So, what are some of the intriguing ethical questions of Kolata’s August 2d article? Here is one: when researchers conduct studies and ethics committees review protocols, resource allocation is an important consideration. If, as Kolata alleges, mediocre trials siphon eligible patients away from good trials, then there is a case to be made that IRBs and investigators need to ponder carefully the effects proposed trials will have on other studies- even when proposed trials have a favorable direct benefit-risk balance for volunteers who enter them.
Second, if resource allocation is a key consideration in realms where patients are scarce, investigators (and IRBs) need reliable criteria for assessing the broader social value of study protocols. They further need some way of being able to compare one protocol against a body of others that are either underway or in the pipeline. The current system provides no straightforward way of doing this.
Third, if 50% of trials fail to recruit sufficient numbers to produce meaningful results, investigators, IRBs, DSMBs, and granting agencies are doing a lousy job ensuring high ethical standards in human research. It is well established that, for any study to redeem the burdens that volunteers endure on enrollment, it must produce valuable findings. It is disturbing, to say the least, that many volunteers enter studies that go nowhere, and that investigators, IRBs, and funding agencies are not realistically projecting recruitment.
Last, Kolata suggests that many cancer trials are merely aimed at “polishing a doctor’s résumé.” It would make a useful contribution to the field of cancer research- and bioethics- to measure the frequency of this practice. Meantime, this inability of IRBs to detect this kind of conduct, and stop it in its tracks, signals an important deficiency in human protections. Which leads me to my next post… (photo credit: ziggy fresh 2006)