Center Professor Dr. Len Fleck recently traveled to Bergen, Norway to present a keynote address at the 6th Annual Centre for Cancer Biomarkers (CCBIO) Symposium. Dr. Fleck’s presentation, “Just Caring Challenges: Visible Biomarkers and Invisible Rationing,” addressed some of the critical ethical issues related to the use of biomarkers in cancer research and clinical care.
Dr. Fleck addressed two main problems in his lecture. First, the ragged edge problem. One of the primary purposes of finding biomarkers is to determine whether a cancer drug is likely to be effective for a particular metastatic cancer patient. However, rarely will a biomarker yield a simple answer. Most often, the biomarker will be expressed along a continuum. If a drug were very inexpensive and side effects tolerable, it would be easy to say that the ethically right choice would be to respect patient autonomy. But these drugs all cost more than $100,000 for a course of treatment. Consequently, if a drug has a 20% chance of having a beneficial effect, there is a conflict between considerations of justice and respect for patient autonomy. Invisible rationing (just not offering the drug to the patient) can bypass this conflict, but invisible rationing is ethically problematic so far as justice is concerned.
Secondly, recent liquid biopsies can identify eight common cancers at a very early stage–in the form of circulating cancer cells in the blood–at a cost of $500. However, the critical question would need to be raised: How often would 170 million adults (all anxious about cancer) in the U.S. have a just claim to access that test? Every six months? Every year? Note that each such offering of that test to that population would cost $85 billion. Would that represent either a just or prudent use of health care resources?
The CCBIO symposium was well-attended by an international mix of junior and senior researchers and scholars. Dr. Fleck had the opportunity to meet with many European researchers to discuss their respective work in the field of cancer research.
Dr. Fleck also gave a public lecture at the University of Bergen’s Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, titled “Precision Medicine, Ethical Ambiguity: Rough Justice, Ragged Edges.” Dr. Fleck addressed precision medicine as it currently exists, in particular the costly FDA-approved targeted cancer therapies. Treatments for patients with metastatic cancers, which are not curative, can cost $100,000 to $475,000 per treatment course. For example, 30% of patients who are candidates for CAR T-cell immunotherapy will not gain more than an extra year of life. As things are now, we do not know before the fact who those patients might be. But one goal of biomarker research is to identify before the fact who those marginal responders most likely will be, so that we could save money by denying those patients access to this therapy. As a citizen of a just and caring society, would you endorse the research to accomplish that result? Why or why not? This is what Dr. Fleck calls “rough justice.”