Risking the unknown in hope of a cure: The ethics of patient access to experimental treatments

November 20, 2018

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has today published a new briefing note highlighting the ethical issues that can arise when patients and doctors wish to use experimental treatments.

Several controversies over the use of experimental treatments have been reported in the media recently, including couples feeling duped over expensive fertility treatment 'add-ons'1, deaths following stem cell-engineered larynx transplants2, and parents wishing to access experimental treatments for their children abroad.3

Meanwhile, success stories such as the compassionate use of modified immune cells in babies with leukaemia at Great Ormond Street Hospital show the potential of experimental treatments to help patients who have otherwise run out of options.4

Using three types of experimental treatments as examples: advanced therapies (such as gene and stem cell therapies), surgery, and fertility treatment, the briefing note sets out the ways in which such treatments might be accessed, explains how these treatments are regulated, and summarises some of the ethical issues that patients, families and healthcare professionals need to be aware of.

The Council notes that the use of experimental treatments can raise ethical issues such as:

Hugh Whittall, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: "Often, experimental medical treatments are considered as a last hope, when all other options have been exhausted. It is completely understandable that people in this position might be willing to try anything and everything they can, despite uncertainties about the efficacy or safety of the treatment, and the likelihood of there being significant costs involved. A key challenge is balancing the interests of patients with ensuring they are protected from harm, particularly if treatments are offered outside of UK regulation.

It is important that patients and their families have access to impartial and accurate information, and are made aware of uncertainties about possible outcomes when making a decision about trying an experimental treatment.

We will be raising these issues with Government and working with regulators, and we are following up this piece of work with a new project exploring how disagreements can develop about the care of critically ill children, and how those disagreements are being resolved.

Advanced therapies

Experimental stem cell and gene therapies are often aimed at conditions for which there is no existing cure, such as cancers, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. They offer the potential of a tailored and bespoke treatment and some have been offered in the NHS. Others, however, raise ethical concerns such as unscrupulous marketing practises by clinics, the influence on patient's expectations of overly optimistic media reports, and the influence of public campaigns over access to very early-stage therapies.


There is a strong culture of innovation in surgery. In this area of medicine - more than others - there can be a lack of clarity about what constitutes a new intervention, as opposed to a modification of a routine surgical technique, and patients are sometimes unaware that a surgical procedure offered to them is not routine. There is a lack of systematic oversight of new surgical procedures in the NHS. Initiatives such as the IDEAL collaboration are seeking to improve outcome reporting in surgical innovation.


In the private sector, patients are increasingly offered 'add-ons' to fertility treatment, with the aim of improving chances of a successful pregnancy. Despite costing between £50 and £8,000 extra, there is limited evidence to support the use of many add-ons, and a recent study found that some clinics in the UK are providing patients with misleading information about the supporting evidence.5
Notes to editors

Sophia Griffiths
Communications Officer, Nuffield Council on Bioethics
Phone: 020 7681 9622
Mobile: 07551 159670
Email: sgriffiths@nuffieldbioethics.org


1. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6375673/Couple-spent-20-000-IVF-treatment-7-000-add-ons-UK-sue.html

2. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/10/30/scientists-behind-clinical-trial-accused-cover-deaths-two-young/

3. http://nuffieldbioethics.org/wp-content/uploads/Bhatia-N-2018-Disagreements-in-care-of-critically-ill-children-emerging-issues.pdf
(See page 13 onwards)

4. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/two-babies-terminal-cancer-almost-a-miracle-treatment-still-alive-year-layla-richards-waseem-qasim-a7546926.html

5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38094618

About the Nuffield Council on Bioethics

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is an independent body that has been advising policy makers on ethical issues in bioscience and medicine for more than 25 years. We are funded by the

Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council, and Wellcome.

This is the fourth in a new series of bioethics briefing notes published by the Council in 2018.

Nuffield Council on Bioethics

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