Roadmaps and Pipelines, Hurdles and Obstacles: Translational Medicine and the Bioethics Backlash

Speaker: Dr Duncan Wilson # University of Manchester

18th Jan 2016

15:30 - 17:00

Staff Room, 6th floor, Crystal Macmillan Building (University of Edinburgh, George Square)

‘Translational Medicine’ refers to the ‘bench to bedside’ enterprise of harnessing scientific findings to produce medical innovations that ‘alleviate disease and suffering to improve the quality of human existence’. While the term emerged in the 1990s many argue that Translational Medicine’s core aim and methods are longstanding and that it represents little more than ‘old wine in new bottles’. This is not quite the case, however, and in this paper I argue that Translational Medicine involves unprecedented efforts to tackle the non-scientific ‘obstacles’ that are believed to inhibit the translation from research to clinical practice: including a lack of communication between laboratory researchers and clinicians, neglect of the government-industrial partnerships necessary for ‘health and wealth’, and the ‘stifling’ regulatory guidelines for research on human subjects.

Focussing on the last of these perceived obstacles, I show how British scientists, doctors and funding bodies evoked a ‘translational imperative’ in order to criticise the guidelines drawn up by what some pejoratively called the ‘ethics industry’, where lawyers, philosophers and other ‘outsiders’ play a major role in regulating issues that were once left to doctors and scientists. I detail how this criticism contributed to a backlash against bioethics and underpinned the political ‘streamlining’ of the advisory bodies that bioethicists once argued were vital to securing public trust. And I close by arguing that these efforts to scale back ‘the many processes that conspire to make research harder’, along with the presumption that scientists and doctors remain the best judges of what is ethical, both present a fundamental challenge for bioethicists and scholars in the medical humanities.

Speaker bio: