In “Is it ethical to hire sherpas when climbing Mount Everest?,” a short piece out today in the British Medical Journal, I suggest that the question of whether it is ethical to pay sherpas to assume risks for the benefit of relatively affluent Western climbers is a variant of cases–common in medical ethics–where compensation and assumption of risk coincide. Consider offers of payment to research subjects, organ sales, and paid surrogacy. As a result, medical ethics can offer helpful frameworks for evaluating the acceptability of payment and, perhaps, suggest protections for sherpas as we look forward to the next climbing season on Everest.
I owe particular thanks to Nir Eyal, Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics and Harvard School of Public Health Department of Global Health and Population; Richard Salisbury, University of Michigan (retired); and Paul Firth, Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital.
How have the massive amounts of dietary supplements on the market evaded significant regulatory oversight for so long? Dietary supplements are regulated as food, which means that for practical purposes the FDA only has the ability to pull them off the shelves upon a showing that they are harmful.
Many consumers use dietary supplements for the same purposes that someone may use a non-prescription drug. Some consumers actually feel safer using a dietary supplement because it is labeled as “natural,” rather than using an FDA approved over-the-counter drug. This doesn’t and shouldn’t make sense. Many natural things are harmful – would you eat any wild mushroom? Tobacco in in cigarettes is natural. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it is safe. Conversely, just because something isn’t “natural” in a drug doesn’t mean it is unsafe.
One of the main problems with regulating dietary supplements is that they are not all the same. We probably don’t need heavy regulation for Vitamin C, except maybe in formulation/content. We know, for example, that it is water soluble, so it is hard to take too much. So, maybe Vitamin C doesn’t pose the same safety concerns as other supplements. However, a recent article in Nature, vol. 510, pages 462-4, described different scientific viewpoints about the efficacy of vitamin supplements in healthy populations. So, unless you have a Vitamin C deficiency, then there is probably little reason to take it.
As of August 5, 2014, all foods labeled “gluten-free” must meet the requirements of the gluten-free labeling final rule. The rule implements a portion of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, Title II of Public Law 108-282, which directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to issue a regulation to define the term “gluten-free.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million for foods that carry the “gluten-free” label, which is the lowest level that can be reliably detected using scientifically validated analytical methods.
According to the FDA, the “final rule provides a uniform standard definition to help consumers with celiac disease manage a gluten-free diet.” Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten–a protein occurring in wheat, rye, and barley–that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine. This damage limits patients’ ability to absorb nutrients and can lead to a host of serious health problems. While there’s no cure for celiac disease, following a strict gluten-free diet can alleviate its symptoms. The new labeling requirements will surely give patients with celiac disease a powerful tool for managing their health, and has been lauded by patient advocacy organizations such as the American Celiac Disease Alliance.
Yet, folks with celiac disease won’t be the only ones keeping an eye on the new labels. While only three million Americans have celiac disease, avoiding gluten has become a food fad. Eleven-percent of households report that they buy gluten-free products, and almost a third of Americans report that they are trying to avoid gluten. Food producers feeding the growing appetite for gluten-free have put the gluten-free label on foods that never included gluten, like vegetables and yogurt. As a result, U.S. sales of foods labeled gluten-free (which may or may not have had gluten to begin with) have doubled to $23 billion in the past year from $11.5 billion four years ago.
Unfortunately, current research doesn’t support the numerous health claims that have been made about gluten-free diets. Moreover, buying gluten-free isn’t necessarily a healthier option—many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber, and more sugar. It will be interesting to watch what happens to the sale of “gluten-free” foods as the gluten-free labeling final rule takes effect.
On Friday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a challenge to the public: provide the most accurate forecast of the spread of chikungunya virus in each of the countries in the Pan American Health Organization, win $150,000. Innovation prizes like DARPA’s are increasing in popularity, with public and private entities alike issuing challenges across a variety of subjects and methodologies. DARPA isn’t the first to announce a disease forecasting prize, either – the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently awarded a prize for predicting the timing and intensity of last winter’s flu season. But the choices both to focus on chikungunya and to do so using a prize fund are interesting ones that deserve further discussion.
Chikungunya is a viral disease spread by infected mosquitoes, much like the better-known malaria and dengue fever. Its symptoms often resemble those of dengue, whose other common name – breakbone fever – is telling. Chikungunya is rarely fatal, but it is often temporarily disabling, until the disease has run its course. And unfortunately, also like dengue, there is no specific treatment for chikungunya, although recent Phase I trials of a candidate vaccine appear to have been successful. But perhaps most importantly for DARPA’s purposes, chikungunya is also experiencing a resurgence in the Americas, including in the United States.
For the past couple years, a group at AHLA has been evaluating how health law is taught at law schools, with a view to prepare students for the practice of health law. AHLA surveyed many health law practice group chairs and other leaders. With that data, a large group of AHLA members and some full time professors evaluated health law curricula nationwide. A guidance document is now out (html or pdf):
We found some significant gaps, however, between what law
schools offer and what the profession hopes to see in new
health lawyers. Members of the American Health Lawyers
Association (AHLA) want to see more substantive classes in
fraud & abuse, business, tax, life sciences, and health care
reimbursement. Desired skills include working in teams,
processing practical transactional skills, and effectively
analyzing client-focused problems.
Two take-away slides from the AHLA survey of health law practice leaders and hiring partners:
It is important that the WHO committee affirmed the morality of compassionate use. This addresses the concern that any use of unapproved drugs is inherently exploitative. But there are huge ethical issues that still remain unaddressed and unanswered regarding experimental interventions.
In the wake of the Canadian government’s offering 1,000 doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine to the stricken nations, he also extends the argument from allocation of treatment to allocation of prophylaxis in this opinion piece in NBC News Health:
It is ethically appropriate in the midst of a deadly contagious epidemic to try both untested treatments and experimental preventative vaccines that have shown some promise in animals and no safety issues. But with only 1,000 doses of vaccine available, who should get them? And what do they need to be told?
The most ethical way to distribute limited experimental vaccine, is, as the WHO ethics group noted, with an eye toward collecting information on safety and efficacy. Rather than just handing out vaccine to a small group of people in countries that have seen Ebola outbreaks, it is important to learn as much as possible about whether the vaccine has any efficacy in humans and is safe.
The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to welcome our new 2014-2015 Student Fellows. In the coming year, each fellow will pursue independent scholarly projects related to health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics under the mentorship of Center faculty and fellows. They will also be regular contributors here at Bill of Health on issues related to their research.
It probably depends on who you ask. Proponents of fracking laud the energy independence, creation of jobs, environmentally friendly nature of natural gas, national security and economic benefits. Opponents to fracking have concerns about the impact to the environment, public health issues, and water use. Each side dismisses the other side’s arguments.
Perhaps a primer on hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is helpful. Fracking is the process of creating long vertical wells below the earth’s surface and then horizontal wells that break open the shale and allow the natural gas to be released and captured. Fracking uses millions of gallons of water to create these wells. A proprietary mix of chemicals in the water is used to create the fissures in the shale. Since the shale is far below the surface, proponents of fracking were able to convince Congress to exempt the industry from the Safe Water Drinking Act, which is now affectionately called the Halliburton Loophole.
The problem with assessing proponents and opponents positions on fracking is the lack of scientific data. While it may be true that the fracking wells are far below the surface, leaks in the fracking wells could impact the aquifers. The EPA is conducting a large scale drinking water impact study, with results that are eagerly anticipated to be released later this year. It could be that, for example, drinking water is/has been contaminated, but that with new regulations and novel innovations, these wells could be made safe such that drinking water is not contaminated. But, we don’t know if there is a problem without the scientific studies and if there is a problem, we need to determine if science/innovation can address the problem.
Amidst news from Spain that a 75-year-old Catholic priest has received the experimental treatment ZMapp for Ebola, Art Caplancritiques what he describes as the “bad science” behind choosing its recipients:
ZMapp is not the answer to the Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa. There is no chance of getting a significant amount of this drug made for many months. Deploying more health care workers, face guards, moon suits, gloves and antiseptic, along with restrictions on travel and burying the dead, is the only way to get the epidemic under control. [...]
The fact that a 75-year-old has been given the scarce drug is especially disturbing, not because he is 75 but because 75-year-olds do not have strong immune systems — something very important in battling a virus like Ebola. Moreover 75-year-olds often have other medical problems that complicate the ability of scientists to figure out if the drug is safe and if it is really working.
In testing unapproved, highly risky drugs like ZMapp, it is crucial that recipients not be so sick that they may well die regardless of whether they get the drug or not. Indeed, the recipients ought not be very sick so that side-effects can be seen and efficacy determined. To do that, doctors need to be able to monitor experimental subjects for months to make sure the drug does not damage their livers or cause any other fatal side-effect. So not every person infected with Ebola makes for the best recipient — younger, those more recently infected and those who can be closely monitored are among the “best” candidates.
You can read more of Art Caplan’s perspective on NBC News Health here.
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization, responding both to the international outcry over the rapidly rising number of Ebola cases and deaths across sub-Saharan Africa (and critiques of the speed of their action), and the news that western health care workers and ministry had found ways to get access to the untested-in-humans Ebola drug ZMapp, convened a panel of ethicists to offer recommendations on more widespread use of experimental Ebola treatments.
1) Whether it is ethical to use unregistered interventions with unknown adverse effects for possible treatment or prophylaxis. If it is, what criteria and conditions need to be satisfied before they can be used?
2) If it is ethical to use these unregistered interventions in the circumstances mentioned above, then what criteria should guide the choice of the intervention and who should receive priority for treatment or prevention?
We are excited to introduce Jonathan F. Will as a regular contributor to Bill of Health.
Jonathan is an Associate Professor of Law and is the founding director of the Bioethics & Health Law Center at Mississippi College School of Law. He is also on the affiliate faculty of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Jonathan teaches upper level courses in Health Law and Bioethics, and has been voted 1L Professor of the Year for his section of Civil Procedure five times since joining MC Law’s faculty in 2009. In addition to commenting for the American Journal of Bioethics, his recent work focuses on reproductive rights and the implications of the nationwide personhood movement.
Much attention has been paid recently to the contradicting decisions issued on the Halbig and King cases, which challenged the Obamacare subsidies offered to individuals purchasing insurance on federal exchanges. In a piece for Politico Magazine, Abbe R. Gluck finds a weakness in the Halbig plaintiffs’ arguments, in their own words. As Gluck writes:
What’s less known, however, is that in the 2012 constitutional case, these same challengers filed briefs describing Obamacare to the court in precisely the way they now say the statute cannot possibly be read. Namely, they assumed that the subsidies were available on the federal exchanges and went so far as to argue that the entire statute could not function as written without the subsidies. That’s a far cry from their argument now that the statute makes crystal clear that Congress intended to deny subsidies on the federal exchanges.
I am not a fan of the “gotcha” flavor that some aspects of this case have taken on, but the challengers’ 2012 statements are relevant as a legal matter because what the government has to prove to win—as a matter of black-letter law under the Chevron doctrine—is that the statute is ambiguous. (Chevron says that federal courts defer to the relevant agency’s reading of the statute when a federal statute is unclear—here, that agency is the IRS.)
The challengers have spent more than a year arguing that no reasonable reader of text could construe the statute in any way other than denying federal subsidies to insurance purchasers on exchanges operated by the federal government. But what about their statements from 2012—statements then echoed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito in their joint dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the constituitional challenge, NFIB v. Sebelius?
You can read more, including the relevant passages from the NFIB v. Sebelius briefs, here.
The reasons for different treatment are partly about logistics, partly about economics and, partly about a lack of any standard policy for giving out untested drugs in emergencies. Before this outbreak, ZMapp had only been tested on monkeys. Mapp, the tiny, San Diego based pharmaceutical company that makes the drug stated two years ago: “When administered one hour after infection [with Ebola], all animals survived…Two-thirds of the animals were protected even when the treatment, known as Zmapp, was administered 48 hours after infection.”
But privileged humans were always going to be the first ones to try it. ZMapp requires a lot of refrigeration and careful handling, plus close monitoring by experienced doctors and scientists—better to try it at a big urban hospital than in rural West Africa, where no such infrastructure exists. [...]
But it’s about more than logistics. Drugs based on monoclonal antibodies usually cost a lot—at least tens of thousands of dollars. This is obviously far more than poor people in poor nations can afford to pay; and a tiny company won’t enthusiastically give away its small supply of drug for free. It is likely that if they were going to donate drugs, it would be to people who would command a lot of press attention and, thus, investors and government money for further research—which is to say, not to poor Liberians, Nigerians or Guineans. [...]
In Part II of this blog on legal issues relating to the revival of phage therapy I discussed the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Myriad and Prometheus, which might present major obstacles to the patentability of phage-related technology (a more detailed analysis of the Myriad and Prometheus decisions is available here).
Yet, all is not lost. As indicated in Part II, Myriad does not directly affect the patentability of synthetically modified biological compounds and Prometheus would still allow patents on inventive applications of natural processes and correlations that add new features to “natural laws”. Thus there still seems to be considerable leeway for patenting within the area of page therapy.
One example, mentioned in a recent Nature article, could be the skillful selection and precise combination of different phages in order to attack one specific type of bacteria. Such selections, however, would face a tough battle to overcome the “additional features that add significantly more” and “not identical” thresholds set by Prometheus and Myriad. Another example with even better prospects for patentability relates to genetically modified phages that are – due to human intervention – enabled to target only specific bacteria. This technology was recently presented by MIT researchers at the 2014 American Society for Microbiology Meeting. The researchers led by Timothy Lu had genetically engineered phages that use a DNA-editing system called CRISPR to target and kill only antibiotic-resistant bacteria while leaving other susceptible cells untouched. The significant engineering and alteration of natural products and processes involved in such inventions would most likely meet both the Myriad and Prometheus standards.
Yet, while the USPTO has recently issued new patent eligibility guidance and the CAFC has begun to directly apply Prometheus and Myriad to reject patent claims in biotech cases (e.g. In re Roslin), many questions remain unsolved. In particular, it is still not sufficiently clear exactly how much modification is required to render a molecule or method sufficiently distinct from naturally occurring product and processes. And even if the patent-eligibility threshold could be met in extraordinarily circumstances, the claimed invention would still have to fulfil other patentability requirements such as novelty, non-obviousness and the written description-requirements. The threshold for these requirements, however, have been heightened in recent years (see e.g. KSR v. Teleflex (2007) , Nautilus (2014) etc.). Considering that phage therapy is almost a century old with a substantial common general knowledge and a state of the art employing routine methods, these crucial requirements might still prevent the patentability of many useful applications.
Three days ago I commented on a couple of legal issues raised in the recent Nature report “Phage therapy gets revitalized” by Sara Reardon. One challenge concerns the reluctance of pharma companies to broadly invest in the development of phage therapies. As pointed out in the report, this does of course very much (but not only) relate to the question of patentability. Various aspects might present obstacles to the patentability of technology relating to phage therapy. To not complicate the discussion and considering recent developments I decided to focus on some of aspects under US patent law.
Like in Europe, the first door to patentability that phage-related technology would need to pass concerns patent eligibility. In the last years the US Supreme Court has rendered an astonishing number of fundamental patent-decisions, including not less than four (!) landmark judgments on patent eligibility, i.e. Bilski v. Kappos (2010), Mayo v. Prometheus (2012) , AMP v. Myriad (2013) and Alice v. CLS (2014). Most relevant in this context are the decisions in Prometheus and Myriad.