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Biomedical research lately has generated a wide array of controversies in bioethics. Debates about stem cell research and cloning, for example, continue to rage as Congress considers laws to address these new scientific technologies. > Responding to the need for a coordinated campus-wide bioethics effort, Columbia University has founded the Center for Bioethics. The center will explore bioethical issues, promote research, offer education, and provide service to the extended university community. > The directors of the center, Dr. Ruth Fischbach, professor of bioethics, and Dr. Robert Klitzman, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, spoke with In Vivo writer Matthew Dougherty about the new center.

Why did you form the center?

DR. KLITZMAN: We started the center in response to advances in biomedical research and to create a gathering place for scholars and others interested in grappling with current issues. Scientists have cracked the human genome, and biotechnologies, such as stem cell research and cloning, are moving forward. At Columbia, people are very interested in bioethical issues, such as informed consent, but there has been no place for them to go to find mentors, collaborators, or colleagues with whom to work.

What are the goals for the new center?

DR. KLITZMAN: We want to promote research and scholarship in bioethics, be a resource for the university, and provide service to the community. For example, students, faculty, and Institutional Review Board members across the university want more education about issues, such as informed consent and privacy. We will be canvassing the university to find out what people are interested in and are doing in bioethics. We also plan to work with community groups on ethical issues that are specific to their needs and concerns.

What is the center's structure?

DR. FISCHBACH: We are recruiting faculty and administrators to form a 28-member council of representatives from all of the schools at Columbia University. We also plan to have about 40 faculty associates as well as an external advisory board comprised of 10 nationally recognized leaders in the field of bioethics selected from other institutions.

How will you bring bioethicists together?

DR. FISCHBACH: We plan to hold both a series of symposia to examine current issues and monthly brown bag working lunches to offer people a forum to present works in progress, receive constructive criticism, and meet colleagues. For example, last month the center hosted its inaugural event. Dr. Renee Fox, Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the center for bioethics there, spoke about the origins and future of bioethics and the need for interdisciplinary approaches to enrich and guide the field.

Ultimately, we plan to provide courses in bioethics. For the fall, we are planning a bioethics film series in which an expert in the field will discuss controversial issues raised in a movie. We are considering films such as “Coma” and “Lust for Life” that focus on organ transplantation and mental illness, respectively. These events will be open to the public.

How is the center funded?

DR. FISCHBACH: We have applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to support short-term courses in bioethics on privacy, confidentiality, and conflicts of interest. We will be seeking support from donors as well. Ultimately, we hope to have funds to provide seed money to support small research projects or a portion of a project.

How can the center serve in an advisory capacity?

DR. KLITZMAN: Last year, the Columbia Business School hosted a conference about cloning and whether biotechnology companies involved in cloning were good investment opportunities. We could have provided the expertise on ethical perspectives related to cloning.

What kind of research do the two of you do?

DR. FISCHBACH: I have been investigating ethics in research practices, looking at informed consent and research with individuals whose decision-making capacity is impaired. I am also interested in ethical issues involved with end-of-life care including patient autonomy, advance directives, and pain management.

DR. KLITZMAN: Recently, my main areas of research have been issues of patient privacy and confidentiality, especially in the areas of genetics and HIV/AIDS. I have studied HIV patients' understanding of public health policies related to HIV and also have written about how medical trainees are taught to deal with the ethical and social issues they confront.


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