Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Physical Therapy & Human Movement Sciences

2012 Translational Research Ethics Symposium


On August 15th, 2012, Northwestern University hosted an all-day NIH-supported symposium on ethical issues in translational research.

Translational Research is loosely defined and has many connotations; but essentially it describes research on therapies that are intended to be moved (or “translated”) to clinical application as quickly as possible. This may or may not involve commercialization of the technology, but it always involves a firm focus on immediate therapeutic benefit as opposed to basic physiological understanding. Translational research is sometimes described as “bench to bedside” for this reason.

Translational research today comprises a greater proportion of all research than in the past, and is a major focus of work at Northwestern University and its partner the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. There are many reasons why translational research is gaining in popularity. One is the public’s increasing demand in tight economic times to see concrete benefits from federal research funding. Another is the financial incentive for researchers to commercialize promising therapies. And yet another is the overall advancement of technology, which can make the trip from research to medical practice shorter than ever. Finally, the incentive to see research actually help people is perhaps the greatest motivation.

But by its nature, human subjects are more essential to, and potentially at more ethical risk in, translational research than more basic research. All research with human subjects presents poignant ethical risks. Translational research includes all these traditional risks but at a heightened level, and introduces new risks as well. For example, the prospect of near-term benefits to patients as well as researchers from a therapeutic breakthrough heightens the conflict of interest tension. In addition, the potential for subjects to be confused as to the goal of research – whether it is to help others or to help them – is heightened by research aimed at therapeutic breakthroughs. Thus, to take just two major examples, conflicts of interest and therapeutic misconception are more acute problems in translational research than in other kinds of research.

It was therefore felt that it was important for researchers and their students to devote serious attention to these issues. NIH provided support for this in the form of a training grant supplement.

The symposium was organized into three sessions, each according to a distinct ethical theme in translational research. Each topic links to the complete content, including the videos of that portion of the symposium.  

Conflicts of Interest

Therapeutic Misconception

Ethics Education

This work was supported by a Supplement to NIH T32 Training Grant 3T32EB009406-03S1.