Balancing Science And Ethics
Should embryonic stem cell research or cloning be allowed? What are the issues regarding patient confidentiality and informed consent ? Should genetic diagnosis allow parents-to-be choose characteristic traits or the sex of their baby during IVF?
These are some of the issues that Prof. Martin Bobrow has to deal with, as a member of the Singapore Bioethics Advisory Committee’s (BAC) International Panel of Experts. Prof. Bobrow is the head of the Medical Genetics Department at the University of Cambridge, and was recently in Singapore, where he gave a public lecture on “Confidentiality in Medicine and Research” and a professional lecture on “Informed Consent”.
Although Prof. Bobrow is actively involved in the area of bioethics, he readily admits not to have any formal training in ethics.
Prof. Martin Bobrow, a member of the Singapore Bioethics Advisory Committee’s (BAC) International Panel of Experts
“I am an academic doctor with a strong side interest in ethical issues, because my subject, Genetics, often gets brought into this area. Genetics has a history of being quoted as a reason for serious social abuse, during the ‘eugenics’ periods. Modern genetics is a paradigm for the fantastic growth in biological science, which is transforming the way we understand many aspects of medicine, and our view of our own species, its evolution, its range of variation, and our interactions in societies. Given this background, to be a geneticist over the past few decades, with any sort of socially-aware conscience has driven me and many of my colleagues, to take a serious interest in matters of bioethics. However, without formal qualifications in ethics, when I give an opinion in this area, it is my personal opinion. So people do not have to believe them, because they may be wrong – but at least they should stop to think about why they are wrong,” said Prof. Bobrow, with a twinkle in his eye.
Prof. Bobrow’s area of research is concerned with understanding inherited human diseases, how they develop, how to diagnose them, and eventually how to manage and treat them. His particular interest is in understanding the reasons why people differ from one another.
“Inherited variation underlies a lot of predictive medicine and much of ‘normal’ variation that makes people what they are. It may even be shown to underlie a lot of the variation in responses to drugs. Understanding the multiple causes of this variation fascinates me, and I think is critical to a real appreciation of our biology, of medicine, and of our social and political structures,” said Prof. Bobrow.
While in Singapore, Prof. Bobrow discussed various issues including stem cell and human tissue research and standards for governance of biomedical research by institutional research boards. With rapid growth occurring in Singapore’s Biomedical Sciences (BMS) industry, it is crucial that work in this field progresses in an ethically sound manner.
“Singapore is extremely vibrant and exciting, in the way it has planned and developed biomedical sciences. It is astonishing how much has been achieved, so quickly. I am particularly impressed by the care and thought that has gone into ensuring that bioethical guidelines and regulations are drawn up, which adequately reflect Singaporean society, but are also sensitive to international standards in this area. Structures which have taken decades to develop in other countries have been brought up to speed very quickly in Singapore. Singapore seems to have learned from everyone else’s mistakes and got pretty well to the right place, amazingly quickly,” commented Prof. Bobrow.
When asked about what more can be done to further boost bioethical standards in Singapore, Prof. Bobrow replied, “I would say we all need to keep enormous pressure on ensuring that our processes are as transparent as possible. I think it is particularly important to ensure that scientists, doctors, and those from entirely non-scientific and non-medical backgrounds are all openly involved in debating biomedical and bioethical issues, and in real decision-making.”