Carnegie Mellon University

Alex London

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Research Ethics During a Pandemic

Alex London

Medical and public health research are powerful tools for improving the health of large populations of people.

They also pose some thorny ethical challenges — particularly in the face of pandemic — according to Alex John London, director of Carnegie Mellon's Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy (CAAEPP).

"The current system for regulating scientific research can be time-consuming and difficult to navigate," explained London. "In the face of a pandemic, like the one that we are experiencing now with AH1N1 influenza, the window for carrying out some research will be very narrow."

London is working to develop a framework for research ethics that respects and protects participants while it fosters the expeditious conduct of scientifically sound and socially valuable research.

Following a paper he wrote for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, London spoke recently at the World Health Organization about how the process might be facilitated.

"WHO is interested in making sure that valuable research can be carried out quickly in a pandemic context."

London's research through the CAAEPP is shedding light on a variety of issues at the local, national and even international level. One example is his work detailing the risks involved in clinical trials on early-stage gene therapy, especially the recruitment of patients from the developing world.

Rooted in the interdisciplinary and problem-solving nature of the university, CAAEPP includes 13 faculty from seven different units across Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.

"Ethical issues don't know disciplinary boundaries; they are almost always interwoven with historical claims, scientific models and predictions, or other explanatory theories," London said.

He credits the diversity of the disciplinary backgrounds and the wealth of experience that members of the CAAEPP bring to ethical issues as being key strengths of the center.

"Another is our shared commitment to relevance, which means addressing real-world problems and trying to find solutions that are practicable and sustainable," he said.

London adds that he's constantly amazed by the generosity of his colleagues, by their willingness to share their time and their expertise, and by their love of their work.

"This is really a place where people gravitate to hard problems and good ideas, even if they are somewhat outside of their narrow disciplinary purview."

Related Links: Early-Stage Gene Therapy  |  CAAEPP  |  Global Connections, Global Responsibilities  |  College of Humanities & Social Sciences