Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bioethicists to the rescue

The University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics seems to come up with an interesting topic for discussion every Wednesday afternoon at its weekly bioethics seminar.

Last week, for instance, one of its past students returned with a message that there’s a key role for bioethicists in the development of politically touchy race-based drugs.

Too often, the bioethicist turned lawyer said, such research is thwarted by fears of drawing a connection between genetics and race. That’s a tragedy, he says, because such medications could save lives in Canada’s native communities and the developing world.

But by setting an ethical framework for the work, bioethicists can defuse the issues before they make headlines. “We have a huge role to play, we can set the ground rules,” Shawn Richard told said in a question and answer period after last week's session.

As with many of the JCB lectures, the discussion among the academics, working ethicists and researchers afterward provides some of the best insights into the state of debate today.

All the JCB lectures are webcast, and then archived on the centre's site. This week, the Wednesday seminar, starting at 4:10 pm, will feature Shawn Winsor, a clinical ethicist at Trillium Health Centre, talking about multiple embryo transfer.

But back to Richard's seminar.

He said that while many in the scientific community extol the possibilities of using genetic markers to tailor medications to each patient — helping with dosage levels and improving their effectiveness — the field remains politically charged.

Government and corporate officials are wary of getting involved with anything that ties genes and race, Richard said. Many in the ethics community, Richard included, avoid the use of the word “race” at all, preferring such terms as “ancestral origins.

As well, Richard fears that drug companies will focus on medications that will help rich white populations in the West, ignoring the needs of developing countries. “There’s some concern in developing countries that they are going to be left out,” he said.

Richard, who has a master’s degree in bioethics and is now articling at a Bay Street law firm, said there are limits to what the law can do in pushing companies to research such drugs. “The law tends to wait until a problem has developed,” he said.

But by debating the ethical framework in which such research can take place, bioethicists can help find ways for the work can be done without raising thorny or touchy issues, Richard said.

Once that’s done, he said, governments can be lobbied to provide tax incentives to drug companies to engage in the research, and private organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can be encouraged to also provide more money.

Beyond developing countries, Richard said, the incentives could encourage companies to research medications developed specifically for Canada’s native population.


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