Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What is considered Ethical Research?

The lecture last week had me questioning what should be done with unethical research. My gut reaction is to dismiss it, after all, use of such research would on some level condone it. It could act as a guide post for morally questionable scientist to cross ethical lines in their own research in a sort of ends justify the means mindset.When we look at the information gathered from experiments such as those done in Tuskegee or Willow-brook it becomes easier to refute those studies. We can easily dismiss such studies because of the methods of acquisition was clearly morally bankrupt. However, taking one step back we must define what is or is not ethical.

Edward Jenner is hailed as developing the first vaccine when he used cowpox to protect against small pox infection. Many immunologist hold him in such high esteem for his accomplishments, indeed, his research is one of the main reasons we have vaccines today. However, when one looks closer at the methods of his seminal finding becomes questionable. He  inoculated a child with a known pathogen without knowing the effect it would have on the child. His first stroke of luck is that nothing severe occurred to the child. Next he purposefully injected the child with small pox in order to test his theory that the cow pox infection would be effective in generating protection to small pox. Luckily everything worked out and Jenner is praised for his contribution.

But was it a sound ethical experiment? He got extremely lucky that his experiment had no immediate or long lasting  detrimental effects on the child, or the other 23 subjects he tested his theory on. Had the experiment failed Jenner's name, far from being praised as it is now, would be used as a cautionary tale of a scientist caught up in his own hubris. If any scientist today were to attempt to replicate that experiment using the same methods, going off a theory based on limited observation, they would be looked at as the definition of inhumane. Using children as the primary subject base (not to speak of the ability of the child or their parent to give knowledgeable consent that isn't coerced), deliberately infecting said children with two different pathogens, with one known to cause severe illness. Not to mention the need for a negative control group which would receive pathogen without receiving the potential therapeutic. Finally the need to have enough subjects to achieve statistically sound study would require quite a few children. In Jenner's time, those methods were thought to be acceptable.

This just highlights that what is or is not ethical changes with the times. What was acceptable then is not acceptable now. If we accept this to be true then one must wonder what the future of ethical research holds. The values of society change and what is considered normal, just, and right changes with the times. Who knows, 100 years from now the society at that time could look at the research we're doing now and declare it unethical and inhumane. Maybe animal rights will become more prominent and we will move away from vertebrate animal studies. As for all the research up to that point will the society of the time completely disregard the data? Or will they use it but vow to never repeat its methodology? Will they wonder how our research methods could be so callous and barbaric, or will our research be looked upon with praise as Jenner's is now?


  1. Thanks for brining this concern up again. The lecture we were recently given on ethics seemed to only present horrific breaches of ethics in the name of science, and as a result, I did not see how it applied to my own research. Your blog made me realize that we actually do encounter ethical concerns when designing experiments. As we recently discussed in our virology course, gain of function experiments are hotly debated. For those unaware, gain of function typically falls under experiments which increase transmissibility, widen host range, or increase resistance to current therapeutics. Due to some controverisal experiments, there is currently a lot of debate in my field and it has been necessary for me to evaluate the appropriateness of my own research. I believe gain of function experiments are an essential tool as negative data (demonstrating a loss or decrease of function) is rarely clear cut. I also believe that scientists should consider the ethics of gain of function studies when investigating potentially dangerous phenotypes. For example, a scientist may choose to produce gain of function mutatations in a low pathogenic strain of influenza instead of using a high pathogenic virus.

  2. I have also been thinking a lot about the ethics of the vertebrate animal studies we perform. While future generations may view these experiments as barbaric, I think the amount of regulation and structure surrounding animal studies today separate our work from the human (or inhumane, rather) experiments we've seen in generations past.

    Some argue that the morality of our scientific experiments lies on a continuous, gradual spectrum that changes with the prevailing moral ideals of the times, but I think there was a definite turning point after the Nuremberg Trials. Scientific research on living subjects, as highlighted in our training modules, is a privilege, not a right. Before we submit any animal research proposals, we must first justify why what we do is necessary, that we're not duplicating previous research, and that there are no alternatives to using animals. This checklist we have to go through ensures that our use of lives is judicious, and ensures that future generations will understand the necessity of the experiments we did. However unethical they may seem to our posterity, at least we can offer them justification as to why these experiments were necessary.

  3. This is Something I think about with my own research and work in my old lab. I used to do a lot of primate work studying SIV. It is very easy to collect blood from animals on a daily basis but when they eventually die it becomes a different story. When you see the animal dying it becomes hard to handle. This is actually a big reason I dont work with primates any more and doubt I ever will again. This is why I find it so unusual that people would do horrible experiments to humans.

  4. Working in cancer research, we use a lot of mouse models to mimic cancer progression. Adding to that, because my research involves a pediatric brain tumor, we are often required to inject mice pups with tumor cells days after birth to track tumor development. I understand and appreciate the amount of regulation that goes into trying to be as ethical as possible with these studies, because it does ensure that each animal is treated with as much respect as possible, but it doesn't change the fact that we are still valuing our lives over theirs, and that they have not consented to being given cancer. I know that these mice are bred for the purpose of research and that without them we would not be making developments at anywhere near the same rate, but I wonder if eventually this type of research will be seen as unethical as well.