Chair's Column: Frontiers Of Medical Research
by Andrew J. Demetriou, Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, Los Angeles, CA
Not long ago, medical research concerned itself primarily with understanding the causes of death, based on examination of cadavers. What would now be called clinical trials were highly risky experimental administration of potential cures for disease, often administered to the researcher and his intimates or possibly criminals and mental defectives, the latter on the theory that they were expendable members of the population. We have come a very long way in the past century, to an era where medical research holds the promise for dramatically improving the quality of life for all mankind, through innovations not well understood even a decade ago. In addition to the development of new and increasingly effective drugs, researchers are exploring the use of gene-based therapies to enlist the body's own mechanisms for the recognition and correction of disease. Stem cell therapies may give new hope to people with diseased organs and eventually displace organ transplantation as a preferred therapy. Enhanced understanding of the operation of cancer cells offers the prospect of early detection of cancer risks and means to combat many forms of the disease without resort to toxic therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation.
While it is exciting to contemplate these vistas, we must also consider very difficult questions of ethics. At times scientists and researchers seem preoccupied with what I call the "how" questions, leaving to others, or not at all, the "whether" and "what next" questions when it comes to research. The fact that it is possible to do something does not mean that we should. The problem is that those "whether" and "what next" questions are not always susceptible to scientific process and often involve moral, philosophical and, in many instances, political judgments. It is important that these "whether" and "what next" questions are posed, and then answered, in a responsible fashion, marshalling scientific and medical evidence to support responsible policy. Just as it is not appropriate for researchers to plunge headlong into exciting research projects without sufficient consideration of the consequences, it is equally wrong to stifle legitimate scientific enterprise on the basis of anecdotal evidence, purely religious conviction or electoral considerations. Lawyers play an important role in mediating this debate, as many medical research issues touch on fundamental questions of our rights as individuals in the society.
The Health Law Section has an Interest Group that addresses Medical Research, Biotechnology and Clinical Ethical Issues. Under the leadership of Bruce Howell, LaDale George, Elizabeth O'Keeffe, Betty Pang and Thomas Smith, this group includes Section members from academic institutions, research hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers and private practitioners with common interests in the challenging legal issues occasioned by advances in research. Their agenda has included privacy issues for patients in clinical trials, the changing role of Institutional Review Boards at academic research centers, developments in assisted reproduction technology, and government sponsorship of research. The breadth of their work often brings the Section into contact with other Sections of the ABA, including Science and Technology, Individual Rights and Responsibilities, and even Family Law. This is a vibrant group and I encourage those of you who have professional or personal interests in these fields to consider membership in this Interest Group.
Even though my term as Chair of our Section continues for another four months, this is the time of year when we look toward the future. My successor, Vickie Yates Brown, is in the process of making her appointments for leadership positions of the Interest Groups, Committees and Task Forces that do the heavy lifting of making our Section worthwhile to all of us. It is a difficult job to identify and promote Section leaders and everyone who has ever served in Vickie's position knows that a real joy comes from finding new talent to serve in leadership roles. If you are interested in giving back to your fellow health lawyers, please contact Vickie or Jill Peña and offer your commitment. I can promise you that the experience will be rewarding.
Finally, I want to make you aware of an exceptional live program in the near future. We will be convening our 9th Physician-Legal Issues Conference in Chicago on June 13, 2008. The brochure for this program has just hit the presses and I hope you will consider attending. This program has a rich heritage, reaching back to our former Chair, Sara Keller. It was revived by our current Vice-Chair, David Hilgers, a lawyer with passion for the representation of physicians, and is currently chaired capably by Bill Hopkins and Tom Curtis, the Co-Chairs of our Physician Issues Interest Group. We have an outstanding faculty assembled for this event, and it is scheduled to permit most of you to fly in and fly out the same day.