Researcher Profile: Mats G. Hansson

Mats G HanssonMats G. Hansson’s bookcase contains both the works of Kant and the latest research in genetics and genetic engineering. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Ethical Consequences in Focus

The technological advances in medical research keep moving faster and faster, and sometimes unexpected ethical consequences arise. As professor of biomedical ethics, it is Mats G. Hansson’s job to find ethically defendable approaches to new situations.

Mats G. Hansson is currently involved in two international research projects coordinated by the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics at Uppsala University.

His bookcase, in his office at Uppsala Biomedical Centre, contains both the works of Immanuel Kant and the latest research in genetics and genetic engineering. Biomedical ethics is a research area which requires knowledge in several different disciplines.

One example of this is his latest project, a pilot study focusing on how representational play can facilitate treatment and increase quality of life for children with cancer. The study has just received a grant of SEK 300,000 and is an international collaboration between researchers, clinicians and ethics researchers at Uppsala University Hospital, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the University of Hamburg.

“The project took shape during an ethics round at the children’s oncology department. There was a four-year-old patient there with a brain tumour who faced the possibility of trying an alternative treatment. The possibilities and risks were discussed between doctor and parents, but where was the child in all this?”

Forgetting to include young patients is a recurring problem in healthcare, both for younger and older children. There is resistance towards involving children in tough decisions and their opinions are not taken seriously, according to Mats G. Hansson.

“We wanted to find a way of including the children in the process. It is ethically important to find methods which can make the children involved in their treatment, in a way that fits their level of development and gives them a feeling of control. It can affect the child’s wellbeing and the entire care situation.”

A common denominator for Mats G. Hansson’s research is his interest in people and his will to achieve tangible change. He started his academic career in biology, but after completing his undergraduate studies he continued with theology and ethics.

“I had something of a revelation when I for one semester worked in a laboratory on Odengatan in Stockholm. The laboratory was in the basement, and as I stood there separating cell membranes I could see the stream of people outside. I felt very strongly that I wanted to work more with people.”

Bioethics is a relatively new subject and when Mats G. Hansson got his PhD in the late eighties he was something of a pioneer in the field. Today around 25 senior researchers are connected with the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics at Uppsala University.

An ethicists job is to look at the consequences of an action, to describe these and to find methods to solve the issue in a more reasonable way. With literature as a starting-point, arguments are built from overlapping ethical and legal discussions.

The results often lead to suggestions which affect both policies and legislation. Mats G. Hansson is careful to point out that ethics is not about personal opinion – it always has its basis in well-structured arguments.

One example of the need for new ways of thinking is the research project “Mind the Risk”, which was granted a record-breaking SEK 36 million last autumn. It deals with ethical aspects of genetic risk data and is a multi-disciplinary collaboration which will run for six years.

“With today’s technology, DNA can be collected and mapped on a large scale. Large knowledgebases are being built, and using technology we can extract more information than we perhaps are prepared to handle. Also, researchers don’t always think about how they will communicate the resulting information.”

There is basically no research on genetic risk and how it should be communicated with the individual, and this is where the idea for the Mind the risk project was born. The international working group includes researchers from a number of different fields; psychology, philosophy, healthcare economics and medicine.

“We will look at how patients have understood and reacted to this type of information. We also hope to develop a new method that takes into consideration what our decision-making processes look like. The end goal is to produce concrete aids for both those who deliver and those who receive risk information.”

Josefin Svensson

Facts – Mats G. Hansson

Title: Professor of biomedical ethics
Currently: Starting up two research projects; Mind the risk – about genetic risk information, and a pilot study about how representational play can facilitate treatment and increase quality of life for children with cancer.
In free time: Skiing, canoeing and spending time with his family. Recently became a grandfather!
Hidden talent: My children say that I'm good at cooking.
Makes me happy: Intellectual openness and honesty.
Makes me angry: People who abuse their power to suppress others.