Rewriting Life

Ethics for Hire

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.”

Get stories like this before anyone else with First Look.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.