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May 10, 2001

Penn Bioethicist Named Chief of Bioethics and Human Subject Protection for NASA

Future ethical challenges will include issues such as health and illness in long-duration space flight, and creating an international consensus about space bioethics among our space partners.

(Philadelphia, PA) - Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., a fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has been named the first Chief of Bioethics and Human Subject Protection for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), effective April 2001.

Wolpe's appointment is the first of its kind at NASA. As founder of NASA's in-house Bioethics Office he will contribute to the formulation of policies and procedures that will help oversee all of NASA's clinical and research work. "The goal is to hold NASA to the highest ethical standards while keeping in mind the inherent risks of space travel," explained Wolpe. He will spend forty percent of his time on this assignment - either at the administrative headquarters in DC or in the research centers in Houston. Wolpe will serve as functional manager to ensure that research on human and animal subjects is conducted safely, humanely and in accordance with high ethical standards; as well as to plan, direct and promulgate policy and programs in the field of bioethics. Wolpe's assignment entails providing key scientific advice and expertise for the following specific areas: monitoring compliance with all relevant regulatory and statutory requirements; planning, organizing and integrating NASA's Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC); external ethical reviews and developing standards and guidelines tailored to unique programmatic research requirements; and crafting an international bioethics policy for all countries involved in collaborative space exploration.

The continued success of space travel will create many new and interesting ethical challenges that must be identified and addressed by Wolpe's office. "Space travel is a unique human endeavor that poses unique ethical challenges," says Wolpe. For instance, there are totally diverse current issues that his office will have to deal with - from handling crises like an astronaut needing expert medical attention on a mission to writing policy to define the fine line between operational testing and research. As the program moves into the future, Wolpe will help address challenges like the ethics of genetic testing of astronauts, exposing astronauts to potentially dangerous doses of radiation, hazardous research that must be performed on earth to anticipate problems in space, etc.

Wolpe will represent NASA on interagency working groups for the protection of patients, human subjects and welfare of animals used in research. He is also beginning collaboration on an international bioethics policy code for space research with America's space partners, which includes Russia, the European Union, Japan and Canada. "Though an agreement currently does exist between our space partners, it is fragmented and subjective; therefore, it needs to be formalized," explained Wolpe.

"We are very pleased to welcome Dr. Paul Wolpe to our staff at NASA Headquarters," said Richard Williams, MD, FACS, Acting Chief Health and Medical Officer for NASA. "As Chief of Bioethics, his extensive experience will be invaluable as NASA meets its commitment to our research, technology development, and health care adhering to the highest bioethical principles. Dr. Wolpe will serve as a great asset for NASA and the nation as he further develops our bioethics expertise."

In addition to his continuing position at Penn's Center for Bioethics, Wolpe holds faculty appointments in the Departments of Psychiatry and Sociology in Penn's School of Medicine. He is also a Senior Fellow of Penn's Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics. He serves as the bioethics advisor to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services' Children and Youth Division, and also sits on a number of non-profit organizational boards, journal editorial boards and working groups.

The winner of a number of teaching and writing awards, Wolpe has been chosen by The Teaching Company as a "Superstar Teacher of America". He is the author of the textbook Sexuality and Gender in Society, the forthcoming Manual for Jewish End-of-life Decision-Making, and a book on how genetics and new reproductive technologies will change our conceptions of family and family structure. Wolpe is a columnist on biotechnology for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and is frequently cited in the national print and broadcast media. He has also written numerous articles and book chapters in sociology, medicine and bioethics.

According to Wolpe, every person who witnessed the nation's early endeavors into space, the first moon landing and ensuing countless 'space' movies and serials, has probably dreamed of being an astronaut. So, even though this prestigious appointment came "totally out of the blue" it "reenergized some childhood fantasies" for Wolpe. "I feel this appointment is an exciting opportunity to set fundamental bioethics policy in space, enabling frequent space travel to become a reality for many more."

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