Stanford ethics consulting helps researchers navigate sensitive issues

ST. LOUIS - Grant proposal? Check.

Laboratory equipment? Check.

Ethical consultation? Huh?

Few basic-science researchers routinely gather information on the ethical aspects of their work, but a pioneering program at the Stanford University School of Medicine is helping scientists navigate the minefield of sensitive issues surrounding biomedical research.

The 'benchside' consultation program offered by the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics helps researchers identify the ethical and social impacts of their work. In addition, the ethicists suggest ways to minimize risks and maximize benefits to society.

'We see this as a service to researchers, in the same way that a biostatisician can help them,' said center director David Magnus, PhD, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics. 'We can help them avoid situations that have tended to arise in the past and that could haunt them if they're not careful.'

Magnus and associate center director Mildred Cho, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics, discussed the Stanford program Feb. 18 in St. Louis during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Cho moderated the session, titled 'Benchside ethics consultation for biomedical research.'

Benchside consultations are similar to the long-standing practice of bedside consultations in which ethicists help clinicians wrestle with difficult decisions involving patient care, such as end-of-life issues.

Stanford is one of the few medical schools in the country to launch a benchside consultation program to help scientists deal with such ethical matters as study design, conflict-of-interest concerns and questions raised by regulatory bodies.

The program's most prominent client to date is Irving Weissman, MD, director of Stanford's Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. A few years ago, Weissman asked for the ethicists' recommendations about creating animal models to study human brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, that do not normally occur in animals. To do that, he posed the possibility of inserting human neural stem cells into the brains of mice, thereby creating a chimera - an organism made up of two genetically distinct types of cells.

The ethicists researched the case and advised him as to the conditions under which such work could proceed. For instance, they suggested that Weissman conduct the least controversial work first and move slowly to ensure that the brains in the mice didn't take on human characteristics. Weissman said he currently has no plans to proceed with such research, but felt it was important to think through the ethical concerns.

Cho said that since the fall of 2005, seven Stanford researchers have asked for benchside consults. Additionally, the National Institutes of Health has tapped Stanford's ethics experts for advice on four studies being considered for funding.

The Stanford program has developed a database of readings and case studies related to the ethical conduct of basic research as well as a list of core competencies that other universities could use to build their own benchside consulting program, Cho said.

But Magnus pointed out that simply having a consulting program isn't enough. Scientists must buy into the value of exploring the ethical issues surrounding their work. 'We want postdocs and graduate students and faculty members to see this as an important part of their research,' he said. 'We want it to permeate the culture of their labs.'

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