by Sarah Nelson

NWABR IRB Conference At the Intersection of Technology, Ethics, and Policy

On July 21, NWABR and Quorum Review IRB co-presented the Ethics and Regulation in the Digital Age conference. It was an exciting day filled with presentations from leaders in the digital and research worlds. Guest author Sarah Nelson, a doctoral student for public health genetics at the University of Washington, presents her perspective on key conference takeaways.

Wide Representation of Research Specialties

The Ethics and Regulation in the Digital Age conference brought together researchers, regulators, and IRB professionals to discuss the challenges and potential benefits of emerging digital and mobile health (mHealth) technologies for biomedical research. Conference presenters represented a range of topics and perspectives, including on-the-ground researchers, federal regulators, and institutional officials.

  • Max Little (MIT) and Joaquin Anguera (UCSF) presented primary research using mobile health technologies as recruitment tools, data collectors, and interventions.
  • Cheryl Grandinetti (FDA) and Misti Anderson (OHRP) gave overviews of what federal agencies are doing to stay up to speed with digital and health technologies, including human subjects protection.
  • Malia Fullerton (UW) provided insight into the ethical dimensions of the Precision Medicine Initiative, including participant consent and return of results.
  • Eric Mah (UCSD) and Jeremy Block (Sloane-Kettering) discussed ways for IRBs and researchers to communicate risks and benefits of research with mHealth technology.
  • Finally, Catherine Hammack and Kathleen Brelsford (Duke) presented ongoing research aimed at better describing risks and protections to participants involved in genomic research.

Research Must Use Technology Wisely

A few weeks have passed since this stimulating day of talks and networking. Many themes have stuck with me.

  1. We should ensure that emerging technologies don’t widen or exacerbate existing inequalities (e.g., health disparities and access to research and care). Dr. Anguerra’s targeted expansion of his “Neuroracer” video game intervention to Hispanic/Latino populations is an excellent example of using technology to narrow, not widen, this gaps.
  2. Policies need to balance patients’ and participants’ privacy with the collective benefit of leveraging their data for research. Dr. Fullerton’s presentation underscored how challenging this balancing act can be, specifically with the imminent recruitment of over 1 million U.S. citizens to the Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort.
  3. The rapid pace of innovation means we will inevitably put technologies into use—in research, clinical, and everyday contexts—before we fully understand them. Despite the unease of “building the plane as we fly it,” so to speak, the alternative of holding back the technology may be even more problematic. As keynote speaker Dr. Little put it, waiting for the perfect technology may be unethical, akin to “withholding treatment,” and instead we should utilize what we have now despite the imperfections.

Finding a Route Forward by Looking Back

In light of these concerns, I have been wondering:  How much of this is new versus existing controversies and tensions wrapped up in shinier, newer technology? A set of comments by Dr. Block sparked this question in my mind, when he articulated different “tiers” of technology use in research.

In some instances we are using mobile or digital technology to do the same research activities as before, just on a different platform (e.g., a survey on the web versus using pen and paper). In such cases, the technology may be distracting us into thinking that the ethical or policy dimensions of these activities have shifted. In many cases perhaps they actually haven’t.

The first step when considering any technology use in research is to parse what is new versus old and differentiate between aspects of the platform (e.g., smart phone) versus the research activity (e.g., recording steps taken).

I don’t envy the job of IRBs having to fit cutting-edge research proposals into potentially outdated regulatory frameworks. But at the same time I wonder how much technological novelty may be blinding us to the similarities with what we already know and recognize as ethical and regulatory concerns: patient privacy, data sharing, informed consent, potential misinformation, and more.

Granted, the pace and scale of these problems is increasing with our new mobile and digital tech. But as we move forward, let’s make sure we’re taking with us decades of bioethics and policy thought leadership and knowledge.

A version of this blog originally appeared August 15, 2016 on

Follow Sarah Nelson on her blog at or on Twitter at @blueyedgenes.

Disclosure: Ms. Nelson received discounted access to the conference in return for writing a blog post.


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