Bioethics centre at Chinese University to tackle medical moral dilemmas

It will focus on issues such as euthanasia and cloning thrown up by rapid scientific advances

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 3:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 11:14am

Hong Kong's first multidisciplinary bioethics centre is due to open next year, adding a philosophical element to the city's already booming medical research scene.

Ethical questions related to ageing and genetics - such as euthanasia and prenatal diagnosis - will be some of the most important concerns of the centre, which will operate in Chinese University's medical school starting in January.

"There is a need to bring ethics to the forefront," said vice-chancellor and neonatologist Dr Fok Tai-fai, who is overseeing the centre's creation. "We can't rely solely on tradition now."

Professor Alastair Campbell, the director of biomedical ethics at the National University of Singapore who has set up three different bioethics centres around the world, is advising the centre's founders. He said increasingly commercial interest in the medical sector was putting pressure on professionals in the industry.

Bioethics is a field in which controversial issues in biology and medicine are debated and studied. These can include questions about physical processes such as cloning, gene manipulation and euthanasia. They can also include ethical questions such as privacy issues stemming from genetic testing and how to allocate a limited supply of donated organs to patients.

With a burgeoning global biomedical industry and the rapid development of science and technology, bioethics has become increasingly crucial.

Some of the first modern bioethicists debated the morality of human testing, establishing the current rules for clinical trials of drugs and therapies.

"Biotechnology in Hong Kong is developing at a similar pace to the rest of the world," Fok said. "But as medical practitioners, we are dealing with ethical issues on a day-to-day basis while treating our patients - some dealing with new technology. But even with traditional medicine, it has a lot to do with ethics and difficult choices."

Fok added that Hong Kong was a leader in genetic mapping and genetic sequencing.

The city has one of the biggest genome sequencing centres in the world in Tai Po at the offices of BGI, formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. The non-governmental institute was founded in order to take part in the Human Genome Project, the global initiative to map human DNA and figure out the function of each gene.

BGI, which first sequenced the DNA structure of the Sars virus, has now branched out into sequencing the DNA of animals, bacteria and plants. It is also breeding genetically modified pigs for drug-testing purposes.

Genetic sequencing opens the door to a host of new medical issues, such as parents selecting their baby's gender or going so far as to select certain genes in order to create so-called designer babies, Fok said.

"It's true that we are now facing a whole new raft of issues, with the advances in medicine and biotechnology," Campbell said.

But biotechnology and medical ethics will not be the only topics discussed at the centre. Campbell said it would also study issues such as pollution and the effect of the city's cramped environment on human health.

Fok said the centre's top priority was to educate and equip future medical practitioners, then to raise awareness among the public and give policy recommendations to the government and the Medical Council.

"We haven't been able to integrate - many of our colleagues are doing work on ethics, but we haven't been able to put our act together and work towards a common goal," he said.