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My Kingdom for an Ethics Litmus Test

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A few years ago, Affymetrix’s executives faced a dilemma. Another company had asked the California firm to create a DNA chip to test for a mutation in a gene that predisposes a small percentage of people to a form of cancer. It was a good business opportunity, recalls Thane Kreiner, vice president for operations and corporate communications. One problem: Affymetrix’s ethics advisory board knew that no helpful treatment existed for anyone who tested positive. The company declined to make the chip.

Perhaps nothing can make ethically thorny decisions any less nerve-wracking, but practical help may be on the way, thanks to a now-maturing project at Stanford University that Affymetrix helped fund in its embryonic stage. Margaret Eaton, a lawyer and pharmacist at the school’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, has developed a curriculum that reviews how leaders of DNA science companies have addressed issues such as using humans as placebo controls and the ownership of genetic information. Eaton intends her classes to appeal to current and aspiring industry bosses, such as those who have taken them at Stanford’s business school the past two years. She expects to complete a textbook with nine case studies this summer.

The course, which is mainly funded by the Department of Energy and the National Human Genome Research Institute, doesn’t discuss Affymetrix, but tackles Celera’s database-access and research-subject policies. “The human genome, remember, was sequenced from the tissue of five people,” says Eaton.

— Matt Fleischer

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