Bioethics Blogs

Translational Science as an Ethical Imperative

An acquaintance recently sent me a copy of an article from the December 7, 2015 edition of The New Yorker magazine, describing efforts of a neurosurgeon to use an unconventional approach to treating terminal brain cancer.  Follow the link and read the article for the whole story, but the physician in question was acting on anecdotes of people whose brain tumors had improved dramatically after serious post-operative wound infections. (Surgery is the front-line, but generally inadequate, treatment for these tumors.)  The physician purposely infected the wound of one of his patients with Enterobacter aeroenes, a bacterium normally found in the bowel and in human feces.

The first patient had a dramatic improvement and lived for a few years after—a highly unusual, positive result.  The second one did not do so well.  There was a small number of people treated in this way, and results were mixed at best.

From the article, it seems clear that this was a good doctor trying to help his patients—one who had done a practice-changing clinical trial and who understood that some treatments may “work”—that is, have a biologic effect as expected—but not help the patient—that is, the effect does not translate into any actual clinical benefit against the disease.  This is a common problem in the development of new treatments, especially for cancer, where clinical trials often do no better than showing “a correlation with a correlation with something you care about,” as a former senior official of the National Cancer Institute put it to me (not about this neurosurgeon’s approach, but about something else) some years ago.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.