New treatments for serious conditions: ethical implications

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Abstract

Approval of Spinraza (nusinersen) for treatment of spinal muscular atrophy prompts consideration of a number of ethical issues that arise whenever a new treatment is proposed for a serious condition, especially one that is rare and can devastatingly affect children. Patients, families, clinicians, researchers, institutions and policymakers all must take account of the ways that newly available treatments affect informed and shared decision-making about therapeutic and research options. The issues to consider include: addressing what is still uncertain and unknown; the possibility that potential benefits will be exaggerated and potential harms underemphasized in the media, by advocacy organizations, and in consent forms and processes; the high cost of many novel drugs and biologics; the effects of including conditions of variable phenotype in state-mandated newborn screening panels; and how new treatments can change the standard of care, altering what is and is not known about a disorder and posing challenges for decision-making at both individual and policy levels. The good news that Spinraza brings thus requires additional attention to its ethical and policy implications, to improve counseling and shared decision-making about treatment and research options for patients and all involved in their care.

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