“Hunting Down My Son’s Killer”: New Roles of Patients in Treatment Discovery and Ethical Uncertainty

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 17 (1):37-47 (2020)
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Abstract

The past few years have witnessed several media-covered cases involving citizens actively engaging in the pursuit of experimental treatments for their medical conditions—or those of their loved ones—in the absence of established standards of therapy. This phenomenon is particularly observable in patients with rare genetic diseases, as the development of effective therapies for these disorders is hindered by the limited profitability and market value of pharmaceutical research. Sociotechnical trends at the cross-section of medicine and society are facilitating the involvement of patients and creating the digital infrastructure necessary to its sustainment. Such participant-led research has the potential to promote the autonomy of research participants as drivers of discovery and to open novel non-canonical avenues of scientific research. At the same time, however, the extra-institutional, self-appointed, and, often, oversight-free nature of PLR raises ethical concern. This paper explores the complex ethical entanglement of PLR by critically appraising case studies and discussing the conditions for its moral justification. Furthermore, we propose a path forward to ensure the safe and effective implementation of PLR within the current research ecosystem in a manner that maximizes the benefits for both individual participants and society at large, while minimizing the risks.

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