Thursday, September 24, 2009

Research data from developing countries as 'the new gold'

The ethical complexities involved in outsourcing of clinical trials in developing countries have been discussed over the last few years, and by the looks of things, this discussion will continue. For different reasons. First, and probably foremost, because the practice itself is lucrative: there are millions of dollars to be saved by holding your trial in Mumbai rather than Miami, and success in a clinical trial, especially when translated into a well-marketed pharmaceutical drug, can reap billions of dollars in profit. Second, no one to my knowledge has ever said that the practice was morally impermissible or that it should be prohibited. It has always been a matter of how to ethically conduct such studies in impoverished communities whose members may have little to no understanding of the nature of the research and will probably not benefit much directly from their involvement. Making research ethical in such contexts has always been a matter of adding protections and safeguards. Perhaps being ethical in a deeper sense would involve chipping away at the gaping inequalities in power and wealth between the researchers and the researched, but almost no one wants to touch that one: not researchers, not their funders, and (sadly) not governments.

The Guardian in the United Kingdom has a short piece on this issue. Frankly, the article itself adds little to the debate, but some of the comments on the article are worth looking at. Some depict outsourced trials in terms of exploitation, others as opportunity; and opportunity for local communities and trial participants, not just those trying to make a profit. For example, in poor countries, getting into a drug trial might be synonymous with gaining entry to a higher standard of medical care than one would otherwise get, and prohibiting this opportunity in the name of ethics, to some observers, sounds perverse. Communities might also gain some ancillary benefits in terms of facilities or training. And yet the possibilities for exploitation are still there, and these benefits (sometimes real, sometimes not) do not silence the concerns. So outsourced trials come across as a kind of mixed blessing, a partly dirty business, but not all bad.

A detailed and nuanced understanding of global drug research and outsourcing can be found in a new book by Adriana Petryna, When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects. The book makes clear that reliable data in support of new investigational drug applications to the FDA is a rare and highly lucrative commodity, like gold or diamonds. But to get the data, you need humans. And not just any humans: you need humans with this or that disease or condition, preferably who have not taken many other drugs before (drug interactions may influence the data), and many other specific inclusion criteria besides. And you want the study to run in places where you can get more for your dollar (or Euro), and where the regulatory climate is still immature. Contract research organizations (CROs) are paid by pharmaceutical companies to find the right humans in the right places, recruit them, run the study, deliver the data. Petryna's book shines a light on an obscure global industry, peopled with not so much with heros and villains, but with ordinary actors engaged in a partly dirty business across national boundaries.

Labels: , ,