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Topic: Risk
October 8, 2013 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

My last blog, written just a few weeks ago, discussed the case of two neurosurgeons who had purposely introduced bowel bacteria into the brains of patients with glioblastoma, a process they termed “probiotic intracranial therapy”. In that blog I expressed the opinion that the physicians had inappropriately exposed their patients to excessive risk and compared the incident to assault. In the brief time since then high risk research has been covered in both the biomedical literature and the popular press. We have also seen more news regarding treatments with bowel bacteria indicating that fecal bacteria may well have their place in medical treatment. Their place, however, is in the gut not the brain.

In the journal Lancet, David Shaw argues that Institutional Review Boards “should never reject a study because it poses too high a risk to participants.” Institutional Review Boards are the mechanisms that review research protocols designed to be conducted with human subjects. Among the charges to Institutional Review Boards is to evaluate the balance between the potential benefits and potential risks of a proposed research project. When assessing protocols of prospective therapies they need to identify that there is adequate reason, both theoretical and experimental, to think the therapy might work. They should also assure that the risks of the proposed study do not endanger the participants out of proportion to the potential benefits. These dangers were excessive in the well known Tuskegee syphilis studies and similar studies in Guatemala as well as the supposed research in the Nazi atrocities. This horrendous history drove many of the protections we now use to safeguard human research participants.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.