Last November, Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company based in Worcester, Mass., wanted to let the world know that it had created a human embryo using a cow’s egg. Their vehicle of choice? The front page of The New York Times. “We weren’t trying to be sensational,” CEO Michael West says of the news leak; the company was merely trying “to get a reading on the public’s acceptance.” But sensation was exactly what West generated-plus some unfavorable press coverage of a public relations strategy deemed less than wise.
Hoping to do better next time and to shield itself from criticism, Advanced Cell has begun hiring a team of professional ethical advisors. The move puts the company on the growing list of biotech firms now relying on outside expertise to sort out right from wrong when it comes to developing, marketing and talking about new technology. “Everywhere I turn, I see companies setting up ethics advisory boards [and] using bioethics consultants,” says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Caplan is one of the best-known bioethicists in the United States and tops many companies’ hiring lists: He helped Pfizer decide how to market Viagra, and was recently recruited by Celera Genomics (see “The Gene Factory,”) to counsel that company as it moves forward with plans to decode all human genes.
As advisors with little power, bioethicists could be used by some companies as mere window dressing. But Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., argues that the trend is sincere and irreversible. “We have learned from the graveyard of nuclear power,” says Feldbaum. “They thought the public was too ignorant to be included in the debate.”