Making the Right Choice
Courtesy of Shannon Bell Photography
Winship is one of the few cancer centers in the country to have a fulltime ethicist dedicated to research and clinical trials. Now, Rebecca Pentz is helping another important organization as it charts its ethical course.
When the Atlanta Board of Education needed the best professional ethicist in town to head its newly formed ethics panel, it actually was able to engage one of the best ethicists in the nation.
Rebecca Pentz, professor of hematology and medical oncology in research ethics, Winship Cancer Institute researcher, and one of the nation's leading ethicists, was named chair of the ethics commission of the Atlanta Board of Education.
Pentz, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Irvine, is a widely published investigator and author in cancer-related bioethics. Her research focus is empirical ethics research on such issues as informed consent, phase 1 research (first use of a drug in humans), children with cancer, and genetic confidentiality, as well as assisting other researchers in making their clinical trials more ethically sound.
"I'm very honored to be named chair of this commission," says Pentz of her Board of Education duties. "My kids all went to public school, and I believe public schools are a wonderful way for people to receive an education. I am actually quite flabbergasted that I was elected chair from among the distinguished professionals who serve on this commission. I'm thrilled to be able to do it."
And Winship is very honored to have Pentz, says Deputy Director Fadlo R. Khuri.
"Becky Pentz is one of the finest clinical and research ethicists in medicine," Khuri says. "She formed the clinical ethics program at MD Anderson, and since joining Emory University and the Winship Cancer Institute, she has developed one of the premier research ethics programs in cancer. She has done pioneering work on research in vulnerable populations and patient perceptions of their participation in cancer clinical trials. I extend my congratulations to the City of Atlanta on appointing by far the best qualified and best person that they will ever have on their ethics board."
While medical ethicists have become more visible in large hospitals as an adjunct to their clinical programs, Winship is unusual in that it has a full–time ethicist on faculty overseeing its research programs.
"Winship really wanted to go the extra mile," Pentz says. "It's very unusual to have an ethicist embedded in a research program."
What role does an ethicist play in medical research? Think Henrietta Lacks and her immortalized cells, or the infamous Tuskegee studies involving syphilis. While medical research has evolved and learned from such experiences, the field of bioethics has become more and more important as the medical terrain has become more complicated. Health care consumers can barely keep up with the complicated language of their diagnosis, let alone know how to assess whether they want to enroll in a trial or share their medical information—not to mention actual parts of themselves such as tissue samples—with researchers.
Or think about the people on the outskirts of medicine. The project dearest to Pentz's heart is designing an intervention to help the siblings of children with cancer. "There is no one in health care really assigned to these children. Yet they suffer too."
One of Winship's greatest strengths—its drug development program —can be an area of confusion for patients, Pentz explains. What's a phase 1 trial, and how does it differ from phase 2 or 3 trials?
"This is why it's so hard for patients," says Pentz. "The phases are all different, and patients need to know the difference, so we spend a lot of time designing ways to help patients better understand what is involved when they're giving consent. One of the things we're doing right now is to flag all research procedures that are extra and not necessary to take care of the patient. Simply, we are trying to make it really, really, really clear what's going on in a trial."
Some of it involves "pretty complicated concepts," Pentz says, such as understanding that the goal of a patient enrolling in a phase 1 trial is to assist researchers in determining the safest drug dose for human use. Because patients almost always hope that their cancer will be cured, it is morally and ethically essential to completely inform them about the purpose of enrolling in a phase 1 trial. It is Pentz's and fellow Louisa Wall's role to help patients understand that.
"Phases 1 trials are about pioneering, innovative research," Pentz says. "So we have to make that really clear, because you'd never offer patients a hope for a cure when you know the chances of that are small."
That said, "We would never try a drug without it having the possibility of helping patients," Pentz explains. But she and others involved in the trial must work as hard as possible to ensure that patients enter trials with realistic expectations.
Pentz says she finds her work "fascinating."
"It's such a great place to work," she says. "It's the most collegial place I've ever worked—the chemists, biologists, clinicians, statisticians, and even the ethicist, all meet together regularly. This kind of collaboration just doesn't happen at other places."
The Pentz File
You may have seen Rebecca "Becky" Pentz around the halls and in the labs at Winship, but you may not know these things about her—she likes singers Adele and Zac Brown, and she is married to a Presbyterian minister. She wanted, as have many people, to become a doctor "until I hit organic chemistry." She never lost her interest in medicine and was able to blend it with her fascination with ethics. Read on for more things about Pentz.
Education: BA, Philosophy, Pomona College; MA, Philosophy, Bryn Mawr; PhD, Philosphy, University of California, Irvine, 1979.
Family: Husband, Vic, Pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church; three married daughters, Sarah, Jessica, and Amy; three grandchildren(pictured at left).
Favorite music: "I really like the Eagles, but I do have to admit I like Adele and Zac Brown."
If I could switch jobs with anyone at Winship, it would be: "Nobody! I have the best job at Winship. I think a lot of people wish they had my job!"