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carbar
03-03-2006, 06:21 AM
Finding the moral high ground

Biotech companies will be facing particular ethical challenges as their products enter the marketplace. How is the industry preparing? Ken Wilan investigates.

FULL ARTICLE
http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060227/full/nbt0306-237.html


EXTRACT:
Other companies—often those doing work in ethically charged research areas, such as Geron (Menlo Park, California) and Advanced Cell Technology (Worcester, Massachusetts)—have taken the route of hiring consultants for ethics boards. This has at times resulted in charges of conflict of interest from people questioning board members' objectivity once they are being paid or even just associating with a particular company.

"The people in bioethics that serve on these panels see themselves as kind of impartial advisors," says Carl Elliott, from the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. "[But] you can basically get any answer you want, you can get an ethicist to say anything, it's not like picking a mathematician. If you pick the right ethicist you can get the right answer."

"The difficulty is for ethicists themselves because ethicists are like journalists in that they aspire to a certain detachment [from] the subjects they write about," continues Elliot. "On the other hand, they aspire to some sort of practical influence to the world of policy. How do you have that influence without financially compromising your impartiality?" Elliot suggests that one solution would be for a bioethicist to do the work, but not take money. On the other hand, they have the same worry as imbedded journalists have in wartime. "If you are right in there working solely with industry, isn't that going to compromise your objectivity, even if you don't take the money?" he asks.

"Bioethics are about the ethics of the real world, you can't just teach and call for oversight and write papers and then not be able to do it," counters Laurie Zoloth, bioethics director at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. She sat on a Geron ethics board from 1998 to 2002, receiving payment for her time at the meetings. She points out that it's not just the money that can influence someone's objectivity. "It may be easier for a philosopher to turn down money than to turn down fame. For a philosopher, participation and the ability to do interesting work is a temptation as well. So it's not just the money, you have to be aware of all the rewards."

Zoloth is also aware that some of her colleagues viewed her participation on a company's board as a public relations victory for that company. "The criticism is we're supposed to be watchdogs and instead we're show dogs," she says. But she has no regrets about having served on Geron's board. She said that she and her colleagues on the board insisted on independence in tackling ethical issues that Geron proposed, and also complete transparency about who was on the board and what was generated. Ultimately, they published their work in a number of academic journals. "Our opinions surely were not bought," she says.

Zoloth emphasizes that the transparency was important. "The ethicists were there to provide serious critique and reflection. We weren't there to serve stem cell research but to explore it for our own research."