Geron Corporation and the Role of Ethics Advice

By Margaret Eaton, Gerald Farquharson, Clare Ozawa
2004 | Case No. BME10
In the spring of 1999, scientists, biotechnology companies, ethicists, religious leaders, patient advocates, abortion opponents, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and members of Congress were all engaged in a protracted debate about human embryo research. Geron Corporation, a publicly traded biotechnology company in Menlo Park, California, was at the center of this debate. Geron had been financing research at three U.S. universities to isolate human embryonic stem (hES) cells—the primordial or master cells from which all human tissues evolve. Executives knew that this research was likely to stir up public debate on the ethics of the science; senior managers suggested forming a board that could provide an external evaluation of the ethics of the research methods and goals. In 1998, Thomas Okarma, PhD and MD, vice president of research and development, had set up the Geron Ethics Advisory Board (EAB). The case details the controversy surrounding Geron’s hES cell research and the role that the EAB played in shaping Geron’s response and actions. Okarma evaluates the EAB’s efficacy in the hES controversy to determine if any changes are needed to the mandate, structure, and scope of the EAB, especially considering the highly controversial nature of Geron’s future research. A recent acquisition had given Geron the in-house capacity to clone tissues and animals. Because this technology could potentially lead to the cloning of embryos and people, Geron could face with even more ethically controversial decisions in the future than it had with hES.
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