Prof. Timothy Caulfield

Research Director of the Health Law Institute, University of Alberta
Researcher of the month: 
Jun 2009

At the crossroads of law and medicine

The most influential physician of all time is not a clinician, or a selfless researcher but is rather the ancient Greek, Hippocrates, whose oath governs doctor’s behaviour even today.

Professor Timothy Caulfield has no oath named for him, but his work could have similarly far-reaching influence as medicine pushes scientific and moral frontiers unimagined when Hippocrates wrote “First, do no harm.” As the research director of the Health Law Institute and a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, Caulfield probes the limits of what medical science can do, and we as a society feel it should do.

Caulfield is well qualified for the task. He received his legal qualifications from the University of Alberta, and his medical training at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and joined the U of A faculty in 1993.

The timing was fortuitous. Three years after Caulfield began his academic career, researchers in Scotland successfully cloned a sheep. Three years after that, the first human embryonic stem cell lines were created in Wisconsin. Four years later, a complete map of the human genome was completed. Taken together, these developments had the potential to revolutionize medicine – scientists could theoretically create custom-designed organs, or organisms.

The developments unleashed a storm of debate. Lawmakers were faced with a crisis – how to create a framework to limit these technologies to ethically acceptable uses, while not putting the brakes on scientific and medical progress.

Caulfield was at the center of the debate. He is a prolific academic, having published nearly 150 academic articles on subjects as varied as stem cells, gene patenting, genetic testing and cloning. In addition, he has written or contributed to some 20 official reports to government and international organizations like the OECD. He contributes to national health strategy through his participation on number of policy and ethics committees, such as the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee, Genome Canada’s Science Advisory Committee and the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology.

As the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, as well as being Senior Health Scholar with the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and the Principal Investigator for a Genome Canada project on the regulation of genomic technologies, he is at the forefront of thinking on how to grapple with genetic technologies, human health, and the law.

If laws are medicine society prescribes to itself, with Caulfield’s help, they will know enough to do no harm.

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