Ethics of experimental Ebola interventions

In “Ethical considerations of experimental interventions in the Ebola outbreak“, published yesterday by The Lancet, Zeke Emanuel and I discuss what we take to be the key ethical questions about the use of Zmapp and other investigational agents in the current Ebola epidemic. In essence, we argue that the national and international response to the epidemic should focus on containment and strengthening health systems, rather than experimental treatments and vaccines; that experimental interventions, if they are used, should be distributed fairly and only in the context of clinical trials; and that advance planning is needed for research in future Ebola and other epidemics, as well as for making any proven interventions against Ebola accessible in affected regions.

The full article is available open access. Be sure to check out the Lancet’s new Ebola Resource Centre as well, which includes many other interesting pieces and a podcast (access here podcast) covering—among other things—our paper.

Art Caplan: WHO Ethics Committee on Ebola Just a Start

Art Caplan has a series of new opinion pieces out on the WHO ethics advisory committee meeting that approved the use of experimental drugs to treat patients ill with Ebola.

He suggests deeper exploration of issues of informed consent, corporate responsibility, and resource allocation in this blog post for The Health Care Blog. As he writes in his piece in NBC News Health:

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.

You can read more at the links above.

Art Caplan: Ebola Treatment Distribution is Troubling

Amidst news from Spain that a 75-year-old Catholic priest has received the experimental treatment ZMapp for Ebola, Art Caplan critiques 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.

Ebola, Ethics, and the WHO Getting to Yes

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.

The issues considered by the ethicists included:

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?

Continue reading

Art Caplan: Why do two white Americans get the Ebola serum while hundreds of Africans die?

As the WHO announced today that medical ethicists will convene next week in New York to discuss the use of experimental medicines in the West African Ebola outbreak, Art Caplan has a timely new opinion piece in the Washington Post asking why only white American victims of the Ebola outbreak have been treated with an experimental serum. Caplan argues that the decision was a question of economics:

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. [...]

To get Caplan’s full perspective, read the full article.

Immediate Job Opening: Clinical Ethicist at Boston Children’s Hospital

Clinical Ethicist

Boston Children’s Hospital

Boston, MA

The Office of Ethics at Boston Children’s Hospital has an immediate opening for a clinical ethicist. 

Applications are being accepted online, at www.childrenshospital.jobs.   To locate the position on the website, enter “32902BR” in the box labeled “AutoReqID.”

Boston Children’s Hospital is a 395-licensed-bed children’s hospital in the Longwood Medical and Academic Area of Boston, Massachusetts. At 300 Longwood Avenue, Children’s is adjacent to its teaching affiliate, Harvard Medical School.

Job description: Clinical Ethicist 32902BR

The Clinical Ethicist provides formal and informal ethics consultations.  Organizes and participates in clinical ethics rounds, and collaborates with clinical teams, patients and families, to address ethical issues in pediatric health care and research. Develops ethics resources and education and serves as a facilitator for change directed toward strengthening the Hospital staff’s sense of moral responsibility and moral community.

Continue reading

The Revival of Phage Therapy to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance – Part I: What are the legal implications?

Last week I blogged about recent publications concerning the global battle against anti-microbial resistance (AMR). I did not mention a recent paper published in the June 2014 issue of Nature, which describes how European and U.S. researchers and authorities are increasingly considering clinical research in unconventional areas to fight AMR. The news-report “Phage therapy gets revitalized” by Sara Reardon concentrates on the use of viruses (bacteriophages) to battle bacteria. The idea is not new, but apart from some applications in the former Soviet Union, it never was established as a major research area elsewhere. In particular the paper examines the European Phagoburn project, which is the first large, multi-centre clinical trial of phage therapy for human infections, funded by the European Commission. It involves a phase I-II trial of using viruses for the treatment of bacterial infection following burns. The European Union (EU) is contributing €3.8 million (US$5.2 million) to the Phagoburn study demonstrating that it is taking the approach seriously. Meanwhile, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced in March 2014  that it regards phage therapy as one of seven key areas in its strategy to fight antibiotic resistance.

So far Western practice has concentrated on treating complex or unidentified infections with broad-spectrum antibiotics. These antibiotics would typically eliminate multiple types of bacteria, including those who have beneficial effects to the human organism. Despite resulting in direct negative consequences for patients, e.g. gastrointestinal disorders, these “atomic bomb” approaches can result in biological niches where resistant “bad bugs” can prosper. This is the reason why scientists are turning towards more targeted approaches. This is where phage therapy comes into play. Like “guided missiles”, phage-therapy has the ability to kill just species of bacteria or strain. Quoting the US virologist Ryland Young and the head of the scientific council at the Eliava Institute in Tblisi (Georgia), Mzia Kutateladze, the Nature report explains how nature offers an almost unlimited source of different phages and that so far no identical phages have ever been found. For this reason it is fairly simple to identify a particular phage for a bacterial target. If the bacterium should become resistant against that particular phage, researchers would modify the viral cocktails that are used for treatment by adding or substituting phages. At the Eliava Institute such updates occur – according to the report – approximately every 8 months and the scientists would not be fully aware of the precise combination of phages in the cocktail.

In light of these advantages the recent interest of US and EU stakeholders in phage therapy comes as no surprise. However, the scientific and legal challenges confronting these projects are complex. After all we are talking about viruses here, which triggers alarm bells with regard to public perception, safety concerns, and the regulation of relevant research. It also appears questionable if – or under what circumstances – regulatory authorities would be willing to grant market approval for such a rapidly changing product like in the case of e.g. influenza vaccines. Another significant problem for the development of new phage therapies, also addressed in the paper, lies in the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to invest into the field. The potential obstacles for more private involvement in phage therapy are many and range from considerable risks of failure, reputational damage, and unforeseeable side-effects to insufficient certainty with regard to intellectual property protection and guarantees of a profit.

Continue reading

My Slate Article on the Importance of Replicating Science

I have a long article in Slate (with Chris Chabris) on the importance of replicating science. We use a recent (and especially bitter) dispute over the failure to replicate a social psychology experiment as an occasion for discussing several things of much broader import, including:

  • The facts that replication, despite being a cornerstone of the scientific method, is rarely practiced (and even less frequently published) not only in psychology but across science, and that when such studies are conducted, they frequently fail to replicate the original findings (let this be a warning to those of you who, like me, cite empirical literature in your scholarship);
  • Why replications are so rarely conducted and published, relative to their importance (tl;dr: it’s the incentives, stupid);
  • Why it’s critical that this aspect of the academic research culture change (because academic science doesn’t only affect academic scientists; the rest of us have a stake in science, too, including those who fund it, those who help researchers produce it (i.e., human subjects), those who consume and build on it (other scholars and policy-makers), and all of us who are subject to myriad laws and policies informed by it); and
  • Some better and worse ways of facilitating that cultural change (among other things, we disagree with Daniel Kahneman’s most recent proposal for conducting replications).

Good news for many South African HIV patients—with a big glitch

On Wednesday, South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that, as of January 2015, HIV-positive patients in the country would start receiving free antiretroviral treatment once their CD4 count fell below 500, instead of current threshold of less than 350. Some patient groups would start receiving antiretrovirals immediately upon being diagnosed with HIV infection, regardless of their clinical stage.

Last month, Till Bärnighausen, Dan Wikler and I predicted in PLoS Medicine that sub-Saharan nations would move in the direction that South Africa is now moving, and pointed out a big complication. This policy change might make several gigantic trials of so-called treatment-as-prevention in sub-Saharan Africa impossible to complete successfully. As we explained, these trials remain important for assessing the potential of treatment-as-prevention to curb the spread of HIV in general populations (with many different relationship types and different levels of care delivery and support).

In treatment-as-prevention, antiretrovirals are offered to patients immediately upon their diagnosis with HIV. The hope is that very early treatment would be better for these patients and prevent them from infecting others. We also offered some ways out of this mess, but they involve untraditional approaches to research conduct and to policy. Our piece was featured in the June issue of UNAIDS’ HIV This Month.

Michelle Meyer: Misjudgements Will Drive Social Trials Underground

Michelle Meyer has a new piece in Nature – an open letter on the Facebook study signed by a group of bioethicists (including PFC’s Executive Director Holly Fernandez Lynch) in which she argues that a Facebook study that manipulated news feeds was not definitively unethical and offered valuable insight into social behavior.

From the piece:

“Some bioethicists have said that Facebook’s recent study of user behavior is “scandalous”, “violates accepted research ethics” and “should never have been performed”. I write with 5 co-authors, on behalf of 27 other ethicists, to disagree with these sweeping condemnations (see go.nature.com/XI7szI).

We are making this stand because the vitriolic criticism of this study could have a chilling effect on valuable research. Worse, it perpetuates the presumption that research is dangerous.”

Read the full article.

Petrie-Flom Center Launches New Book on Human Subjects Research Regulation

Human Subjects Research Regulations Book CoverThe Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to announce publication of Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future (MIT Press 2014), co-edited by Petrie-Flom Center Faculty Director, I. Glenn Cohen, and Executive Director, Holly Fernandez Lynch.  This edited volume stems from the Center’s 2012 annual conference, which brought together leading experts in a conversation about whether and how the current system of human subjects research regulation in the U.S. ought to change to fit evolving trends, fill substantial gaps, and respond to identified shortcomings.

The book is currently available from MIT Press and Amazon, in hardcover and paperback.  We will be hosting a book discussion at Harvard Law School on October 22, and in Baltimore on December 5 at Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIMR)’s annual Advancing Ethical Research Conference.  Details will be announced shortly.

 From the book jacket:

 The current framework for the regulation of human subjects research emerged largely in reaction to the horrors of Nazi human experimentation, revealed at the Nuremburg trials, and the Tuskegee syphilis study, conducted by U.S. government researchers from 1932 to 1972. This framework, combining elements of paternalism with efforts to preserve individual autonomy, has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. Yet, as this book documents, it has significant flaws—including its potential to burden important research, overprotect some subjects and inadequately protect others, generate inconsistent results, and lag behind developments in how research is conducted. Invigorated by the U.S. government’s first steps toward change in over twenty years, Human Subjects Research Regulation brings together the leading thinkers in this field from ethics, law, medicine, and public policy to discuss how to make the system better. The result is a collection of novel ideas—some incremental, some radical—for the future of research oversight and human subject protection.

After reviewing the history of U.S. research regulations, the contributors consider such topics as risk-based regulation; research involving vulnerable populations (including military personnel, children, and prisoners); the relationships among subjects, investigators, sponsors, and institutional review boards; privacy, especially regarding biospecimens and tissue banking; and the possibility of fundamental paradigm shifts.

Contributors
 Adam Braddock, Alexander Morgan Capron, Ellen Wright Clayton, I. Glenn Cohen, Susan Cox, Amy L. Davis, Hilary Eckert, Barbara J. Evans, Nir Eyal, Heidi Li Feldman, Benjamin Fombonne, Elisa A. Hurley, Ana S. Iltis, Gail H. Javitt, Greg Koski, Nicole Lockhart, Holly Fernandez Lynch, Michael McDonald, Michelle N. Meyer, Osagie K. Obasogie, Efthimios Parasidis, Govind Persad, Rosamond Rhodes, Suzanne M. Rivera, Zachary M. Schrag, Seema K. Shah, Jeffrey Skopek, Laura Stark, Patrick Taylor, Anne Townsend, Carol Weil, Brett A. Williams, Leslie E. Wolf

For a more information, including the full table of contents, check out the book on the MIT Press website

Translating “ELSI” into Policy

by Guest Blogger Wylie Burke MD, PhD.

When the Human Genome Project began in 1990, the National Center for Human Genome Research – now the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) – created a research funding program for evaluation of the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of genomics. ELSI scholars study a wide range of issues, from the responsible conduct of genomic research, to implementation and outcomes of genetic testing programs, to intellectual property challenges.  But how should this research be evaluated? In particular, what impact should we expect for this kind of research? These questions are particularly challenging for those of us who work in the multidisciplinary Centers of Excellence in ELSI Research (CEERs) funded by the NHGRI, because these centers have been given a programmatic charge to consider policy-relevant questions and help to inform the policy-making process. A group of ELSI researchers, representing seven CEERs, have been deliberating these questions and recently published a paper with recommendations.

We noted, first of all, that policy-making occurs in many venues. Although discussions often focus on governmental policies, policy-making in other venues often influences genomic translation, including actions as diverse as Institutional Review Board (IRB) decisions about consent and return of results; guidelines promulgated by professional organizations; funding decisions of health insurers; and investment decisions of venture capital.   In addition, policy-making in one arena may influence the need for policies in another. For example, practice guidelines influence the use of genetic testing and may in turn influence how clinical data are accessed to evaluate test outcomes, or how IRBs decide what genetic results should be returned to research participants. Continue reading

Art Caplan: Facebook Experiment Used Silicon Valley Trickery

Art Caplan has a new opinion piece on NBCNews about a recently published study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where a  Facebook scientist teamed up with two academics to subtly tweak the news feeds of nearly 700,000 Facebook users.

From the piece:

“The question of whether or not an experiment is ethical hinges upon the question of “informed consent.” Generally, this means that a subject in a study needs to have basic information about the study he’s participating in, understand the nature of the experiment and its risks and benefits, and have the ability to withhold his consent without fear of harm or retribution.

The authors of the study argue that they obtained subject consent: Their manipulation of Facebook users’ emotions was “… consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.” This is nonsense; it’s not informed consent. It is an old Silicon Valley trick for systematically eliminating the legal rights of its customers.”

Read the full article.

Informed consent in social media research

Guest post by Winston Chiong, MD, PhD

Cross-posted from Geripal

facebook research ethics

I’m simultaneously a behavioral researcher, an ethicist, and a hopeless Facebook addict, so I’ve been thinking a lot about last week’s controversial study (Kramer et al, PNAS 2014) in which researchers manipulated the emotional content of 689,003 Facebook users’ News Feeds. In summary, users who saw fewer of their friends’ posts expressing negative emotions went on to express more positive and fewer negative emotions in their own posts, while users who saw fewer posts expressing positive emotions went on to express more negative and fewer positive emotions in their posts.

This provides evidence for “emotional contagion” through online social networks—that we feel better when exposed to other people’s positive emotions, and worse when exposed to negative emotions. This finding isn’t obvious, since some have suggested that seeing other people’s positive posts might make us feel worse if our own lives seem duller or sadder in comparison.

The journal and authors clearly did not anticipate a wave of online criticism condemning the study as unethical. (Full disclosure: one of the authors is also a researcher at UCSF, though I don’t think I’ve ever met her.) In particular, the authors claimed that participants agreed to Facebook’s Data Use Policy when they created their Facebook accounts, and this constituted informed consent to research. Looking at the Common Rule governing research on human subjects, it’s clear that the requirements of informed consent (including a description of the purposes of the research, expected duration, risks/benefits, compensation for harms…) are not met just because subjects click “Agree” to this sort of blanket terms of use. There are exceptions to these requirements, and some people have suggested that the research could have qualified for a waiver of informed consent if the researchers had applied for one. I’m not so sure about that argument, and in any case the researchers hadn’t.

While the online discussion about this study has been fascinating, I think there are a few points that haven’t received as much attention as I think they deserve:  Continue reading

How an IRB Could Have Legitimately Approved the Facebook Experiment—and Why that May Be a Good Thing

Image courtest Flickr

Image courtesy Flickr

By now, most of you have probably heard—perhaps via your Facebook feed itself—that for one week in January of 2012, Facebook altered the algorithms it uses to determine which status updates appeared in the News Feed of 689,003 randomly-selected users (about 1 of every 2500 Facebook users). The results of this study—conducted by Adam Kramer of Facebook, Jamie Guillory of the University of California, San Francisco, and Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell—were just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Although some have defended the study, most have criticized it as unethical, primarily because the closest that these 689,003 users came to giving voluntary, informed consent to participate was when they—and the rest of us—created a Facebook account and thereby agreed to Facebook’s Data Use Policy, which in its current iteration warns users that Facebook “may use the information we receive about you . . . for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Some of the discussion has reflected quite a bit of misunderstanding about the applicability of federal research regulations and IRB review to various kinds of actors, about when informed consent is and isn’t required under those regulations, and about what the study itself entailed. In this post, after going over the details of the study, I explain (more or less in order):

  • How the federal regulations define “human subjects research” (HSR)
  • Why HSR conducted and funded solely by an entity like Facebook is not subject to the federal regulations
  • Why HSR conducted by academics at some institutions (like Cornell and UCSF) may be subject to IRB review, even when that research is not federally funded
  • Why involvement in the Facebook study by two academics nevertheless probably did not trigger Cornell’s and UCSF’s requirements of IRB review
  • Why an IRB—had one reviewed the study—might plausibly have approved the study with reduced (though not waived) informed consent requirements
  • And why we should think twice before holding academics to a higher standard than corporations

Continue reading

REGISTRATION OPEN: 9/18 conference on post-trial access

pills_genericvariety_slidePost-Trial Responsibilities: Ethics and Implementation

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Harvard Law School, Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East AB, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

This event is free and open to the public, but due to limited seating registration is required. Please register online.

Law, policy, and guidance are vague, sometimes conflicting, and generally lacking in concrete solutions for questions regarding post-trial responsibilities. The issues are complex and demand thoughtful discourse to move the clinical trial enterprise towards meaningful solutions.  Areas that currently lack clarity include:

  • What types of interventions or resources should be included within post-trial responsibilities?
  • What is a reasonable duration for post-trial responsibilities to extend?
  • What is the mission and purpose of various stakeholders in the conduct of clinical research and how do these roles intersect with post-trial access responsibilities?

This conference will bring together diverse stakeholders to address and develop consensus around some of these questions.

Continue reading

DUE 6/3: Call for Abstracts: Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

            PFC_Logo_300x300                    FDLI_Logo_380

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Food and Drug Law Institute are pleased to announce an upcoming collaborative academic symposium:

Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

Monday, October 20, 2014 

Washington, DC

We are currently seeking abstracts for academic presentations/papers on the following topics:  Continue reading

Call for Abstracts: Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

PFC_Logo_300x300FDLI_logo_pink

 

 

 

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Food and Drug Law Institute are pleased to announce an upcoming collaborative academic symposium:

Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

Monday, October 20, 2014 

Washington, DC

We are currently seeking abstracts for academic presentations/papers on the following topics:

  • Stem cell therapies
  • Nanotechnologies
  • Genetic (and biomarker) tests
  • Gene therapies
  • Personalized medicine
  • Comparative efficacy research
  • Drug resistant pathogens
  • Globalized markets
  • Tobacco
  • GMO
  • Bioterrorism countermeasures
  • Mobile health technologies
  • Health IT
  • Drug shortages
  • Other related topics

Abstracts should be no longer than 1 page, and should be emailed to Davina Rosen Marano at dsr@fdli.org by Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Questions should also be directed to Davina Rosen Marano.

We will notify selected participants by the end of June.  Selected participants will present at the symposium, and will be expected to submit a completed article by December 15, 2014 (after the event) to be considered for publication in a 2015 issue of FDLI’s Food and Drug Law Journal (FDLJ).  Publication decisions will be made based on usual FDLJ standards.

TOMORROW: Hot Topics at Presidential Commission on Bioethics

Hot Topics at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues: Plus Q&A on Careers in Law and Bioethics!

Friday, April 11, 2014, 12:00pm

Pound Hall 100, Harvard Law School, 1563 Massachusetts Ave.

Please join us for an update from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, delivered by Michelle Groman (HLS ’05), Associate Director at the Bioethics Commission.  Since its inception in 2009, President Obama’s Commission has issued reports on synthetic biology, human subjects research, whole genome sequencing, pediatric medical countermeasure research, and incidental findings. Currently, the Commission is examining the ethical implications of neuroscience research and the application of neuroscience research findings as part of the federal government’s BRAIN Initiative.  The Commission also has developed educational materials to support teaching of bioethics ideas, principles, and theories in traditional and non-traditional settings.

This final half-hour of this event will feature a discussion of career opportunities in law and bioethics, led by Ms. Groman and Holly Fernandez Lynch, Petrie-Flom Center Executive Director.  Bring your questions!

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be served.

For questions, contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu, or 617-496-4662.

Cosponsored by the Office of Career Services at Harvard Law School. This event is supported by the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Whose Business Is It If You Want To Induce a Bee To Sting Your Penis?

Photo source: WikiMedia Commons

You might think that the answer to this question is obvious. Clearly, it’s your business, and yours alone, right? I mean, sure, maybe it would be considerate to discuss the potential ramifications of this activity with your partner. And you might want to consider the welfare of the bee. But other than that, whose business could it possibly be?

Well, as academic empiricists know, what others can do freely, they often require permission to do. Journalists, for instance, can ask potentially traumatizing questions to children without having to ask whether the risk to these children of interviewing them is justified by the expected knowledge to be gained; academics, by contrast, have to get permission from their institution’s IRB first (and often that permission never comes).

So, too, with potentially traumatizing yourself — at least if you’re an academic who’s trying to induce a bee to sting your penis in order to produce generalizable knowledge, rather than for some, um, other purpose.

Yesterday, science writer Ed Yong reported a fascinating self-experiment conducted by Michael Smith, a Cornell graduate student in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior who studies the behavior and evolution of honeybees. As Ed explains, when, while doing his other research, a honeybee flew up Smith’s shorts and stung his testicles, Smith was surprised to find that it didn’t hurt as much as he expected. He began to wonder which body parts would really smart if they were stung by a bee and was again surprised to learn that there was a gap in the literature on this point. So he decided to conduct an experiment on himself. (In addition to writing about the science of bee stings to the human penis, Ed is also your go-to guy for bat fellatio and cunnilingus, the spiky penises of beetles and spiders, and coral orgies.)

As Ed notes, Smith explains in his recently published paper reporting the results of his experiment, Honey bee sting pain index by body location, that

Cornell University’s Human Research Protection Program does not have a policy regarding researcher self-experimentation, so this research was not subject to review from their offices. The methods do not conflict with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, revised in 1983. The author was the only person stung, was aware of all associated risks therein, gave his consent, and is aware that these results will be made public.

As Ed says, Smith’s paper is “deadpan gold.” But on this point, it’s also wrong. Continue reading