Recombinant Research: Sage Congress plans for patient engagement

Clinical trials are the pathway for approving drug use, but they aren’t good enough. That has become clear as a number of drugs (Vioxx being the most famous) have been blessed by the FDA, but disqualified after years of widespread use reveal either lack of efficacy or dangerous side effects. And the measures taken by the FDA recently to solve this embarrassing problem continue the heavy-weight bureaucratic methods it has always employed: more trials, raising the costs of every drug and slowing down approval. Although I don’t agree with the opinion of Avik S. A. Roy (reprinted in Forbes) that Phase III trials tend to be arbitrary, I do believe it is time to look for other ways to test drugs for safety and efficacy.

First article in the series: Sage Congress Promotes Data Sharing in Genetics.

But the Vioxx problem is just one instance of the wider malaise afflicting the drug industry. They just aren’t producing enough new medications, either to solve pressing public needs or to keep up their own earnings. Vicki Seyfert-Margolis of the FDA built on her noteworthy speech at last year’s Sage Congress (reported in one of my articles about the conference) with the statistic that drug companies have submitted 20% fewer medications to the FDA between 2001 and 2007. Their blockbuster drugs produce far fewer profits than before as patents expire and fewer new drugs emerge (a predicament called the “patent cliff”). Seyfert-Margolis intimated that this crisis in the cause of layoffs in the industry, although I heard elsewhere that the companies are outsourcing more research, so perhaps the downsizing is just a reallocation of the same money.

Benefits of patient involvement

The field has failed to rise to the challenges posed by new complexity. Speakers at Sage Congress seemed to feel that genetic research has gone off the tracks. As the previous article in this series explained, Sage Bionetworks wants researchers to break the logjam by sharing data and code in GitHub fashion. And surprisingly, pharma is hurting enough to consider going along with an open research system. They’re bleeding from a situation where as much as 80% of each clinical analysis is spent retrieving, formatting, and curating the data. Meanwhile, Kathy Giusti of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation says that in their work, open clinical trials are 60% faster.

Attendees at a breakout session where I sat in, including numerous managers from major pharma companies, expressed confidence that they could expand public or “pre-competitive” research in the direction Sage Congress proposed. The sector left to engage is the one that’s central to all this work–the public.

If we could collect wide-ranging data from, say, 50,000 individuals (a May 2013 goal cited by John Wilbanks of Sage Bionetworks, a Kauffman Foundation Fellow), we could uncover a lot of trends that clinical trials are too narrow to turn up. Wilbanks ultimately wants millions of such data samples, and another attendee claimed that “technology will be ready by 2020 for a billion people to maintain their own molecular and longitudinal health data.” And Jamie Heywood of PatientsLikeMe, in his keynote, claimed to have demonstrated through shared patient notes that some drugs were ineffective long before the FDA or manufacturers made the discoveries. He decried the current system of validating drugs for use and then failing to follow up with more studies, snorting that, “Validated means that I have ceased the process of learning.”

But patients have good reasons to keep a close hold on their health data, fearing that an insurance company, an identity thief, a drug marketer, or even their own employer will find and misuse it. They already have little enough control over it, because the annoying consent forms we always have shoved in our faces when we come to a clinic give away a lot of rights. Current laws allow all kinds of funny business, as shown in the famous case of the Vermont law against data mining, which gave the Supreme Court a chance to say that marketers can do anything they damn please with your data, under the excuse that it’s de-identified.

In a noteworthy poll by Sage Bionetworks, 80% of academics claimed they were comfortable sharing their personal health data with family members, but only 31% of citizen advocates would do so. If that 31% is more representative of patients and the general public, how many would open their data to strangers, even when supposedly de-identified?

The Sage Bionetworks approach to patient consent

It’s basic research that loses. So Wilbanks and a team have been working for the past year on a “portable consent” procedure. This is meant to overcome the hurdle by which a patient has to be contacted and give consent anew each time a new researcher wants data related to his or her genetics, conditions, or treatment. The ideal behind portable consent is to treat the entire research community as a trusted user.

The current plan for portable consent provides three tiers:

Tier 1

No restrictions on data, so long as researchers follow the terms of service. Hopefully, millions of people will choose this tier.

Tier 2

A middle ground. Someone with asthma may state that his data can be used only by asthma researchers, for example.

Tier 3

Carefully controlled. Meant for data coming from sensitive populations, along with anything that includes genetic information.

Synapse provides a trusted identification service. If researchers find a person with useful characteristics in the last two tiers, and are not authorized automatically to use that person’s data, they can contact Synapse with the random number assigned to the person. Synapse keeps the original email address of the person on file and will contact him or her to request consent.

Portable consent also involves a lot of patient education. People will sign up through a software wizard that explains the risks. After choosing portable consent, the person decides how much to put in: 23andMe data, prescriptions, or whatever they choose to release.

Sharon Terry of the Genetic Alliance said that patient advocates currently try to control patient data in order to force researchers to share the work they base on that data. Portable consent loosens this control, but the field may be ready for its more flexible conditions for sharing.

Pharma companies and genetics researchers have lots to gain from access to enormous repositories of patient data. But what do the patients get from it? Leaders in health care already recognize that patients are more than experimental subjects and passive recipients of treatment. The recent ONC proposal for Stage 2 of Meaningful Use includes several requirements to share treatment data with the people being treated (which seems kind of a no-brainer when stated this baldly) and the ONC has a Consumer/Patient Engagement Power Team.

Sage Congress is fully engaged in the patient engagement movement too. One result is the BRIDGE initiative, a joint project of Sage Bionetworks and Ashoka with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to solicit questions and suggestions for research from patients. Researchers can go for years researching a condition without even touching on some symptom that patients care about. Listening to patients in the long run produces more cooperation and more funding.

Portable consent requires a leap of faith, because as Wilbanks admits, releasing aggregates of patient data mean that over time, a patient is almost certain to be re-identified. Statistical techniques are just getting too sophisticated and compute power growing too fast for anyone to hide behind current tricks such as using only the first three digits of a five-digit postal code. Portable consent requires the data repository to grant access only to bona fide researchers and to set terms of use, including a ban on re-identifying patients. Still, researchers will have rights to do research, redistribute data, and derive products from it. Audits will be built in.

But as mentioned by Kelly Edwards of the University of Washington, tools and legal contracts can contribute to trust, but trust is ultimately based on shared values. Portable consent, properly done, engages with frameworks like Synapse to create a culture of respect for data.

In fact, I think the combination of the contractual framework in portable consent and a platform like Synapse, with its terms of use, might make a big difference in protecting patient privacy. Seyfert-Margolis cited predictions that 500 million smartphone users will be using medical apps by 2015. But mobile apps are notoriously greedy for personal data and cavalier toward user rights. Suppose all those smartphone users stored their data in a repository with clear terms of use and employed portable consent to grant access to the apps? We might all be safer.

The final article in this series will evaluate the prospects for open research in genetics, with a look at the grip of journal publishing on the field, and some comparisons to the success of free and open source software.

Next: Breaking Open Rewards and Incentives. All articles in this series, and others I’ve written about Sage Congress, are available through a bit.ly bundle.

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