January 18, 2011

JHU bioethicists named to presidential bioethics commission

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has appointed two faculty experts at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics to senior staff positions. They will support the advisory panel in its ongoing work to provide the White House with expertise and guidance on matters such as emerging technologies and human subjects protections.

The 13-member commission is charged with examining specific bioethical, legal and social issues in the areas of scientific research, health care delivery and technological innovation. The commission is then expected to deliver practical, actionable guidance.

The Berman Institute’s deputy director for medicine, Jeremy Sugarman, will serve as one of two senior advisers to the commission. The other is bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, of the University of Pennsylvania.

“It will be a privilege to work with the commission on projects that will lead to a better understanding of critical issues in bioethics,” said Sugarman, the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Professor of Bioethics and Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University. He will serve a part-time, six-month post.

Over the next year, Debra Mathews, the Berman Institute’s assistant director for science programs, will serve as a senior policy and research analyst part time in the commission’s Washington, D.C., office.

On Dec. 16, the commission issued its first report on how the government should regulate synthetic biology and evaluate future emerging technologies. Leading up to the report’s presentation, Berman Institute Director Ruth Faden testified before the commission with other experts to help its members develop a broad framework for evaluating emerging technologies. “The work of the commission has the potential to inform and guide public policy for decades to come,” Faden said, “and we welcome this opportunity for our faculty members to contribute to the commission’s efforts.”

The commission next meets Feb. 28 to address President Barack Obama’s request for a thorough review of protections in America and abroad for human subjects in research. The request came after the recent revelation of unethical research on sexually transmitted diseases that took place in the 1940s in Guatemala, where U.S. public health officials intentionally infected prisoners and other study subjects without their knowledge.

Following that news, Obama sent a memo in November to commission chair Amy Gutmann, asking that a panel be convened in January 2011 to review whether federal policies and international standards adequately protect participants in scientific studies funded by U.S. tax dollars. The president ordered the commission to consult with international experts and deliver a full report within nine months.

One of Sugarman’s roles at the commission will be to provide expertise on international research ethics.

Also, Laura Biron, a postdoctoral Greenwall Fellow at the Berman Institute, will serve this semester as a part-time intern at the commission, providing research assistance to the commission members and staff.

The Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics conducts advanced scholarship on the ethics of clinical practice, biomedical science and public health, both locally and globally. With more than 30 Johns Hopkins faculty members—most of whom are jointly appointed in the schools of Medicine, Public Health, Nursing or Arts and Sciences—the Berman Institute is one of the largest centers of its kind in the world.