The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Member Spotlight: Nelson Michael

As a long-time HIV vaccine scientist for the United States Military, Col. Nelson Michael M.D., Ph.D. didn’t find bioethics—bioethics found him.  Originally trained in internal medicine and molecular biology, Michael entered the U.S. Army in 1989 and became the director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program in 2006, where he oversaw clinical trials including the first HIV vaccine trial to show efficacy—the RV144 HIV vaccine in Thailand.  There, Michael gained on-the-ground expertise in bioethics by dealing with one of its core principles, community engagement, in real time.

“Doing complex clinical trials with experimental vaccines associated with the U.S. Army in Asia and Africa raises a lot of ethical issues, such as how one communicates with the community and develops trust and partnerships,” noted Michael.  “It gave me more experience on the practical side of ethics.”

In Michael’s experience, effective community engagement involved developing relationships with local authorities and community leaders, including the Thai Ministry of Public Health, which administered the 16,000-person trial in two Thai provinces.  He noted that there were divergent opinions in Thailand regarding how community engagement should be done: “Who should be doing that work?  What is the extent of it?  At the end of the trial, there was a rich debate on whether or not we had done all that we could.”

The RV144 HIV vaccine trial in Thailand was ultimately used as a case study in the deliberations of the International Research Panel, a subcommittee of the Bioethics Commission that met three times in 2011 to help inform the Bioethics Commission’s review of current protections for participants involved in human subjects research.  Michael served on that subcommittee.   In addition, his work on the trial in Thailand helped shape the Bioethics Commission’s recommendation about community engagement in Moral Science : Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research, focusing on the integration of cultural sensitivities through dialogue between researchers and communities.

The Moral Science report resonated with Michael’s practical experiences as a vaccine researcher for the U.S. military, and the Bioethics Commission’s first report, New Directions in Synthetic Biology, drew upon his doctoral studies in molecular biology.  “I always thought that synthetic biology was a derivative of molecular biology,” he said, also noting that many of the main players and ideas in synthetic biology were familiar to him from his academic work.  He found that the ethical issues seemed similar, and considers synthetic biology to be an evolution, rather than a revolution, of the life sciences.

Regarding the scientific work that served as the jumping-off point for the Bioethics Commission’s report on synthetic biology, he said that “at the end of the day, I did not think life was created.”

While always ready to bring his practical experiences in bioethics to the table, Michael noted the importance of not being too quick to look at bioethics only through that lens. “People can be passionate about their experiences, but they may not generalize them,” he said.

Michael said that the best part about the job at the Bioethics Commission is being surrounded by talented colleagues. He emphasized the humility and respect with which they all approach the Bioethics Commission’s work.  “The Commissioners are just wonderful people—they’re bright, enthusiastic, incredibly talented, and they check their egos at the door,” said Michael. “The degree of respect that the Commissioners have for each other is really remarkable.”

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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