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Wake Forest University Launches Major Initiatives in Bioethics; Critical Need for Bioethics Seen Nationally and Regionally

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Responding to a looming “bioethics crisis,” Wake Forest University is launching several initiatives in bioethics to address the ethical and social aspects of medical care and technology.

This week, Wake Forest began accepting applications for its new program leading to a Master of Arts in Bioethics, which will begin classes in August 2009. The bioethics degree program, according to the proposal submitted to the Board of Trustees in April, will equip graduates to practice, teach or conduct research about bioethics. Currently, there are no comparable programs in North Carolina or in surrounding states.

Wake Forest also awarded a $40,000 grant this month to develop a plan for a proposed academic Center for Bioethics, Health and Society. The planning grant was issued by the Provost’s Office after competitive peer review, under the university’s new strategic plan. If created, the center is expected to have a five-year budget of at least $1 million.

The university has created two new senior faculty positions to join the dozen other faculty members who currently teach or research bioethics issues. Wallace C. and Mona Wu have endowed a Chair in Biomedical Ethics in the Department of Internal Medicine of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, which is expected to be filled by January 2009. Wallace Wu, M.D., retired after serving 27 years on the gastroenterology faculty at the medical school. The College of Arts and Sciences has also initiated a national search for a distinguished faculty member in bioethics.

This month, Brad J. Tharpe joined the master’s program as associate director. Formerly assistant director of the Pro Humanitate Center at Wake Forest and a graduate of its first Master of Divinity class, Tharpe returns to the university after serving as director of spiritual life and chaplain at DePauw University in Indiana.

Wake Forest’s programs will have two special emphases: bioethics in social context and bioethics and biotechnology. Biotechnology includes medical advances such as organ transplants and genetic engineering. Social justice issues include health disparities and access to care. Wake Forest aims to create an arena for enriching the academic and public conversation about the full range of ethics and policy issues in the life sciences.

Nathan O. Hatch, Ph.D., president of Wake Forest University, described the rationale for creating the program in bioethics. “In an age when genetic engineering of the human person is a distinct possibility, the challenges our society faces in bioethics have never been more pressing.”

William B. Applegate, M.D., medical school dean and interim president of Wake Forest University Health Sciences, confirmed that "the medical school and I have long recognized the importance of bioethics for patient-centered care, responsible research and technological progress. I'm very pleased that, with the generous support of Wally and Mona Wu and the university, we're now in a position to become nationally prominent in this field."

The need for more bioethics education appears pressing. In June, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a “bioethics crisis looms” unless more people are trained in the field, and the chair of bioethics at the U.S. National Institutes of Health warned that “trained bioethics researchers and bioethicists are in short supply.” A survey by Wake Forest’s bioethics task force revealed that there are no other advanced degree programs focused on bioethics in a seven-state southeast region of the country.

Co-director Mark A. Hall, J.D., echoed the urgent need for such a program. “Developments in medicine and biotechnology create an acute need for more advanced education in bioethics,” he said. “Wake Forest is perfectly suited to filling this need, with our unique combination of strengths in life sciences, the professions and the humanities.” Hall is the Fred D. and Elizabeth L. Turnage Professor of Law and Public Health in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy in the Division of Public Health Sciences at the medical school.

Co-director Nancy M. P. King, J.D., also a professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy, added, “The course of study is designed to assist professionals in deepening their knowledge and understanding of bioethics, in order to enhance practice in a variety of fields related to health care delivery and biomedical research.”

According to the program’s website, the Master of Arts course of study will provide an education in bioethics at the graduate level for current and future professionals, including health care providers, researchers in biomedicine and the life sciences, lawyers, and professionals in religion, health and research administration and the biotechnology industry.

The bioethics master’s program initially will have room for 10 to 15 students. Courses will include such topics as the history of contemporary bioethics, clinical ethics, biomedical research ethics, and public policy, medicine and justice. The full-time program is designed to be completed in one academic year plus a summer term, or in three semesters. Part-time students may take up to six years to complete the degree, with classes offered in the late afternoon and early evening.

Students wishing to apply for the fall 2009 semester should visit the program website www.wfu.edu/bioethics or contact Tharpe at the Master of Arts in Bioethics Program, Wake Forest University, Piedmont Plaza II, Suite 204, 2000 W. First St., Winston-Salem, NC 27104, (336) 716-1499, or brtharpe@wfubmc.edu.

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Media Contacts: Robin Brantley, (336) 716-7334, rbrantle@wfubmc.edu; or Mark Wright, (336) 716-3382, mwright@wfubmc.edu; Bonnie Davis, (336) 716-4977, bdavis@wfubmc.edu; Shannon Koontz, (336) 716-2415, shkoontz@wfubmc.edu.

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