A shared platform for communicating bioethics concepts

Published online 26 May 2021

A universal language for describing bioethical principles could support clinical research for COVID-19 and other medical conditions.

Michael Eisenstein

Mikhail Japaridze/ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News
COVID-19 has caused urgent ethical challenges in terms of access to medical care, consent for experimental treatments, and safeguarding patient privacy. Researchers led by Mohammed Odeh of the King Hussein Cancer Center in Jordan have devised a framework for describing pandemic-related bioethical concepts, with the aim of facilitating responsible data sharing and clinical collaboration between researchers and institutions.

An ontology is a conceptual roadmap, which standardizes how terms are defined and how they relate to one another. This is exceedingly useful in the era of digital medicine. For example, electronic health records may include ontologies that classify diseases based on the organ they affect or their causative agent. 

However, such frameworks are largely absent in bioethics. This can be problematic in the context of clinical trials, for example, where informed consent procedures and study protocols must be shared and harmonized across institutions. “We need to make sure that we are conveying the correct information, correctly processing whatever data was gathered to get that information, and make it consistent with current policies, regulations and guidelines,” says Odeh. A few groups have developed simple bioethics ontologies, but these have been limited in scope and cannot readily be extended to emerging crises like COVID-19. 

To rectify this, Odeh and colleagues used an automated text mining and machine learning approach to deeply analyse thousands of bioethics articles, as well as a recently published COVID-19 reference textbook. The resulting algorithmically generated ontology was then integrated with an ontology that was manually created by bioethics experts. “The automated one was more comprehensive,” says Odeh, “but some of the particular relationships [between concepts] identified by the manual ontology were richer.”

The resulting ontology offers a shared language that can facilitate communication between any institution involved in pandemic related care or research. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this work is that it offers a general foundation for rapid development of more extensive bioethical ontologies. “This framework would be able to accommodate the integration of ever-increasing publications on a variety of topics that are published in the bioethics space,” says Junaid Nabi, a physician and bioethicist at Harvard Business School, who was not involved in the study. “This will enable a standardized understanding of the concepts routinely used in bioethical analyses, and more importantly, provide a foundation for bioethics big data analytics.”

This is in keeping with Odeh’s plans, and he and his collaborators have already launched an iOntoBioethics organization to pursue the application of their ontology framework to cancer care, patients with disabilities, and other areas of medical bioethics.


Odeh, M. et al. iOntoBioethics: A framework for the agile development of bioethics ontologies in pandemics, applied to COVID-19. Front. Med. doi: 10.3389/fmed.2021.619978 (2021).