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Pay-to-play clinical trials: The HHS Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP) weighs in

The ethics of pay-to-play clinical trials are a minefield. Last week the HHS Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP) stepped into that minefield. Are “pay-to-play” clinical trials ever ethically acceptable?

Just the other day, I wrote about a scientifically worthless, highly unethical “pay-to-play” clinical trial of stem cells for autism carried out by a quack for-profit stem cell clinic in Panama. Not only was that clinical trial a single-arm, uncontrolled study using subjective measures of improvement highly susceptible to placebo effects as the primary and many of the secondary outcomes. Worse, it was at a clinic that offers stem cell treatment for basically any chronic condition or disease, evidence be damned, and charges huge sums of money for it. Going along with that ethos, the Stem Cell Institute in Panama City charged the parents of children with autism to be on the clinical trial. In any case, I knew at the time I wrote that post a couple of days ago that there was a conference scheduled at the Department of Health and Human Services to discuss the very issue of pay-to-play clinical trials. Conveniently, yesterday there was a story in STAT News by Rebecca Robbins about this conference, held by the Health and Human Services Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP) last week.

What spurred the discussion by the SACHRP is the observation that the problem of pay-to-play goes well beyond quack stem cell clinics abusing the clinical trials process to charge patients to be on their scientifically dubious clinical trials, which are used far more as advertisements than anything else. Here’s what I mean:

Michele Russell-Einhorn has spent 23 years working in the world of institutional review boards, which decide whether to green-light clinical trials. In all that time, she’s never seen quite so many proposals as she has in the past year that rely on an unusual — and controversial — funding mechanism.

Some plan to ask participants to pay $7,000 or so to enroll. Another wanted to ask for upward of $250,000.

In each case, there were “serious concerns about how ethical it was to charge people to participate in the research — and whether it was absolutely necessary,” said Russell-Einhorn, chief compliance officer for Advarra, the second-largest commercial IRB.

You’ll seldom see this sort of thing going on at an institutional review board (IRB) at a university. (IRBs are ethics panels that review proposed human subjects research in order to make sure that it does not place subjects at undue risk and that the potential for harm is low enough to be worth taking for the potential benefit.) That’s not to say you’ll never see it going on at a university. After all, in my last post, I noted two examples of highly dodgy pay-to-play arrangements for clinical trials going on a Duke University and previously carried out at Northwestern University. However, commercial IRBs are far more frequently used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Of course, I’ve always had a bit of an issue with for-profit IRBs, because their profits depend on making their customers (companies carrying out clinical trials) happy, and it’s not hard to imagine that a commercial IRB that’s too tough on protocols might lose business to less anal IRBs, but that’s a subject for another time. Let’s just say that if the chief compliance officer for a commercial IRB is bothered by the number of pay-to-play trials coming through her company’s IRBs, that’s a sign that something’s not right, even if, as the story acknowledges near the end, the overall number even this year is “just a handful of the thousands of protocols that she and her team review annually.”

AS noted in the story, these “pay-to-play” studies have caught the attention of the feds. The FDA recently asked a federal advisory committee to consider how the the research community should deal with such trials. Apparently a report with recommendations is being drafted as I type this. Similarly, the NIH asked the committee whether its existing resources are adequate to guide patients considering a clinical trial are up to the challenge of guiding them through the process when they are being asked to pay to be on the clinical trial.

There’s a lot of reason to be concerned, and not just from stem cell trials from for-profit stem cell clinics. (There’s no such thing as a for-profit stem cell clinic that is not a predatory quack clinic; at least, if there is, I’ve yet to encounter one, and it hasn’t been for lack of looking.) Get a load of some other examples:

Last year, STAT reported on a plan in Florida to charge seniors a fee proposed as high as $285,000 to enroll in a clinical trial in which they would get young-blood transfusions to try to forestall aging. That proposal was part of the reason that the Health and Human Services Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections — or SACHRP — decided to take up the issue, according to Holly Fernandez Lynch, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who sits on a subcommittee that’s helping draft the recommendations.

In the same field, the startup Ambrosia recently ran a clinical trial that charged about 80 people $8,000 each to get an infusion of blood plasma from a young donor — before halting its business in response to a warning from the FDA. Meanwhile, a clinic in Panama enrolled 20 autistic children in a stem cell trial that charged parents $7,200, the science news site Spectrum reported last month.

That last one was the very trial yours truly discussed in his usual inimitable fashion the other day, but, holy hell, infusions of blood plasma to try to forestall aging? That’s utter pseudoscience. No, it’s worse than pseudoscience. It’s prescientific mystical nonsense based on, in essence, vitalistic beliefs that “younger blood” has potency to reverse aging. Of course, that core belief was gussied up with all sorts of handwaving about cytokines and growth factors in the “young blood,” but at its core, the belief that young blood (or plasma) can reverse aging woo-filled at best. That trial by Ambrosia, in particular, not only used some questionable preclinical studies in mice as the rationale for its study, but it never published its results and has made spectacular claims to various media outlets, such as that an Alzheimer’s patient showed improvements after one treatment; grey hair turned darker for a person in their 60’s; there was a 10% reduction in patients’ blood cholesterol levels and a 20% fall in the level of amyloids; erections resumed in a patient with depleted testosterone levels; and the treatment demonstrated success in treating Parkinson’s patient, arthritis symptoms, sleep, memory, focus, appearance, muscle tone, and energy levels.

It turns out that FDA regulations do allow such “pay-to-play” clinical trials in “extraordinary circumstances.” An example of such “extraordinary circumstances” is a situation when a drug being tested has a price tag so high that the trial can’t otherwise be run. I still have a hard time envisioning such a scenario that wouldn’t be profoundly predatory, but the FDA leaves open the possibility that there might be a situation that isn’t.

Rather than threading the needle with SACHRP, I come down more on this side:

But experts say these trials are ethically fraught for a number of reasons: At worst, they run the risk of being a guise for an enterprise looking to profit from desperate patients. But even when intentions are sound, the trials are likely to only enroll those patients who can afford to participate, thereby skewing the results. There could also be a weak study design, without blinding or a control group, because patients would likely be reluctant to pay for a placebo. And they may reinforce the common misconception among patients that clinical trials are a route to accessing treatments that are guaranteed to help them.

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes to all of those concerns. Selection bias is definitely a major concern, but more importantly, pay-to-play incentivizes (for the company) crappy single-armed clinical trials for exactly the reason listed above. No patient is going to want to be randomized to a placebo or sham group after having paid to be in a clinical trial. I suppose one might envision a scheme whereby the patients who are randomized to placebo get their money back after the unblinding of the trial, but I still doubt that this would persuade many, particularly if the price is steep and the patient has trouble raising the money. I’m sorry, Holly Fernandez Lynch, I’m not persuaded that there are “some where we think we don’t want to have a hard-line stance that says no, never, this could never be appropriate, because sometimes, we think, in rare circumstances, it could be ethically acceptable to ask for this kind of cost-sharing.” I suppose it’s remotely possible that circumstances could justify a pay-to-play design in very rare cases, but I would argue that such cases are so rare as to be unicorn-like and thus not needing a special exception.

In other words, I’m with Dr. Steven Joffe, a pediatric oncologist and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania:

“If you open the door to these trials, you inevitably are going to get … exploitative trials, and bad trials, and trials that don’t lead to any useful information,” Joffe said.

Sure, Joffe said, a blanket policy against pay-to-participate trials would mean foregoing a few potentially valuable trials. “But you are also closing the door to a lot of potential abuse that is very likely to happen — and overall the harms of opening the door outweigh the benefits,” he said.

Precisely. The harm of leaving open the door to pay-to-play trials is almost certainly much greater than the good that might come of a rare pay-to-play trial that is ethically acceptable. Still SACHRP is trying to strike a balance, urging IRBs to ask questions like, “Does the study meet relevant thresholds of scientific quality?” and “Is the risk-benefit balance acceptable?” Of course, here’s the problem. IRBs are already supposed to ask these questions about all clinical trials under their consideration. What’s the difference with pay-to-play? I really hope SACHRP can do better by the time it issues its final recommendations after its December or March meeting.

I’ll be waiting to see what SACHRP ultimately says. How will it thread the needle? For my part, I have a very hard time envisioning a situation in which clinical trial that requires patients to pay can be ethical. Maybe there is such a situation, but I need to be convinced.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

23 replies on “Pay-to-play clinical trials: The HHS Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP) weighs in”

Unethical and unscientific jiggery pokery posing as science generates “fake news”, which can excite the media and the public before eventually proving to be a dud.
The frauds become rich, the media loses interest, the public become disillusioned and real science cops the backlash.
“Science can’t be trusted”, cry the quacks and mountebanks and more of the manipulated public return to ignorance and superstition.

Wait, isn’t the point of a clinical trial that the treatment being offered is unproven, and the ostensible purpose of the clinical trial to demonstrate whether the proposed treatment is safe and effective?

I am not seeing a scenario under which the patients enrolling in a pay-to-play clinical trial are not self-selecting, and the probability of an exploitative doctor-patient relationship is high. I certainly do not see the ethical viability in charging a patient for a treatment the doctor knows to be unproven.

I just saw an article where Yescarta and Kytruda had less-than-forecast sales because patients were choosing clinical trials over their (super expensive) products.

Depending on the stage of the trial it might already be shown to be safe and it’s the efficacy that’s in question.

You’re right, the only thing a person in a clinical trial should be paying for is parking.

There are clinical trials for things like hair dye where the stakes are low and the participants get the standard treatment (product) at the end of the trial. A more important example would be a trial where everyone gets standard treatment after the test period.

Some trials do that too, if it’s a placebo-controlled trial. It can make the statistics more complicated to do a cross-over trial, especially if your endpoints are things like overall survival, but if the treatment works then it’s the ethical thing to do.
The product I work on did that in our clinical trial, and it’s not hair dye. 🙂

Why do these for-profit things even exist?! What is the ineffectual FDA doing besides collecting our tax money and making excuses for its total inability to protect us?!?

Some of these “clinics” have found a loophole to avoid FDA oversight by using the patient’s own cells (taken from abdominal fat) and claiming it to be “minimally manipulated” before going back into the patient, making it a surgical treatment rather than a drug, and therefore not under the scrutiny of the FDA.

And frankly, the FDA is overworked and they’ve got to stick their inspectors where there’s the greatest risk the to the largest number of people, which is contaminated food and OTC drugs. Sadly/thankfully there aren’t very many people getting snared by these unethical “trials” yet.

“infusions of blood plasma to try to forestall aging”

I was at a talk a few months ago where they looked at the effect of young-mouse plasma on old-mouse wound healing in vivo and fibroblast morphology and function ex vivo. It was very nice preliminary work that might make its way into a Phase I in wound healing. Of course, human blood products are ugly in terms of risk and consistency; IVIG is about the only one that’s regularly used, I think?

Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with Orac. There is never a reason to do pay-to-play trials. If the condition is rare, there’s an FDA program to make it more viable for the company. If they company is too strapped for cash to do a proper trial, it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that important corners weren’t cut in development.

First it was just Uber. Then we added Uber Eats. We now introduce out newest offering: Uber Drips!

With the latest update to your Apple or Android app you can easily select Uber Drips. All you need to do is enter your age and blood type.

For a boost of youthful energy request a delivery and within 30 minutes the driver will be at your door. The driver will be selected to match your blood type and be at least 10 years younger than you. It’s easy and they supply all the equipment!

The intravenous drip from the driver to you is safe and convenient[1]. You can almost feel the years dropping away as their blood flows into your veins[2]. All our drivers are rigorously screened for excess recreational drug use and blood borne diseases[3]. Tipping the driver is at your discretion[4].

Help a student pay off their debts while you drink from the fountain of youth. Subscribe for weekly drips and get a 10% discount!

Uber Drips – coming soon.[5]

[1] For driver safety there is a limit of 150 ml per delivery. [2] Placebo controlled clinical trials have been registered with the FDA. [3] Yeah, right. [4] We pay below minimum wage. [5] Service may not be available in your locale or at all dates and times. Medical complications, while rare, are the responsibility of the subscriber.

There’s got to be some sort of Quack Rule 34, because now I think this is going to be an IPO next year.

Given this kind of already exists for plain saline/ saline with vitamins, I’d say you’re distressingly close to reality.

If Yescarta and Kytruda, the two approved CAR-T therapies could get through their clinical trials without pay-to-play, then everyone should be able to.
These therapies are individually made for each patient, and involve cloning out T-cells, which, from personal experience, is very complicated and frankly a PITA. The labor is expensive because you need really skilled, well trained people to do this stuff. All the reagents and materials are expensive. The facility is expensive.
But they did it.

So unless you’re a tiny startup with a gene therapy, there’s no reason why anyone else can’t do it. And frankly, if you can’t afford to do it without the patients paying, you’re not running a solid business and you need to go back to your research institution.

Dorit Rubenstein has blood on her hands – she is an evil lady. She turns off comments like someone who walks away from a conversation because they
Know they are wrong. Dorit YOU ARE A PURE IDIOT. Loser.

Off-topic and ad-hominem.

And going to someone’s Facebook page and insulting them? Of course she’s not going to allow you to comment.

Get a life.

Orac writes,

I have a very hard time envisioning a situation in which clinical trial that requires patients to pay can be ethical. Maybe there is such a situation, but I need to be convinced.

MJD says,

A placebo effect pay-to-play clinical trial that is single-armed and uncontrolled, although, subjective measures of improvement maybe highly susceptible to nocebo effects.

@ Narad,

Any thoughts?

The trial you describe doesn’t sound ethical, MJD. I fail to see any difference between it and a system set-up to sell a product, and coming with a post-sale customer survey system. Either way, the business has successfully sold its product.

Just thought of this:
SUS trial = Single-arm + Unblinded + Subjective
I wonder if it will catch on?

Comments are closed.