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Molecular medicine and brain research

The ethical profile of molecular approaches in medicine and their application to the human brain


  • Abstract:
    Within the scientific cooperation the first goal will be to establish the fields of study which are to be subsumed under the paradigm of molecular medicine. The current unifying attempts refer to a first level of generalization: They consider the identification of molecules in different biological systems and the discovery of their functional interaction an opportunity to describe the mechanisms underlying the phenomena of life and to develop intervening techniques from there. Taken together, these techniques can be labelled ‘biotechnology’. A more precise conceptual analysis, which will be indispensable with regard to the self-conception and the theoretical reflection of a newly evolving discipline, will have to be developed in close exchange with scientists and health professionals.

    Molecular medicine is still a comparably young paradigm in both medical research and practice. Establishing the Junior Research Group in this phase enables the IWE to engage in the reflection of the emerging possibilities of scientific insights and actions. The powerful representation of molecular medicine and brain research at the University of Bonn will serve as a valuable basis for this purpose. Accordingly, one of the primary tasks of the Junior Research Group will be to build up interdisciplinary structures including researchers working in this field. Specifically, this will mean a close scientific cooperation with the relevant departments and clinics of the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences as well as the design of curricula for ethics teaching within the study program ‘Biomolecular Medicine’ at the University of Bonn.

    The molecularization of medicine is connected with hopes to improve our understanding of the causes of diseases and to develop novel therapies for diseases which so far either cannot be treated at all or only to a limited extent. Although today such scenarios are only vaguely foreseeable, molecular medicine is likely to gain importance in medical practice as well. The connected anticipations and evaluations are, however, highly divergent. This becomes particularly obvious in the fields of gene therapy, stem cell research and pharmacogenetics. Especially when these techniques are applied to molecular exploration and therapies of the human brain, fundamental ethical issues arise. This is so for two reasons: On the one hand, the human brain is likely to be a preferred target of new therapeutical approaches at molecular level because of the restricted feasibility and minor specificity of the relevant conventional therapies. On the other hand, the human brain as the central organ which is a prerequisite for the recognition of self-consciousness and autonomy is especially worthy of protection. It is therefore probable that future debates about the ethical, anthropological and social dimensions of molecular medicine will focus most intensively on its applications to the human brain. Greatly diverging arguments will come to the fore in the process: the significance of the brain in the intersection between corporeality and the self-conception of humans as creatures with a mind, social fears of interventions which may have an impact on personality and to the same extent the expected extraordinary burden for the social health care systems faced with an increase in neurodegenerative diseases.

    This challenge for an ethical evaluation of molecular medicine will be faced on the basis of the following topics:

    (1) Firstly, the precise characteristics of the main concepts in the field of molecular medicine need to be investigated. According to the relevant literature the subject matter of molecular medicine is mainly seen in the context of usage of biomolecules (DNA, RNA, proteins or peptides, small molecules, etc.), of nanobiotechnology, molecular pharmacology (‘drug designing’), and cell-based procedures. Taking this canon as a point of departure, we will develop – in close cooperation with scientists and health professionals – a consistent picture of molecular medicine which corresponds to the enormous dynamics of this evolving field of study.

    (2) As a second step, we want to specify the ethical profile of molecular medicine and in particular examine where it diverges from the ethical profile of conventional medicine. Here one has to consider questions about the depth of medical intervention, the risk-benefit-calculus, the impact on human self-conception through a ‘molecularization’ of the concept of the human being, etc.

    (3) The results will then be applied to molecular brain research. Here the focus will first be targeted towards the question as to which extent an analysis of the general issues of molecular medicine can be used to provide answers to the particular problems of molecular brain research. Conversely, the possible contributions of an analysis of molecular brain research to the profile of molecular medicine in general will also be investigated. In this context we want to clarify how deeply molecular intervention may affect human individuality and to which extent the disclosure of molecular mechanisms in the brain affects the concepts of the relation between mind and brain and the idea of personal autonomy.

    Starting from January 2005 the Junior Research Group is scheduled for a period of eight years, five of which will be funded by the BMBF. During the first three years, the Group will consist of a head of project, a PhD scholar and a research assistant. It will be complemented by a further PhD scholar and a further research assistant for the remaining period.

  • Supervision:
    Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. h.c. Ludger Honnefelder
    Institute of Science and Ethics, Bonn



  • Funding:
    German Federal Ministry of Research and Education


  • Funding Period:
    January 2005 - December 2009

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