The 3rd Annual Great Lakes Biorepository Network (GLBRN) Scientific Meeting was held on October 28, 2016 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Center Director and Professor Dr. Tom Tomlinson spoke on “Preferences for Biobank Consent Policy are Sensitive to Concerns about Future Research Uses.”
The current research ethics framework gauges the level of ethical protections to the degree of risk to the participant. The lower the risk, the less stringent the requirements for informed consent; when the risk is virtually zero, as with the research uses of de-identified biospecimens and related clinical and demographic data, it is no longer research on a human “subject.”
This framework forgets why people donate their specimens and data to biobanks. They are not merely concerned with what later research will do to or for them. They are hoping their donation may do some good; and correlatively, assuming that it will do no wrong, in ways they would find morally concerning:
- Some research might threaten a donor’s world view –such as research to better understand human evolution and history.
- Some donors might be concerned by research that might lead to the stigmatization of others –such as research that looks at genes associated with violence.
- Or some research may be contrary to the moral, cultural, or political values of the donor – such as research related to abortion or research leading to large commercial profits.
To emphasize the contrasts with the conventional framework, Dr. Tomlinson and his colleagues call these people’s non-welfare interests in later research uses of their donations.
In the talk Dr. Tomlinson presented evidence that such concerns affect people’s preferences among various biobank consent policies, drawn from both a national survey that his research team conducted in 2014 and a series of democratic deliberations held in 2015. The evidence shows that the more people are aware of the range of possible research uses of biobank donations that might be of concern to them or others, the more negative their attitudes are toward blanket consent. In this consent, a donor gives permission up front to any future uses that the biobank would allow, without any further consent or information provided. This is the most common form of biobank consent, but their research shows that a bare majority finds it “acceptable,” and a sizeable minority (38%) think it’s the “worst” option among those presented. Interestingly, the team found similar attitudes expressed toward specific, study-by-study consent, the option that gives each donor the most control over later research uses.
For more analysis of the national survey, see: De Vries RG, Tomlinson T, Kim HM, Krenz C, Haggerty D, Ryan KA, Kim SY. Understanding the Public’s Reservations about Broad Consent and Study-By-Study Consent for Donations to a Biobank: Results of a National Survey. PLoS One. 2016 Jul 14;11(7).
Dr. Tomlinson is an Executive Board Member of the Great Lakes Biorepository Network and Incoming President for 2017.