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Award-Winning Essay: How Can Mobile Apps Improve Clinical Trials and Safeguard Participants?

The Hastings Center is pleased to announce the winner of the inaugural David Roscoe Award for an Early-Career Essay on Science, Ethics, and Society.

“Recruitment and Trial-Finding Apps: Time for Rules of the Road,” by Stephanie R. Morain and Emily A. Largent, published in May in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, explores the recent development of mobile apps intended to reduce the critical shortage of people who volunteer for clinical trials. The apps are designed to boost participation either by recruiting volunteers or making it easier for people to find trials that interest them. Participation in cancer trials is so low that many of the studies that are launched can’t be completed because of a lack of volunteers.

“While recruitment and trial-finding apps respond to a real need, they also raise ethical concerns,” write Morain and Largent. They outline six categories of ethical concern–including whether institutional review boards have oversight of the apps and how to safeguard the privacy of personal information–and suggest some remedies.

“Prospective participants who use the apps should at minimum be notified if data will be collected and, if so, what data and how it will be used,” they write. “Additionally, further conversations are needed around what app developers can and cannot do with prospective participants’ information.”

Morain and Largent also recommend that all parties involved – app developers, research institutions, IRBs, clinicians, and prospective research participants – be aware of the ethical challenges and work together to “clarify much-needed ‘rules of the road’.”

Morain is an assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. Largent is an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Their essay was chosen by a committee of Hastings Center Fellows from among 36 entries whose authors came from nine countries.

Launched during The Hastings Center’s 50th anniversary year, the David Roscoe essay award recognizes an essay on the social and ethical implications of advances in science and technology written in a style that is accessible and engaging to a general audience. Public engagement through writing has been a central commitment of The Hastings Center throughout its history. The award includes a cash prize of $1,000 for each author.

The award is named in honor of a recent past chair of The Hastings Center’s board and current head of the advisory council. David Roscoe presented the award to Morain and Largent at the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities in Pittsburgh on October 24. 

To celebrate the award and enable the essay to be read as widely as possible, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute has made it available for free for the next six months Read the full text here.