Ground broken on genomic facility

by Bryan Keogh

As University scientists rapidly close the gap between science and fiction, new ethical dilemmas have arisen that science-fiction writers never dreamed up.
Ethical questions are emerging as fast as the technology itself, especially at the University. Last week, officials broke ground on a new $70 million facility that is aimed at propelling the University to the forefront of genetic research.
“(University) President Yudof is in the midst of a very impressive push to gear up on genomics and related fields at this University,” said Susan Wolf, Law School professor of bioethics. “It seems like the perfect time to launch a program that would address the interdisciplinary issues that are raised by advances in biology, the life sciences and health care.”
In fact, Wolf is the new director of such a program. The Joint Degree Program in Law, Health and the Life Sciences is designed to fuse previously disparate ends of study that modern science has brought together.
“You think of the kind of big questions that people are worrying about at the turn of the millennium; they are all interdisciplinary questions,” Wolf said. “They’re questions that you can’t adequately address with a grounding in only one discipline.”
The program couples a law degree with any one of seven degrees in the health and life sciences. More than 300 faculty members from the different disciplines are participating in the $90,000 program.
Graduates of the program will use their degrees to form public policy on cutting-edge scientific issues. By encouraging students to learn law and science simultaneously, program officials hope to train future policy-makers who have the technical grounding to make informed decisions.
In 1997, British scientists broke major scientific ground by successfully cloning a sheep they named Dolly.
Afterward, the cloning of a human being seemed the next logical step. The issue caused such a stir that President Clinton declared an indefinite moratorium on federal funding for human-cloning research.
“These are huge, huge policy issues,” said E. Thomas Sullivan, dean of the Law School. “Cloning is an obvious example.”
Wolf and Sullivan originally brainstormed the program in July 1998. Eleven months later, the idea was molded into a formal proposal by a 20-member planning committee, consisting of faculty members from the Law School, the Medical School, the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, the College of Biological Sciences and others.
Although planners anticipated resistance from the Board of Regents, who had to approve the plan, they found the regents were behind the idea.
“We sat down thinking there would be something to sell,” Wolf said. “We found there was nothing to sell. They were completely on board immediately.”
Although the regents didn’t approve the program until after the March deadline for Law School applicants, a lone student aiming for a career in patent law signed on as the first participant.
Jeannine Thiele began her graduate studies at the University last year in molecular, cellular, developmental biology and genetics. Although she is interested in biology, Thiele said she didn’t want to spend her time in laboratories and decided to apply to the Law School.
Among other financial incentives in joining the program, the Law School and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs will each offer at least one full scholarship to participating students.
Besides the $20,000 scholarship she received, Thiele was assigned Wolf as her adviser. Law School students normally do not have advisers.
“She’s our guinea pig,” Wolf said.
But Thiele said she doesn’t mind being a pioneer: “It’s exciting to be the first, and it’s fun to be the only.”

Bryan Keogh covers professional schools and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3232.