With genetics involved, there are always questions of ethics. Now, Penn has a place that intends to answer those questions.

Last month, the School of Medicine received a $5.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund the new Center for Excellence in Ethical, Legal and Social Implications, one of two new centers that will examine questions surrounding genetic research.

The Center will focus on the implications of new genetic technologies, such as prenatal genetic testing. It represents an unusually collaborative effort involving five of Penn's 12 schools.

Professors from the Annenberg School for Communication, the School of Arts and Sciences, the Wharton School, and the School of Nursing will also lend their expertise to the Center.

Med School professor Barbara Bernhardt is heading one project, for example, that explores how confident patients and doctors are in the effectiveness of a new genetic test. Wharton professors will assess the economics of using that test versus clinical testing, and Annenberg professors will examine how the test should be advertised, among other topics.

Bernhardt believes this type of interdisciplinary approach is beneficial because it "can bring the perspective of a wide variety of researchers."

The creation of the center is yet another indication of the NIH's focus on interdisciplinary work. Earlier this fall, the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research announced funding of $210 million for nine interdisciplinary research consortia.

"Examining the emerging ethical, legal and social implications of genomic research is central to our goal of safely and effectively moving discoveries into the clinic," Francis Collins, director of the NIH"s National Human Genome Research Institute, said in a press release.

Other projects being headed by the center at Penn include a historical analysis of prenatal testing for cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome and an evaluation of the long-term effects of genetic testing and counseling for breast cancer in black women.

History and Sociology of Science professor Ruth Cowan, who is heading the project on prenatal testing, said the center will provide a unique experience because she has completed most of her past research on her own.

She added that this type of multi-school collaboration is "very, very rare for Penn."

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received a grant from the NIH to start a similar program on its campus, and Reed Pyeritz, the director of Penn's center, believes the work could eventually yield major breakthroughs in the field of ELSI research.

"I think we will be doing new and ground-breaking research on uncertainty," he said.

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