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Press Release

Jonathan Potts

For immediate release:
April 4, 2005

Carnegie Mellon Professor Receives Prestigious Grant To Develop Ethical Standards for Evaluating Medical Research

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Alex John London will use the New Directions Fellowship to develop rigorous standards for evaluating whether medical research is conducted ethically.
PITTSBURGH—The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a New Directions Fellowship to Alex John London, an assistant professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, to develop rigorous standards for evaluating whether medical research is conducted ethically.

The New Directions Fellowships are for faculty members in the humanities or humanistic social sciences who received their doctorates between five and 15 years ago and wish to acquire systematic training in topics outside their own disciplines. London is the second member of the Department of Philosophy to receive the fellowship; in 2003, it went to Associate Professor Jeremy Avigad to study the development of mathematics in the 19th century.

London seeks to develop a model that can unify two predominant approaches to human-subject research: one that privileges the well-being of the individual research subject, and another that prioritizes the needs of the scientific community and future patients. To augment his background in philosophy and ethics, he will take courses in the Tepper School of Business and the departments of Statistics and Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon to learn formal methods of evaluation and decision-making. London will draw on the university's strengths including economic behavior and decision-making, Bayesian statistics and risk-benefit analysis.

"It's a tremendous opportunity. I think one of the things that's unique about Carnegie Mellon is that when I was notified I was going to get this fellowship, a number of my colleagues stepped up to say 'I'm willing to help,'" London said.

London will craft a consistent standard to measure the level of risk that scientists ethically can ask human research participants to assume in order for a study to have meaningful results. This will require him to reconcile two seemingly incompatible frameworks for evaluating the ethics of human-subject research. The first framework, codified in federal regulations, requires that the risks to research participants be minimized and outweighed by the benefits of the research even if those benefits will not be enjoyed by the participants themselves. But this standard does not explicitly quantify what tradeoffs are permissible between the interests of the participants and the future benefits to society.

The second framework holds that in order for a study to compare two medical interventions, such as two drugs, then the medical community must be uncertain as to which one is more effective, and there must not be a third alternative that is preferable to both. This guideline seeks to ensure that participants in clinical trials do not receive a level of care that falls below minimally acceptable standards. That would prohibit drug trials, for example, in which one group of participants receives the drug that is under review, while another receives a placebo. Such a restriction can hamstring medical research, because placebo trials require fewer participants to be statistically significant, and are less expensive to perform. This framework also has limited applicability, because it assumes that researchers already have an idea about how people with a specific medical condition should be treated.

The apparent dichotomy between those two approaches leaves the institutional review boards that must approve human-subject research to use their own judgment to decide which approach works best.

"The more arbitrary it is the less people will trust the regulatory structure. And the regulatory structure is supposed to ensure that trust and safeguard the public," London said. "I'm looking for a rigorous framework for advancing science in a way that's consistent with the fundamental interest of the people who make that possible."

London is co-editor of Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine, one of the most widely used textbooks in medical ethics. He has been a member of the Department of Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon since 2000.


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