Ethical issues in biotechnology: contrasting companies and classrooms

Reposted from the original Digitalbio.

About a decade ago, I took a fascinating summer course at the UW on bioethics. We read about the Nuremburg trials and the Geneva conventions. We learned about horizon problems and eugenics. And we discussed lots of challenging scenarios with genetic testing, autonomy, family relationships, and the problems faced by people seeking to have children, trying to get insurance, or looking for a job.

So naturally, when I started a biotechnology course for non-science majors (Biotechnology and Society) at our community college, I used many of those examples. The class had a grand time discussing all those interesting things. And they all had opinions! We debated the merits of labeling GMO food, animal testing, genetic tests and all sorts of fun topics. We had a great time during the OJ trial, studying good and bad DNA fingerprinting data and the chain of custody. And considering all the vegetarians in our class, our talks on making cheese were especially enjoyable. Since many of our vegan students were also anti-GMO, it was truly enlightening for them learn about the GMO E. coli used to make rennin for vegetarian cheese.

Later, when I became a member of Bio-Link in 1997, one of our goals was to address teaching ethical issues related to the biotech industry.

I decided it was time to find out what they were so, I asked members of our industrial advisory board.

What are the most important ethical issues in your company?

These were the sorts of answers I received:

  • Make sure your students know that they need to write down every thing in their notebooks! Even - no, especially if it didn't work. I fire people for not recording negative results!
  • They need to take good notes and understand what they're doing. I had to testify in court, in a patent dispute, about experiments that I did many years ago as a technician.
  • They need to know that telling the truth is critical!
  • They need to know that we work with animals, people have taken shots at our building, and sometimes I've had to walk around protestors to get to work. If they have problems with animal research they should do something else.
  • Make sure they know that experiments cost money!

I listened and modified my seminar course for biotech majors to better align with industry concerns. We had speakers talk about patent disputes, interpreting data, and animal research. We had speakers from the FDA talk about their role in making sure that biotech products are safe (although, I guess you want to stay away from diet pop).

Perhaps our biotech program was a bit unusual, though, because from what I read, biotech instructors spend more time on interesting controversial topics and miss the topics that concern biotech companies.

This gap can be seen very clearly when comparing what teachers say they teach (genetic testing, euthanasia, cloning, stem cell research, GMO foods) with the top ethical topics concerning companies. According to Finegold and Moser (1), in the March 2006 issue of Nature Biotechnology, the top ethical concerns of companies were these:

  1. Employee behavior
  2. Conduct of clinical trials
  3. Sales practices
  4. How to market products
  5. Corporate governance
  6. Regulatory strategy
  7. Who to partner with
  8. What research to conduct
  9. What products to develop
  10. Accounting practices
  11. Company mission
  12. Where to do business
  13. Product pricing

We don't do clinical trials, but I'd say this list is pretty much correct, given my limited company experience.

Which raises an interesting point.

Could it be that biotech instructors are biased towards picking more interesting topics? Few things could be worse than lecturing on accounting issues to biotech students.

Or perhaps this list is different from the standard garden-variety set of classroom biotech issues because some of the ethical stands that people might take should discourage them from working in companies that engage in those activities in the first place.

Against animal testing? Forget working in a biotech company. Almost all of them rely on animal tests somewhere down the road.

Against GMOs? That rules out any agbiotech companies, plus several other biotech companies that might be doing research to express therapeutic proteins in tobacco or corn.

Have a problem with stem cells? Many biotech companies that make or do research on developing therapeutic drugs are interested in this technology. If they're not doing this work in the U.S. they might be outsourcing this work to countries with a more enlightened view.

Against cloning? The whole industry, just about, is based on cloning something - either DNA, cells, or bigger things.

Euthanasia? Dead issue. (oh sorry! I just couldn't help it!) Rest in peace, we're not planning a product line around this one.

Hmmm, on second thought, maybe the classroom topics are on target after all. Could the answer be that biotech instructors want to help individuals avoid a rude shock by thinking about where they want to work and why, before they apply for a job?

1. David Finegold & Allison Mose. 2006. Ethical decision-making in bioscience firms. Nature Biotechnology 24:285 - 290.

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I don't see anything on the Bio-tech company list except things that are really business ethics, not bio-tech ethics. I always get the feeling from bio-tech types is, we can do it in the lab so lets try to make money from it. For instance if one wants to make money from GMO food the last thing one wants are people discussing the ethics of doing it.