Thanks to a public outcry that included objections from bioethics experts from across the country, the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) has decided to suspend sanctions it imposed earlier this year on a study of blood oxygen levels used to treat premature infants. The OHRP’s sanctions, issued in March, sharply criticized the study’s leaders for not providing the infants’ parents with adequate information about the risks of the trial. But many bioethics experts disagreed with the OHRP’s assessment of the situation.
Last week, a group of more than 40 of the country’s top bioethicists, including two at Stanford, sent a letter to OHRP stating that the sanctions could have a chilling effect on much-needed clinical research. In a highly unusual action, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health, worked with two colleagues to write a similarly critical letter that said, in part:
This controversy has alarmed some of the parents of infants who were in the study, confused the biomedical research community, and befuddled IRBs. Several other studies seeking new insights to improve care for these vulnerable infants have been put on hold as the field tries to understand the OHRP findings.
The two letters appear online today in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and constitute a remarkably intense criticism of the OHRP, the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for overseeing the safety and well-being of human research subjects.
I’ve been following the developing story with the help of Stanford bioethicist David Magnus, PhD, who was one of the writers of the bioethicists’ letter. Last week, before the agency revised its stance, Magnus summarized what the bioethics community found objectionable about the OHRP’s sanctions: “They believe in an absolute interpretation of risk,” he said. The agency’s risk assessment was based “not [on] what kids who are actually sick would be exposed to, but what a healthy child would be exposed to.” Healthy babies born at term face much lower risks of severe eye disease, neurological damage and death than the babies in the study – but the tiny preemies in the study weren’t healthy term infants, and were not placed at additional risk, the bioethicists assert, because of their participation in the study.
The tussle has a complex back story that involves 1,300 fragile premature infants, their parents, 23 academic medical centers and an important piece of paperwork.
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