President Clinton appointed a 15-member National BioethicsAdvisory Commission (NBAC) whose initial studies will include theappropriateness of patenting genes and the rights of patients whoparticipate in genetic research.

Formation of a national commission to study the broad ethical issuesin the fast-developing field of genetic medicine was proposed twoyears ago by the White House's Office of Science and TechnologyPolicy (OSTP).

The NBAC, with an estimated $500,000 in annual funding, will makerecommendations to the National Science and Technology Council _a cabinet-level group chaired by Clinton _ and other federalagencies. The commission also will receive staff help from the OSTPand the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The first meeting of the commission, which is chaired by Princeton(N.J.) University President Harold Shapiro, is scheduled for latesummer or early fall.

Commission members include Steven Holtzman, chief businessofficer of Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Cambridge, Mass.,who is co-chairman of the Biotechnology Industry Organization'sbioethics committee.

Holtzman said, "The single greatest obstacle to realizing the medicalbenefits from biotechnology is the public's fear that the science won'tbe used in a socially responsible manner. The commission can help toensure a better understanding of what biotechnology is doing andensure the industry's commitment to responsible practices."

The NBAC is expected to expand on work done by other U.S.governmental groups. It is not the first commission assembled toconsider bioethical issues.

In the early 1980s a panel appointed by former President JimmyCarter issued a report that influenced regulation of the biotechnologyindustry for a decade.

Other commissions have been established, but accomplished littleafter becoming mired in the political debate over abortion and fetaltissue research.

Bioethics also has been a serious concern in Europe where it hasplayed a major role in disagreements over guidelines forbiotechnology patents and for restricting applications of the science.

The European Convention of Bioethics, formed by the Council ofEurope, a 39-country organization, has been under development forfive years and has yet to receive the backing of the European Unionand the European Parliament.

In initially focusing the NBAC on the issue of protecting the rights ofpatients participating in research, the OSTP was responding toconcerns generated by revelations from the U.S. Department ofEnergy that people in the 1950s and 1960s were exposed to radiationresearch without their consent.

The other priority issue of managing genetic information was selectedbecause of public controversies over granting specific ownership togenes, which are the basis of life, and protecting patients' privacyrights in the use of their genetic profiles by physicians, insurancecompanies and employers.

The NBAC, according to its charter, will issue public reports andmake recommendations on "the appropriateness of departmental,agency, or other governmental programs, policies, assignments,missions, guidelines and regulations as they relate to bioethical issuesarising from research on human biology and behavior andapplications, including the clinical applications."

Those selected for the four-year appointments to the commissionwere described as a mix of experts in philosophy, theology, law,medicine, biology and public health care policy.

Joining Shapiro and Holtzman on the panel are:

* Patricia Backlar, a senior scholar at the Center for Ethics in HealthCare at Oregon Health Sciences University, in Portland.

* Arturo Brito, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at theUniversity of Miami School of Medicine.

* Alexander Capron, professor of law and medicine at the Universityof Southern California in Los Angeles.

* Eric Cassell, clinical professor of public health at Cornell MedicalCollege, in New York.

* Alta Charo, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin'smedical and law schools, in Madison.

* James Childress, professor of religious studies and professor ofmedical education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

* David Cox, professor of genetics and pediatrics at StanfordUniversity School of Medicine, in Palo Alto, Calif.

* Ezekiel Emanuel, associate professor of medicine and socialmedicine at the Dana-Farber cancer Institute of Harvard UniversityMedical School, in Boston.

* Laurie Flynn, executive director of the National Alliance for theMentally Ill, in Washington.

* Bernard Lo, professor of medicine and director of the program inmedical ethics at the University of California, at San Francisco.

* Lawrence Miike, director of Hawaii's Department of Health, inHonolulu.

* Thomas Murray, professor of biomedical ethics and director of thecenter for biomedical ethics at Case Western Reserve UniversitySchool of Medicine, in Cleveland.

* Diane Scott-Jones, professor of psychology at Temple University,in Philadelphia. n

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.