the trial, and therefore u...

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Embryonic Stem Cell Trials Start Development

So, FDA has lifted a hold on the first ever clinical trial testing cells derived from human embyonic stem cells. The study- based in California and sponsored by the biotechnology company Geron (view press release here)- will administer cells derived f...

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Information: Stem Cell Tourism Redux (part 1)

The current issue of Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal contains the first installment in a two part series on the ethics of stem cell tourism, by long time stem cell watcher Cynthia Cohen and Peter Cohen. The Cohens pull together a large body of news...

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