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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 10.2 (2000) 171-174
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Bioethics Inside the Beltway
The Oversight of Human Gene Transfer Research
Jesse Gelsinger's death last September in a gene transfer study being conducted at the University of Pennsylvania has helped to spark a national debate. In part, this debate parallels the broader discussion of how human subjects research should be reviewed and regulated in the United States. However, human gene transfer research is one of a handful of biomedical technologies that seem to deserve special attention, at least in the early years of their development.
The major participants in the national debate on human gene transfer include the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, members of Congress, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, disease-oriented advocacy groups, reporters, and academics. At the December 1999 meeting of the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC), the protocol that involved Jesse Gelsinger was a central focus of discussion, but other topics emerged as well. One ad hoc panel reviewed adverse events that had occurred in other research protocols using adenovirus vectors, while a second proposed changes in the general system for reporting adverse events to NIH and the RAC.
During the first several months of the year 2000, the United States Congress also became involved in the human gene transfer debate. In February, Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) convened a hearing to which Jesse Gelsinger's father, representatives of NIH and FDA, and several other witnesses were invited. At approximately the same time, the House Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations initiated their own inquiries, asking the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services to review the oversight roles of NIH and FDA. In March and April, the House committee also wrote directly to the NIH Director, the FDA Commissioner, and the President of the University of Pennsylvania, requesting extensive documentation on gene transfer, in general, and the trial in which Jesse Gelsinger was involved, in particular. Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) have also raised questions and proposed solutions in multiple letters to the NIH Director and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. [End Page 171]
The major general questions that have emerged from this discussion are the following:
(1) What kinds of information about adverse events should be reported by researchers or sponsors during the course of human gene transfer trials?
(2) To what group or groups should adverse-event information be reported? How often and in what ways should the information be analyzed?
(3) Should the information about adverse events remain confidential, or should it be discussed publicly?
(4) How can the disclosure and consent process in gene transfer trials be improved?
(5) Which federal agency should have primary responsibility for overseeing human gene transfer research, and how can it best fulfill its oversight role?
How these questions are answered will have immediate relevance to the field of human gene transfer research as it enters into its next phase. At the same time, the models that are created for this important cutting-edge field also may be useful in other complex or controversial arenas of biomedical research, for example, xenotransplantation or human embryonic stem-cell research. In addition, the lessons learned from this one important area of human subjects research may suggest ways to improve protections for all the volunteers who make clinical research--and medical progress--possible.
In the remainder of this article, I will turn from reporting, in as objective a way as possible, on the status of the public policy debate about human gene transfer research to suggesting measures for improving the current oversight system for such research. My initial general recommendation is that we should not expect a single regulatory agency to be solely responsible for a field as large and dynamic as human gene transfer research. Rather, there should be some helpful redundancy or, to change the metaphor, checks and balances in the public oversight of this field. Thus, an...