Money, medicine and morals

By Erin Ludwig

It seems that money can’t buy you love, happiness or even ethical medical research.

On Wed., Oct. 16 the Moot Court room in the University of Calgary Faculty of Law was full as Jocelyn Downie, Director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University, spoke on the promises and perils of health research in the new millennium. The professor’s visit was a result of a collaboration between the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine as part of the annual Honourable Mr. Justice Michael O’Byrne / Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Lectures on Law, Medicine and Ethics.

"Health research is important as it has the potential to affect so many people in profound ways," said Downie. "We are poised on the verge of recent developments and knowledge, but also on the verge of harm."

Although some benefits of health research were mentioned, the focus of Downie’s presentation was on its perils. She used the example of the Nuremberg trials and other, more recent experiments to remind the audience of the results of unethical health research.

"The past tells us there are perils attached to the promises of research," said Downie. "You need to recognize the perils so we can prevent the harm."

The majority of policies and guidelines dealing with ethical treatment of human subjects in health research are not comprehensive and deal only with research conducted inside universities and hospitals, which constitutes only 52 per cent of health research in Canada. Universities and hospitals are also increasingly dependent on private corporations for research funding as government-sponsored research continues to decline.

"Commercialization introduces pressures in research that universities and hospitals do not have the ability to resist," stated Downie. "Industry is currently setting the standards of research."

According to Dr. Hans van de Sande, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, the faculty has a budget near $150 million this year, but only $19 million came from the U of C.

"If we could get 100 per cent funding from the university, we wouldn’t have to deal with issues like this," said van de Sande.

Downie emphasized that her primary concerns were not with the involvement of industry interests in medical research, but with the lack of regulation of industry-sponsored influences. She believes solutions to the industrial control over health research include more people, research ethics expertise and a separation between research services and research ethics boards.

"We need a person to explore ethical issues in research in the institution," stated Downie. "Research ethics boards need to review budgets."

Downie strongly believes that not everyone who claims to be an ethics expert actually is one, and encouraged students to take an active interest in the field. Ethics and health law is an exciting field," she said, but warned, "plan on studying intensively for a long time."

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