Bioethics and the Biomedical Engineer

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The last five decades have seen significant development in medical and biomedical technology and applications. The increase in research and development in fields such as biomechanics, biomaterials, cloning, tissue engineering, and medicine have spawned a whole new branch of philosophy aptly named bioethics. Bioethics, the study of the ethical and moral implications of biological research and biomedical advances, emerged in the early 1970s as its own discipline. As medical technology is improved and new developments made the influence of bioethics will place an ever increasing role on the research of scientists and engineers. It is extremely important that biomedical engineers on the frontline of cutting edge research be aware of the ethical dilemmas involved in their experimentation. This paper has three objectives. The first is to briefly outline the development of bioethics as a field since the end of World War II. The second is a focus on the recent controversy seen with silicone breast implants where a lack of ethical measures in proper testing has caused harm to thousands of patients. Specific studies will be analyzed to determine the engineering aspects involved with testing and using the products and where a lack of ethics came into the process. Finally, this paper will discuss the responsibilities of the biomedical engineer to learn and practice bioethics in research and testing of new technology.

The horrible experiments of the Third Reich during World War II serve as one of the most shocking examples of a lack of ethical research. During the war doctors in Nazi Germany conducted horrifying research from limb transplants to hypothermia tests on prisoners in their concentration camps. The lack of ethics in these experiments has far reaching implications within the world of biotechnology. During the Nuremburg Trials of 1948 new measures in medical research were developed because of the atrocities. The most important to our research was the idea of “informed consent” for all patients in research experiments.

Nazi Germany was not the only location of unethical research in the mid 1900s. Many trials and experiments were taking place in America and Great Britain that have been revealed as dangerous and unethical. One example is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted on 400 African American men. This study was conducted by the United States Public Health Service and went on from 1932 to 1970. The study followed the long term effects of syphilis. In 1950 when penicillin was proven to be effective at treating syphilis the subjects were not allowed treatment because the experiment was not finished. Approximately one hundred of the men died from complications due to their syphilis when a cure had been on the market for over ten years.

Other experiments during this time included studies of malaria, influenza, and dysentery. In the United States psychotic patients at the Illinois State Hospital were infected with malaria to be used as test subjects to discover a cure. President Franklin Roosevelt’s Office of Scientific Research and Development used orphans and mentally retarded individuals to find a vaccine for dysentery. The subjects developed dangerously high fevers with a few dying from the complications proving that the vaccine was ineffective. These and other experiments like them lead to the development of the Helsinki Declaration. This document was accepted by the World Medical Association in 1964 as a guide to human experimentation throughout the world.

In 1974 Congress passed the National Research Act which created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This commission produced the Belmont report which lay out a cohesive code of guidelines for conducting research. Despite new regulations disasters and tragedies still occur in the research and development of new methods and technologies in medical advancements. One...
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