Member Profiles – blog.Bioethics.gov https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog The blog of the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Mon, 09 Jan 2017 23:23:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The “Brains” Behind the Bioethics Commission and Why a Multidisciplinary Approach is the Smartest Approach https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2014/10/23/the-brains-behind-the-bioethics-commission-and-why-a-multidisciplinary-approach-is-the-smartest-approach/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2014/10/23/the-brains-behind-the-bioethics-commission-and-why-a-multidisciplinary-approach-is-the-smartest-approach/#respond Thu, 23 Oct 2014 16:06:34 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=1456 Last month the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) was excited to take part in the first-ever White House BRAIN Conference. As a part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to review the ethical issues associated with neuroscience research. In May, the Commission released Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, the first of two volumes the Commission will produce in response to the President’s request. Vol. 2 is slated for release in spring 2015. The Bioethics Commission is pleased to play a key role in ensuring the incorporation of ethical considerations into neuroscience research, but just who are the brains behind those who advise about BRAIN?

“Our Commission is as multidisciplinary as a commission could be,” said Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., in a video from the Bioethics Commission. The newly posted video highlights the multidisciplinary nature of the group, and why it is critical that its members hail from a variety of fields.

“Bioethics touches so many aspects of medicine, of science, and of society, and I think it’s magnificent the way that our Commission is so diverse in terms of the backgrounds and perspectives of the people who are on the Commission,” says Commission Member Stephen Hauser, M.D.

“We have many different perspectives on very complex problems,” says Gutmann, “and if you put them all together and deliberate together, and you deliberate in public, I think we maximize the information, knowledge, and understanding that we can bring to bear on any bioethical issue.”

To view the video “Who is the Bioethics Commission” and to learn more about the Bioethics Commission, please to visit our YouTube page.

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Multidisciplinary Members and Staff Reflect the Unique Field of Bioethics https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2014/07/11/multidisciplinary-members-and-staff-reflect-the-unique-field-of-bioethics/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2014/07/11/multidisciplinary-members-and-staff-reflect-the-unique-field-of-bioethics/#respond Fri, 11 Jul 2014 14:54:23 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=1354 At first glance legal scholars, doctors, philosophers, scientists, and engineers may not appear to have much in common; however, members of these professions make up the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission). For the past four years, since its first public meeting on July 8, 2010, the Bioethics Commission has been advising President Obama on issues arising from advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology. Bioethics is a multidisciplinary field that draws upon many subject areas and disciplines to address ethical questions in health care and biomedical sciences. The field revolves around core principles such as justice, beneficence, autonomy, and democratic deliberation. Different disciplinary perspectives lend various lenses through which to consider these principles, contributing to the richness of the field as a whole and increasing the likelihood that the ethical analysis generated is well-rounded.

Reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of bioethics, Bioethics Commission members include philosophers John Arras, Ph.D., and Christine Grady, R.N., Ph.D.; legal scholars Anita Allen, J.D., Ph.D., and Nita Farahany, J.D., Ph.D.; clinician Barbara Atkinson, M.D.; scientific researcher Raju Kucherlapati, Ph.D.; clinician and philosopher Daniel Sulmasy, M.D., Ph.D.; along with Nelson Michael, M.D., Ph.D., and Stephen Hauser, M.D., who are both clinicians and researchers; Vice-chair James W. Wagner, Ph.D., an engineer; and Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., a political philosopher. Our Member Spotlight series provides an in-depth look at each member of the Commission, highlighting how their professional backgrounds contribute to the commission’s bioethical work, and our video, What a Bioethics Commission Does,further illustrates the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

Just as the variety of the Bioethics Commission members’ backgrounds fosters rich dialogue and collaboration, so too does the multidisciplinary nature of the Commission’s staff, who assist members with research, drafting reports, and planning public meetings. The Commission staff come from law, epidemiology, philosophy, medical anthropology, health sciences, and public health. This diversity in expertise is intentional and helps the Commission tackle the wide variety of issues bioethics addresses. Already the Commission has covered a range of issues including the ethical considerations arising from emerging technologies—such as synthetic biology, whole genome sequencing, and neuroscience—and the protection of scientific research participants. More specifically the Commission has addressed questions such as: should the government conduct pediatric medical countermeasure research; and how should researchers and clinicians prepare for incidental and secondary findings?

Bioethics often examines questions to which there are no easy answers. Commission Members, representing a variety of professional backgrounds, bring a range of legal, moral, scientific, and political perspectives to the issues it considers. With help from a multidisciplinary staff the Bioethics Commission provides well thought out ethical analyses about complex issues.

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Bioethics Commission Videos Highlight Members and Their Work https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2014/03/25/bioethics-commission-videos-highlight-members-and-their-work/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2014/03/25/bioethics-commission-videos-highlight-members-and-their-work/#respond Tue, 25 Mar 2014 14:01:02 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=1209 One of the most important functions of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) is to work transparently as it deliberates the difficult issues before it. Another important function of the Bioethics Commission is to help educate the nation about bioethics. As a part of this effort the Bioethics Commission has developed several videos, posted to the Commission’s YouTube Channel, that help answer basic questions about the Commission and its work.

Its most recent video, “Challenging Topics for the Bioethics Commission”  – posted this week – highlights some of the topics that the Bioethics Commission has addressed.  None of the ethical questions considered by the Commission are easy, but Members identified several that presented particularly difficult questions. From synthetic biology and emerging technologies to pediatric medical countermeasure research and protecting participants in human subjects research, Members remember the specific challenges they faced while deliberating recommendations on these critical issues. The video underscores the important role the Commission plays in providing guidance on some of the most exigent issues in science, medicine, and technology today.

In “The Role of a Presidential Bioethics Commission,” Members discuss why the Commission is important and how it can be helpful to healthcare providers, scientists, and researchers but also to the general public. “We are living at a time where great advances in biomedicine are just essential to the future of the health of our society and the well-being of people around the world,” Commission Chair, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., says in the video. “The only way we are going to make those advances is ethically. If we don’t do it ethically, they won’t be advances.”

In a third piece posted to YouTube Gutmann explains, “One of the things we do as a Commission is make recommendations to the government, but another thing we are doing is actually putting our resources into developing educational materials that every high school and every university in this country can use.” The video, “Promoting and Providing Materials for Bioethics Education” elaborates on this commitment as Members discuss the specific educational materials that the Commission has developed promoting bioethics education in traditional and nontraditional settings. “These [ethical] questions are not simple ones for isolated people working in ivory towers,” explains Member Daniel Sulmasy, M.D., Ph.D. “They are for everybody, which is why the Commission’s efforts at education are so important.”

“In addition to the Commission’s report-based education modules that we have developed, the videos themselves are another tool that we hope educators and students will use in any and all settings where they might have need to explore who this Commission is, what it does, and how its Members arrive at the recommendations they make as they offer non-binding advice to the Administration and the country as a whole,” said Hillary Wicai Viers, Commission Communications Director.

The Bioethics Commission is working on additional videos. One upcoming piece to be released later this week explores how this Bioethics Commission works – through a public process called democratic deliberation.

For these videos and more please check the Bioethics YouTube Channel and follow us on twitter, @bioethicsgov.

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Member Spotlight: Amy Gutmann https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/15/member-spotlight-amy-gutmann-2/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/15/member-spotlight-amy-gutmann-2/#respond Thu, 15 Aug 2013 20:00:37 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=816 amy-gutmann_portraitThe Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission), Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., is the eighth president of the University of Pennsylvania.  She leads Penn’s 12 schools and its Health System, including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, overseeing a $6.4 billion annual budget.  This includes more than 21,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students, and nearly 33,000 faculty and staff.  So when President Barack Obama asked Gutmann if she would volunteer her time to chair a commission that tackles complex, high profile, and often controversial issues, she could have respectfully declined due to lack of enough hours in the day. True to form, she did no such thing.

“The President was asking me to serve,” Gutmann said.  “Plus the request hit the sweet spot of my scholarly and professional interests.”

A political philosopher and scholar of ethics and public policy, Gutmann is keenly interested in deliberating the often complicated issues that arise at the convergence of health care, science, and technology.  Before becoming President of Penn in 2004, Gutmann served in a variety of successive roles at Princeton University, including dean of faulty, academic advisor to the president, and, ultimately, as provost, and held visiting appointments at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the University of Maryland’s Center for Philosophy and Public Policy. At Princeton, she founded and directed the University Center for Human Values, a leading forum for the deliberation of ethical issues and human values.

“The best any democracy can do in the face of disagreement on complex issues is to have deliberation among a wide range of experts and involved citizens in a way that is transparent to the public,” Gutmann said.  Open and robust dialogue is at the very heart of deliberative democracy, a principle Gutmann has championed throughout her academic career, both in the books and articles she authors and in practice at Penn. Now, she has imbued the work of the Bioethics Commission with that principle.

“Deliberative democracy is the opposite of sound-bite democracy,” Gutmann said.  “Democracies do better when people discuss – robustly and respectfully argue about – their differences.  It’s the give-and-take of viewpoints with an aim of finding common ground and reaching mutual respect among citizens where that common ground is not possible. The common good of democracy includes living respectfully with our differences, while continually aspiring to create a society–and world–with liberty and justice for all.”

Gutmann’s commitment to learning, to service, and to open and respectful deliberation is in many profound ways an homage to her parents.  Her mother was a natural teacher, but she had no choice but to put that dream on hold–since she could not afford a college education and had to support her family during the Great Depression.  Gutmann’s father escaped Hitler’s Germany in 1934, and also saved the lives of his entire family by urging and enabling them to join him shortly thereafter in India.   “They were extraordinary people with great values, foresight, generosity, and courage, who had a powerful faith in America as the land of opportunity,” Gutmann said.

Gutmann has brought those values to bear through her leadership of the Bioethics Commission.  To date the Commission has:

  • advised the White House on the benefits and risks of synthetic biology;
  • completed an independent ethical analysis of the U.S. Public Health Service STD experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s;
  • assessed the rules that currently protect participants in research;
  • examined the pressing privacy concerns raised by the emergence of low-cost whole genome sequencing; and
  • completed a thorough review of the ethical considerations of conducting clinical trials of medical countermeasures with children, including the ethical considerations involved in pediatric anthrax vaccine research.

These are incredibly complex issues.  Gutmann relishes the challenge and embraces the democratically deliberative process as key to finding common ground and an ethically sound path forward.

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Member Spotlight: Barbara Atkinson https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/15/member-spotlight-barbara-atkinson/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/15/member-spotlight-barbara-atkinson/#respond Thu, 15 Aug 2013 16:21:17 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=802 barbara-atkinson_portraitPresident Obama appointed Barbara Atkinson, M.D., to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) in April 2010. Atkinson is Executive Vice Chancellor Emeritus at the University of Kansas Medical Center and Professor Emeritus of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1997.

As a cytopathologist, a physician who studies diseases at the cellular level, Atkinson brings both medical and institutional perspectives to the issues before the Bioethics Commission. However, Atkinson did not always know she wanted to work in bioethics. She was first introduced to this emerging field when she began teaching general ethics to her medical students. In its infancy, bioethics was not formally taught in the classroom, but learned and picked up through practice, Atkinson said. It was through her experience in patient care and research that Atkinson became more and more interested in bioethics. Upon accepting the position Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, Atkinson became responsible for addressing many ethical issues arising from the research and clinical activities of the school. As her work progressed, Atkinson’s professional interests began to shift to bioethical issues such as health disparities and potential conflicts of interest, and later to end of life care and research issues related to the human genome.

Atkinson is also a proponent of mentorship in her field through programs like the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) for women. When Atkinson graduated from medical school, only 10% of medical students were women, and even fewer of them were leaders in academic medicine. “As I moved through my career, I made it a point to mentor other women,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson particularly values the opportunity to contribute to national discussions on new, significant issues like pediatric medical countermeasure research, implications of research on the human genome, and neuroscience. “The ethics piece is an integral piece of the whole discussion and to be able to have an impact on those studies is incredibly meaningful,” she said. The Bioethics Commission’s first report, New Directions in Synthetic Biology, remains Atkinson’s favorite report to date because she found the process of putting forth recommendations on cutting edge technology fascinating, and she appreciates that it was widely read by diverse audiences.

Like so many of her peers, Atkinson said that the best part of working with the Bioethics Commission is the company of fellow members and distinguished speakers who come to publicly present at Bioethics Commission meetings. “At meetings, each person is able to offer different perspectives and different views. To be a part of a discussion with them on those issues is what I really enjoy.”

When she is not deliberating challenging bioethical issues, Atkinson enjoys birding. She and her husband have identified 565 species in the United States and Canada.

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Member Spotlight: Nita Farahany https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/09/member-spotlight-nita-farahany/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/09/member-spotlight-nita-farahany/#respond Fri, 09 Aug 2013 13:48:23 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=788 Nita Pink ShirtNita Farahany, J.D., Ph.D. wrote in her high school “last will and testament” that she aspired to be both a lawyer and a doctor one day. Farahany achieved that goal, and then some. In April 2010 President Obama appointed her to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission). She is also the Director of Science and Society at the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, Professor of Law and Philosophy, and Professor of Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University. Her research focuses on the legal, philosophical, and social issues arising from developments in the biosciences, particularly behavioral genetics and neuroscience.

Farahany is the daughter of Iranian immigrants to the United States who dreamed of their daughter becoming a lawyer or a doctor. She enrolled in Dartmouth College with the goal of attending medical school, and she studied pre-med for most of her college career. After a medical school visit during her junior year, however, Farahany reconsidered that goal.

“During that visit I saw my first cadaver and nearly fainted! It was the final nudge that I needed to convince me that practicing medicine was not my chosen path,” she said.

On a new path, Farahany completed her B.A. in genetics, cell and developmental biology and afterwards accepted a job with a strategy consulting company in Cambridge, Mass. While there, she began working toward a master’s degree at Harvard. As she studied behavioral genetics in that program she was intrigued by how science and law came together with the use of genetics in criminal law. It inspired her to pursue a dual degree program in law and philosophy at Duke University, where, on her first day, she told her criminal law professor that she wanted to study the role of behavioral genetics and neuroscience on criminal responsibility. That focus continued from day one through her dissertation.  Her dissertation was entitled The Impact of Behavioral Genetics on Criminal Law.

In 2004 Farahany graduated with a J.D. and an M.A. in Philosophy from Duke Law School. In 2006 she fulfilled her high school pledge and became both a lawyer and a doctor by earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy, also from Duke. In 2007, she was awarded her ALM in Biology from Harvard.

The path to becoming both a lawyer and a doctor was not the one Farahany imagined, nor did she foresee that she would serve on a presidential commission. “It’s been extraordinary honor to serve on the Bioethics Commission. Particularly at this relatively early stage in my career, the opportunity to serve alongside such a talented and distinguished group of commissioners and staff has given me the chance to expand my horizons,” Farahany said.

 

 

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Member Spotlight: Raju Kucherlapati https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/02/member-spotlight-raju-kucherlapati/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/08/02/member-spotlight-raju-kucherlapati/#respond Fri, 02 Aug 2013 16:59:09 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=783 raju-kucherlapati_portrait“Growing up, I thought of the United States as a shining beacon of hope. I came here as a nobody, but this country has given me so much,” Raju Kucherlapati, Ph.D., said. President Obama appointed Kucherlapati to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) in April 2010 because of Kucherlapti’s extensive knowledge and background in genetics. Kucherlapati is the Paul C. Cabot Professor in the Harvard Medical School Department of Genetics and is also a professor in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He has chaired many NIH committees and is a member of the Cancer Genome Atlas project. Currently, his research focuses on gene mapping, gene modification, and cloning disease genes.

Kucherlapati grew up in Andhra Pradesh, India. He started his scientific career in India by earning a B.S. in Biology from P.R. College in Kakinada, and an M.S. in Biology from Andhra University in Waltair. In 1967 Kucherlapati came to the United States to begin a doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana. It was during this time that he became interested in human gene mapping. After Kucherlapati obtained his doctoral degree he was offered the opportunity do his post-doctoral work at Yale University in the lab of the late Dr. Frank Ruddle. Ruddle was an innovator in genetics and his work was at the foreground of mapping human genes. At Yale, Kucherlapati started research that would be the foundation for his future work on gene targeting. He conducted some of this work in collaboration with the Nobel Prize winner Oliver Smithies.

During the course of his career Kucherlapati has done research with gene targeting, gene cloning, and on mapping and sequencing human chromosome 12. He holds 12 patents and has served as editor in chief of the journal Genomics. Kucherlapati currently heads his own lab at Harvard where the work is focused on using genetics to understand cancer. Kucherlapati believes that diseases that are fatal today might not be so for patients in the future.

Kucherlapati might believe he came to the United States as “a nobody,” but he has earned his role as a top geneticist who has helped the Bioethics Commission navigate several ethically challenging questions of our time. He said that when he was originally offered the appointment to the Bioethics Commission he questioned whether he was right for the job. However, projects like Privacy and Progress in Whole Genome Sequencing, in which the Bioethics Commission tackled pressing privacy and data access issues raised by the emergence of low cost whole genome sequencing, helped him realize how important it is to have experts from a diverse set of fields wrestle with these contemporary ethical dilemmas to offer the Administration the best analysis. “I’ve learned so much from everyone and they all have such different backgrounds. It’s been very interesting and a true pleasure,” he said.

 

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Member Spotlight: Stephen Hauser https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/07/26/member-spotlight-stephen-hauser/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/07/26/member-spotlight-stephen-hauser/#respond Fri, 26 Jul 2013 18:49:11 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=774 HAUSERStephen Hauser, M.D. was appointed by President Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) in April 2010. Hauser is the Robert A. Fishman Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. A neuroimmunologist, Hauser’s research has advanced our understanding of the genetic basis, immune mechanisms, and treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS). While in college he developed an intense interest in the immune system, which perhaps stemmed from the asthma he experienced as a child. This interest set the stage for his lifelong fascination with how the immune system protects us but can also be damaging when overactive. His early experience as a medical resident treating MS strongly influenced his desire to make a clinically relevant impact through research. At that time, physicians had very few options available to address this devastating disease affecting young people, often causing significant disability. The existence of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was merely a rumor at that time, and the main diagnostic tool available at the bedside involved asking patients to immerse themselves in hot water. The hot bath test, as it was commonly known, was used because heat causes a temporary worsening of neurological symptoms in those with MS.

Encouraged by strong mentors, Hauser charted a career that allowed him to treat patients while making a continued impact through research. Looking back at the enormous discoveries in MS genetics, diagnosis, and treatment over the past 30 years (in which he has played a major part), Dr. Hauser looks forward by advancing his research and training new scientists. This next generation, which is on the verge of major breakthroughs in tailored therapeutics for early disease, is crucial for MS. There is still substantial work to be done in reversing the long-term damage of MS, as well as solving what Hauser characterizes as one of the “great mysteries in medicine”: neuroscientists are actively working to determine how the interaction between environment and genetics contributes to the “galloping frequency” of the disease, particularly among women. Hauser’s considerable contributions to the field were recently recognized when he was awarded the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation’s 2013 Charcot Award. Hauser was given this lifetime achievement award for his “pioneering studies in MS genetic susceptibility and role in translating immunological findings into clinical trials.”

It is no surprise that this neuroscientist is thrilled President Obama recently asked the Bioethics Commission to play a critical role in ensuring that neuroscientific investigational methods, technologies, and protocols are consistent with sound ethical principles and practices as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Hauser notes that the Bioethics Commission has touched on issues related to neuroscience through the course of many of its other deliberations, but he believes this BRAIN project is an exceptional opportunity. He is looking forward to the Bioethics Commission’s public meeting this August -its first meeting since receiving the BRAIN charge.

 

 

 

 

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Member Spotlight: James Wagner https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/07/19/member-spotlight-james-wagner/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/07/19/member-spotlight-james-wagner/#respond Fri, 19 Jul 2013 15:06:00 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=761 james-wagner_portraitPresident Obama appointed the nineteenth President of Emory University, James W. Wagner, Ph.D., to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) in November 2009. Wagner serves as Vice Chair on the Bioethics Commission.

Wagner holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s degree in clinical engineering and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering. Wagner said he became an engineer because it is a creative discipline. “From shingles on a roof to the creation of the iPhone, they all were created by someone. They aren’t natural, but a vision of their creator,” he said. Wagner initially wondered how his engineering background would help a bioethics commission, but he now believes it serves a valuable role.

Prior to Emory, Wagner developed quality-assurance methods at the FDA and performed failure analyses on medical devices. Wagner says he had to rely on basic ethical principles as he encountered quality assurance challenges like whether a less expensive and thus more available cardiac pacemaker could be produced if it did not have to go through time consuming and costly steps such as qualifying the electronic components and batteries for medical use.

“Engineers understand that risk management is different from risk elimination and so [engineers] engage in the same kinds of decision processes that challenge the Bioethics Commission,” Wagner said. He pointed to one example of this that can be seen in New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, the Bioethics Commission’s first project. President Obama asked his bioethics advisors to “develop recommendations about any actions the Federal government should take to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks.”

Wagner approached this charge with an engineering mindset, one that aims to reduce risk, but not stymie development. In particular he feels the principle of responsible stewardship is one of the most important principles that the Bioethics Commission identified and applied as it considered the developing field of synthetic biology.

As defined in the Bioethics Commission’s report, responsible stewardship is “a shared obligation among members of the domestic and global communities to act in ways that demonstrate concern for those who are not in the position to represent themselves (e.g., children and future generations). A responsible process will continue to assess safety and security as technologies develop and diffuse into public and private sectors.” Wagner said that the Bioethics Commission Members realize that with all new technologies there will be risks that cannot be eliminated, and it is the role of the Bioethics Commission to offer the Administration advice on how to manage those risks for the public.

“I’ve learned a great deal,” Wagner said of his time with the Bioethics Commission. “This is a group committed to helping society navigate its way through these emerging technologies, while protecting everyone; this has truly been a satisfying experience.”

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Member Spotlight: Nelson Michael https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/07/12/member-spotlight-nelson-michael/ https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/2013/07/12/member-spotlight-nelson-michael/#respond Fri, 12 Jul 2013 14:31:00 +0000 https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/blog/?p=749 untitled
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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