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Research into the ethical issues surrounding clinical trials in developing countries was given a boost today with the creation of a £4-million funding initiative.

The scheme has been launched by the Wellcome Trust — Britain's largest biomedical research charity — at the sixth World Congress of the International Association of Bioethics in Brasilia, Brazil.

The initiative aims to support research into the social, ethical, legal and public policy implications of biomedical science in poor nations, build local expertise in ethics, and help make the findings of research useful for policy makers and practitioners.

"Biomedical research in developing countries, particularly when funded by more affluent countries, raises difficult ethical questions for participants, communities, researchers and research funders," says Joanne Sumner of the Wellcome Trust's Biomedical Ethics Programme.

Particularly contentious issues include how to obtain genuine consent from research volunteers before clinical trials go ahead, and what standard of treatment to give participants in control groups.

The initiative — part of Wellcome's £15-million Biomedical Ethics Programme — seeks to help resolve such controversies by supporting project grants, research studentships, seminars and other capacity-building initiatives. Most research funded under the scheme will take place in developing countries, although researchers from some developed countries may also apply.

"Ethical issues are now part and parcel of translating scientific research into medical benefits," says Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust.

"We want to attract the best minds from diverse disciplines into this new ethics funding scheme [in order to inform] national and international guidelines, and ensure that the research we and others fund in these countries adheres to best ethical practice."

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