Job Opportunity: Legal Research Associate

Come join our team!

The Public Health Law Research program is hiring legal research associates to work on our policy surveillance project. The legal research associate will conduct legal research using Lexis and Westlaw, build historical law using HeinOnline, and conceptualize legal domains for empirical research. The associate will also code law for the creation of quantitative legal datasets at, and write legal briefs and other materials for

Learn more and apply today!

Second Amendment Rights and Mental Illness

By Mariam Ahmed, JD/MSPP (2016)

In recent years, there have been a multitude of state- and federal-level discussions about how to use law to minimize gun violence as active shooter events increase. During these deliberations, one point that has repeatedly been debated is whether people with mental illness should have their gun possession rights limited.

Here’s how the legal landscape currently looks.

Continue reading

Marriage Equality, Health, and Life Extension

Health care analysts have long studied the effects of relationships on health, e.g., married men live longer than unmarried.   Professor Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas Sociology Department has researched deeply into these issues.  She opened my eyes recently with insights as to how denial of marriage equality is a public health hazard because of the beneficial effects of marriage on health and life extension.

Here is a link to her Huff Post essay on this topic and a word version of the same:

 In Sickness As In Health

As the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether the Constitution requires recognition of same-sex marriage, many have speculated about the real-world consequences of marriage equality.  On at least one front the answer is clear.  Extending marriage rights to same-sex couples will improve the nation’s health. Continue reading

A needle in a haystack – finding the elusive solution to Indiana’s HIV Outbreak

By Nicolas Wilhelm, JD

Scott County, Indiana, which only has a few thousand residents, has historically had an average of five HIV cases per year. Since December 2014, however, the county has seen an outbreak, with more than 140 newly diagnosed cases. Dr. Jonathan Mermin, the director of the National Center for HIV/AIDs, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls this “one of the worst documented outbreaks of HIV among IV users in the past two decades.” Dr. Joan Duwve, the chief medical consultant with the Indiana State Department of Health, explained that the abuse of the prescription drug Opana was one of the catalysts for the increase in HIV cases, with some residents injecting it as frequently as 10 times a day, and sharing syringes with other members of their community.

HIV is mainly spread either by sexual contact with another person with HIV, or by sharing needles or syringes with someone who has HIV. One way to reduce the spread of the disease is to implement syringe exchange programs (SEPs) that reduce the transmission of blood-borne pathogens like HIV by providing free sterile syringes and collecting used syringes from injection-drug users (IDUs).

Continue reading

Building on 20 Years of Success: The Future Role of Law

By Scott Burris, JD

On this, the last day of National Public Health Week 2015, we’re looking forward by looking backward. There is nothing new about using law and policy to promote healthier environments, products and behavior. There is no good future for public health that does not include even more, and more effective, legal interventions.

Evan Anderson and I wrote in 2012 about the legal regulation of health-related behavior over the past half-century. The story we told offered several reasons for unabashed optimism about what law can do for health. The record is clear that law works, and works across a wide range of different health threats. We pointed to CDC lists of Great Public Health Achievements from the last century and the first decade of the 21st.   Every one of them — from high levels of vaccination, through motor vehicle safety and cancer prevention to maternal and child health – could not have been successful without law and policy. Continue reading

Making Connections & Collaborating for the Future of Public Health

As part of the Public Health Law Research program’s participation in National Public Health Week 2015, we have been sharing materials and resources under the daily themes. Today’s theme, Building Broader Connections, is about expanding partnerships and making connections to benefit public health.

We spoke with Laura Hitchcock, JD, Policy Research & Development Specialist for Public Health – Seattle & King County and the King County Executive/Department of Executive Services Partnerships Initiative Lead. We asked her to offer some insight from her work as a lawyer and researcher in a public health department.

PHLR: What role can researchers play in building partnerships with health departments and contributing to the policy-making discussion?

Laura Hitchcock, JD

Laura Hitchcock, JD

LH: Public health researchers can help to support development and refinement of evidence-based policies. Because policies are created in a political process, it is important for public health departments to continue to offer their scientific knowledge to support creation of effective policies, including repeal of ineffective policies or refinement of existing policies to better result in a healthy population by 2030. Health departments may need help to define local or state-focused areas for policy evaluation by working together with researchers, and should contribute to development of research agendas by identifying areas where policy makers, communities, medical professionals and others have concerns about the public’s health, and are likely to need support from researchers to know how to ‘plug in’ to research agenda development. Continue reading

FREE REGISTRATION! Families Matter: Ethically, Legally, and Clinically

Families Matter: Ethically, Legally, and Clinically

child_pediatrician_slide_270_200_85_c1March 18 – 20, 2015

Harvard Medical School
Joseph B. Martin Conference Center
77 Avenue Louis Pasteur
Boston, MA 02115

A full agenda is available on our website.

We often talk, in bioethics, about individual autonomy.  Yet our most challenging ethical, legal and clinical controversies in health care often center around family roles and responsibilities: How should we handle parents’ refusals of medically recommended treatment or, conversely, parents’ requests to medicate or surgically alter their children?  What should be known, and by whom, about a child’s genome, especially when genetic information effects other family members?  What weight should be given to family interests in decisions about a child’s health care?  How should we think about 3-parent embryos? Gamete donors? Gestational mothers? What rights and responsibilities should fathers have with regard to decisions about abortion and adoption, for example, as well as health care decisions for their offspring?  Health care decisions might be messier, but maybe they would also be better if we gave more attention to family matters, and how families matter.

This multidisciplinary program has been developed to inform and deliberate with ethicists, health care providers, attorneys and the public about changes in conceptions of the family and medical technologies and practices that challenge moral conventions and contemporary law.  Faculty experts and participants will engage in thoughtful discussion regarding a broad range of ethical and legal issues that arise from new ways of creating and new ways of understanding families and providing health care for expectant parents, growing fetuses, infants, children, adolescents….and their families.

Co-sponsored with the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

European Responses to the Ebola Crisis: Initiatives at the European Medicines Agency (EMA)

By Timo Minssen

The current Ebola outbreak already attracted much attention on “Bill of Health” resulting in some excellent blogs on a horrible topic.

While it is evident that the current health crisis requires both immediate responses and more sustainable changes in health care policy, research and regulation, medicines regulators are collaborating internationally to find innovative solutions enhancing evaluation of and access to potential new medicines to fight Ebola outbreaks. In a statement announced by the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities (ICMRA) in September 2014, regulators around the world led by the FDA and the EMA have vowed to collaborate in supporting accelerated evaluation of experimental new drugs to treat Ebola virus infections and say they will encourage submission of regulatory dossiers. This clearly backs up the World Health Organization’s (WHO) decision to test experimental Ebola treatments in infected patients in the current outbreak region in West Africa and to speed up the development of vaccines.

In the following I would like to summarize and discuss some of the recent European responses to the current crisis starting with an overview on recent initiatives at the EMA.

Like its US counterpart, the EMA leads a close and consistent dialogue with public and private developers of Ebola products and spends much effort in reviewing available information on the various experimental Ebola treatments currently under development. These experimental drugs range from experimental antivirals or vaccines based on the adenovirus or stomatitis vaccine to experimental therapies based on mono- and polyclonal antibody technologies. One of these unapproved antibody combination drugs – MAPP Biologicals’  ZMapp – has already been used in some care workers affected by Ebola. Other experimental drugs that are currently reviewed by the EMA include Biocryst’s BCX 4430, Fab’entech’s Hyperimmune horse sera, Sarepta’s AVI-7537, Toyama Chemicals and MediVector’s Favipiravir and Tekmira’s TKM-Ebola.

Other companies such as Bavarian Nordic  and the Russian Mikrogen are close to follow.

In addition to monitoring experimental drugs and enhancing global collaboration, the European Medicines Agency has like the FDA initiated several activities in order to support and speed up the development of these drugs towards market approval.  Continue reading

Call for Proposals: The 2016 Brocher Foundation Residencies

By Timo Minssen

I have just been informed that a new call for proposals for the 2016 Brocher Foundation residencies has been launched. I can warmly recommend this splendid opportunity to any researcher or group of researchers in the fields of Bioethics, Medical Anthropology, Health Economics, Health Policy, Health Law, Philosophy of Medicine and Health, Medical Humanities, Social Science Perspectives on Health, Medical Ethics, or History of Medicine.

A grant by the Brocher Foundation enables international researchers to carry out their projects for a 1-4 month period at one of the most beautiful places in Europe. The Brocher Foundation’s seat is located in Switzerland at the shores of the beautiful Lake Geneva. The location is very close to the French border and to international organisations particularly relevant to the health sector, such as WHO, WTO, WIPO, UNHCR, ILO, WMA, ICRC, and others.

The following information has been extracted from the webpage of the Brocher Foundation:  Continue reading

The Medical Liability Climate: The Calm Between Storms Is the Time For Reforms

By: Michelle Mello, JD, PhD
Stanford Law School and Stanford University School of Medicine

On November 4, Californians will vote on Proposition 46, a ballot initiative to adjust the $250,000 state’s noneconomic damages cap in medical malpractice cases for inflation, raising it to $1.1 million virtually overnight.  It’s a long overdue move – California has one of the most stringent damages caps in the country, and the cap really affects access to the legal system.  Now is the perfect time to do it, because after years of turbulence, the medical liability environment has calmed.

In an analysis published October 30 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), David Studdert, Allen Kachalia and I report that data from the National Practitioner Data Bank show that the frequency and average cost of paid malpractice claims have been declining.  The rate of paid claims against physicians decreased from 18.6 to 9.9 paid claims per 1,000 physicians between 2002 and 2013, with an estimated annual average decrease of 6.3% for MDs and a 5.3% decrease for DOs. Among claims that resulted in some payment, the median amount paid increased from $133,799 in 1994 to $218,400 in 2007, an average annual increase of 5%. Since 2007 the median payment has declined, reaching $195,000 in 2013, an average annual decrease of 1.1%.

Trends in insurance premiums vary more according to which market you’re looking at, according to data from the Medical Liability Monitor’s Annual Rate Survey, but also look pretty favorable overall. None of the locations we examined showed large increases over the last 10 years, and most showed flat or declining premiums.  Continue reading

Medical Marijuana Delivery May Not Be As “Eazy” As It Seems

By Arielle Lusardi, BA, JD/MPH (’17)

As state medical marijuana laws proliferate throughout the country, companies are trying to secure their own piece of the action. In July 2014, a San Francisco-based start-up company, called Eaze, launched a mobile application that facilitates the delivery of medical marijuana in California. Continue reading

Being Blunt About Product Safety: The problems with the lack of uniformity in medical marijuana laws

By Holly Jones, BA, JD candidate

How can the federal government ensure consumer safety in an industry that distributes a substance the federal government classifies as an illegal drug? The federal government effectively banned the use of marijuana nationwide with the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance according. Regardless of this federal prohibition, 23 states and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for medical use. A lack of federal legalization allows states to independently enact their own distinct medical marijuana laws.

In a dataset released yesterday on, the distinctions become clear — there are currently 24 variations of medical marijuana program product safety guidelines in the United States, some of which bear little, if any, resemblance to one another. While some states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, provide incredibly comprehensive guidelines for their medical marijuana programs, others provide skeletal legislation and instead grant a great deal of autonomy to local jurisdictions.

While variation may allow researchers to more effectively evaluate the approaches, from a patient-safety perspective, uniformity has its advantages. Continue reading

The Revival of Phage Therapy to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) – Part III: What about patent protection and alternative incentives?

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.

Continue reading

The Revival of Phage Therapy to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance – Part II: What about patent protection and alternative incentives?

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.

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

The Fight Against Antimicrobial Resistance: Important recent publications

One of my previous blogs discussed the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). I concluded that antimicrobial resistance is a growing and complex threat involving multifaceted legal, socio-economic and scientific aspects. This requires sustained and coordinated action on both global and local levels.

A recent medical review on drug resistant tuberculosis supports these findings and provides further fodder to the debate. In their study, which was published in April 2014 in The Lancet – Respiratory Medicine, the authors analyzed the epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, management, implications for health-care workers, and ethical and medico-legal aspects of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis and other resistant strains. In particular, the authors discussed the increasing threat of functionally untreatable tuberculosis, and the problems that it creates for public health and clinical practice. The paper concludes that the growth of highly resistant strains of tuberculosis make the development of new drugs and rapid diagnostics for tuberculosis—and increased funding to strengthen global control efforts, research, and advocacy—even more pressing.

This was also recognized in the recent WHO’s Global Surveillance Report on AMR, which was published this April. It is the first WHO report that studied the problem of AMR on a global level. Noting that resistance is occurring across many different infectious agents, the report concentrates on antibiotic resistance in seven different bacteria responsible for common, serious diseases such as bloodstream infections (sepsis), diarrhoea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhoea. The results demonstrate a wide-spread growth of resistance to antibiotics, especially “last resort” antibiotics. In particular the report reveals that this serious threat is no longer a mere forecast for the future. AMR is a contemporary problem in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Consequently the WHO report concludes that antibiotic resistance is now a major threat to public health that needs to be tackled on a global level.

Continue reading

National Conference on HIV Criminalization

By Sterling Johnson, JD

Grinnell College in Iowa will host the first National Conference on HIV Criminalization next week, June 2-5 on its campus.

One of the stated goals of the conference will be to discuss the recent legislative changes in Iowa and how to apply the lessons to other states with laws that apply specifically to people with HIV.

Currently, 43 states criminalize actions by HIV-positive individuals. Check out our map at for more details.

US states with HIV criminalization laws

In 2009, Iowa became the center of this battle when Nick Rhoades, who is HIV-positive, had a one-time sexual encounter with another man, Adam Plendl. Three months after, Mr. Rhoades was arrested on suspicion of engaging in intimate contact without disclosing his HIV-positive status. At the time of the sexual encounter, he used a condom, had an undetectable viral load and his sexual partner did not contract HIV; however, Nick Rhoades was sentenced to 25 years in prison and classified as a sex offender. The case is now is now on appeal and being argued by Lambda Legal. The Iowa court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the case is now under review by the Iowa Supreme Court. Mr. Rhoades’s case led to community organizers lobbying to reform the HIV criminalization law in Iowa. Continue reading

Research Round-Up: New Publications from the PHLR SciVal Experts Community

In honor of last week’s National Public Health Week, we have a lot of fresh, new PHLR. The latest crop of papers from public health law researchers touch on a number of important points and issues including transportation safety, implementation, tobacco control, and media presentation of public health law. Check out Scott Burris’s brief summaries after the jump!

Continue reading

New regulatory pathways and incentives for sustainable antibiotics: Recent European & US Initiatives

Please find attached a ppt presentation on “New regulatory pathways and incentives for sustainable antibiotics: Recent European & US Initiatives” given on March 7, 2014 at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.  The presentation was followed by a discussion moderated by US patent attorney Melissa Hunter-Ensor, Partner at Saul Ewing, Boston.

I started out by emphasizing increasing problems of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on a global level, providing new statistics and facts. This was followed by a discussion of main reasons for these alarming developments, such as inappropriate use in agriculture and medicine, insufficient precautions, lack of education, climate change, travel behavior, insufficient collaboration and funding of R&D, scientific complexities, and the problem that incentives provided by the traditional innovation system model often fail in the case of antibiotics.

Next the presentation focused on a variety of solution models that could be discussed to fight AMR. These include both conservational and preventive approaches comprising use limitations, increased public awareness, and better hygiene, but also reactive push & pull strategies, such as increased investments, new collaborative models for R&D in antibiotics, prizes, “sui generis” IP-related incentives, regulatory responses and new pathways for approval.

Continue reading

Happy Public Health Week: “We’re Good Enough, We’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Us”

By Scott Burris

We may be living in a golden age of group-think. A weekly reminder is poor Paul Krugman railing against the apparently universal belief in America and Europe that we’ve got to cut budgets right now or disaster will strike. He calls this a Zombie idea, a false claim that has been falsified with plenty of stakes in the heart, silver bullets and blows to the head, but will not stay in the grave.

Closer to home for us in public health is the claim that Americans don’t like government rules regulating their behavior and meddling with their preferences.  Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have delivered some solid blows to the idea that paternalism typically messes with solid preferences. As we celebrate Public Health Week, I want to highlight two recent papers that show that Americans, like the children in Mary Poppins, actually like their nannies, who do some pretty great things.

Public Health Law Research has recently posted the manuscript of a paper that Evan Anderson and I have prepared for the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. The paper describes the dramatic rise of law as a tool of public health since the 1960s in five major domains: traffic safety, gun violence, tobacco use, reproductive health and obesity.  These topical stories illustrate both law’s effectiveness and limitations as a public health tool. They also establish its popularity by the most apt of metrics – the willingness of legislators to enact it. The one picture worth a thousand words, below, depicts the rapid adoption of a variety of interventions by state legislatures. (By the way, the five examples also show that public health law research can and does influence the development and refinement of legal interventions over time.)

Continue reading