Archive for February, 2008

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Violence against non-existent women – Ban Ki-moon says “no”

Friday, 29 February, 2008

The United Nations recently launched a multi-year campaign to combat violence against women, and the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, includes in his list of evils the act of prenatal sex selection. According to most news pages, he said the following:

Through the practice of prenatal sex selection, countless others are denied the right even to exist.

Paradox much? Mr Ki-moon, if a child doesn’t exist, how can she have any rights at all, let alone the right to exist? If we respect that non-existent children to have a right to exist, contraception and failing to have sex with a fertile member of the opposite sex would be morally reprehensible acts. It’s utterly ridiculous to give rights to hypothetical people.

It may be so that gender selection could harm (i.e. offend) currently living members of the gender selected against, or could upset society if it leads to severe gender bias, but certainly gender selection cannot harm non-existent children, because nothing can. This goes for any pre-conception genetic modification; selecting an intelligent child is not harmful to the un-enhanced children that could have existed in their place and selecting an attractive child is not violence against the hypothetical ugly children that could have existed (but didn’t).

I suspect the Secretary-General was talking about sex-specific abortion or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) for sex selection, but as long as a person accepts abortion, then one already accepts that these embryos or foetuses do not yet have a ‘right to exist’. Therefore, the problem remains unchanged.

There are other problems one can raise against non-medical sex selection, but you just can’t give rights to non-existent people when it suits your argument. If we could, then my imaginary friend needs to have a right to vote and my hypothetical girlfriend needs to have the right to marry me.

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

Wednesday, 27 February, 2008

I found another alliteration for the title, but the fact remains it is that time of the week where I show you a quote relating to the world of human enhancement technology, ethics and politics.

This week’s quote is from a more obscure source than last week‘s, but I picked it because it is so good that I don’t even have to say anything else about it (other than reference the document in which the British-Australian bioethicist speaks so wisely). Here it is:

“Indeed, all we can do in the world as it is to try to make our and our children’s lives go well, because we are not gods and we cannot control the future. Far from playing God, attempting to control our genetic fate is ‘‘playing human’’—trying to improve the odds of doing well in an uncertain world of difficulty, threat and misfortune. Throwing up our hands and giving in to a sticky fate is hardly an admirable human trait, although some contemporary bioethicists seem paradoxically to extol it as virtue. I want to be the kind of human who lives longer and better, not shorter and badly.” – Julian Savulescu, “In defence of Procreative BeneficenceJournal of Medical Ethics 33(5): p284 (2007)

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Creating a knockout human

Wednesday, 27 February, 2008

I said in my post about a possible genetic manipulation for viral immunity that a knockout human would “take too long and probably be unethical”. Well, I may have to eat my words (at least, the part about it taking too long). You see, I think there would be a way to make a knockout human in a shorter time than making a knockout mouse (of course, creating a knockout mouse with this method would be shorter still). I’ll explain how a knockout mouse is usually created, and then I’ll tell you the shortcut to be taken for long-lived creatures like humans.

Firstly, stem cells are isolated from a mouse embryo. These cells are genetically manipulated to insert a non-functional version of the gene of interest, hence “knocking out” the gene by overwriting it with a broken copy (a functional gene from another animal could be added to create a ‘knock in” mouse). The inserted gene is usually accompanied by a marker gene – a gene that can be detected (such as immunity to a toxic agent, which can be detected by growing the stem cells in a mixture containing that agent). Then, stem cells in which the gene has been successfully inserted are inserted into another (or the same) blastocyst, meaning that the mouse growing from that embryo will be a chimera – containing some cells that have been genetically modified and some that haven’t. If some of the germ cells (eggs or sperm) happen to have arisen from cells that have been genetically engineered, then those mice can be bred with another “knockout” mouse (or inbred) to create a mouse where both chromosomes contain genetically engineered genes.

This takes so long because to get your hands on a knockout mouse embryo requires you to wait for some mice to get old enough to breed. For mice, this is only about 5-8 weeks, but in humans it would be at minimum about 12 years and safely (and legally) at around 16/18/21 years. And not only is this a problem in terms of time, but forcing people to copulate, and specifying their partner, is a big ethical problem (even if we accept the ethical acceptability of genetic modification of humans). But this can be overcome, although it may bring up other ethical problems of its own.

The shortcut stems from the fact that we don’t actually need a man and a woman to create a child. Females would actually have all their primary oocytes (immature eggs) around 4-6 months before birth, but they mature and are released only after puberty. Likewise male embryos contain spermatogonia (although unlike in the female, they will be produced throughout life), which develop into spermatozoa after puberty. Turning primary oocytes into ova (mature eggs) is fairly simple to do in vitro, involving just a set of chemical signals (and has been done before to result in pregnancy). Turning spermatogonia into spermatozoa to achieve conception is harder, but it can be done in vivo (by putting the embryonic spermatogonia into a donor testicle, even one of a different species). So, one could possibly take a shortcut by performing some advanced IVF on germ cells harvested from the initial chimeric human embryos.

In solving this practical problem, numerous ethical issues could be raised. Firstly, one could object to creating a child whose genetic parents would have been embryos or foetuses at the time of conception (and need not even be implanted). Surely it is unethical to force two people to mate, but provided one accepts the discarding of embryos from IVF (and indeed normal reproduction), and also accepts abortion five months before birth, then why should this be an issue? If we can deny that the embryo or foetus is a person, or otherwise deny it a right to life, then we can surely deny the embryo or foetus the right to choose a sexual partner. One could also object to the xenotransplantation for maturation of human sperm (i.e. having human sperm grow in the testes of another animal), but this is likely a technical hurdle to be overcome, and so soon human sperm could be grown in a dish like we do for human eggs.

Perhaps an easier method, that gets around the above ethical hurdles, would be to transfer the nucleus of one of the genetically modified stem cells into an ovum and stimulate it to mature into a knockout human. This could negate the need to create the chimeric generation altogether. But, this is called cloning, and is frowned upon in most Western nations.

Of course, we are likely to come up with much better methods of genetic interventions in mice, and soon I expect the knockout procedure will be replaced with something more efficient. The easiest, I think, would be finding a way to dedifferentiate (turn back) the genetically modified stem cells from pluripotency to totipotency, allowing them to develop into an embryo without forming the chimera. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if such a procedure had already been done recently (but won’t that upset the pro-life crowd – “every embryonic-stem cell is sacred”?).

So, bottom line is that I was wrong. But in my defence, the press release did report that one of the researchers said something even more incorrect. So you can all look at his comment to distract yourself from the fact that I said something wrong:

Dr. Sonenberg explained that the process of knocking out genes is not possible in humans, but the researchers are optimistic new pharmaceutical therapies will evolve from their research. [emphasis mine to increase the power of the distraction]

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Christianity and Human Enhancement

Monday, 25 February, 2008

I touched on these issues in my Darwin Day blog entry, but Michael Anissimov at Accelerating Future has recently asked some questions on the issue on his blog, and I would like to have a go at answering them.

Although I am an atheist (perhaps more accurately a nontheist), I do think there is a point in answering these questions. Although religion isn’t technically supposed to influence public policy in secular nations, in a democracy public opinion carries a lot of weight and is still driven by religious ideology. A word of warning though that I am not able to comment as a Christian, but just able to summarise my anecdotal experience when arguing the issue with other Christians.

To answer these questions in a way that relates to this blog, I will answer them in reverse order (because the first question is the best) and won’t answer question five (because it doesn’t relate). So, here goes.

4) Say that humans develop a technology to bring someone “back to life” a few hours after brain activity ceases. Could this be used to research possible visions of Heaven, such as those in “light at the end of the tunnel” and other near-death experience accounts? How would we distinguish between genuine visions of Heaven and hallucinations caused by neurological trauma?

I’d like to think the answer is that near-death experiences will become less associated with religious ideas as science pushes out the”God of the gaps”, but I don’t really think it is likely. I think that religion will coexist with science in this area, claiming that just because we can find a mental correlate for these experiences, it doesn’t mean they are not divinely inspired. After all, that appears to be the current path taken with religious experiences from temporal lobe seizures, brain activity during prayer and various other parts of neurotheology. The feeling is that both the religious experience and the brain equivalent are caused by God. Hence, maybe a Christian could say that God was working through the scientists giving somebody a near-death experience.

3) Say that a brain chip is invented that makes its user more morally sophisticated and theologically insightful. Would this contradict the notion that good comes from God, and show that the “soul” is actually rooted in the biochemistry of the brain? Or would this signify the brain implant is somehow better tapping into the power of God? How would we tell the difference?

I doubt this sort of thing would show that the soul is routed in biochemistry, because neuroscientists have already uncovered much of the biological basis for feelings that are considered the domain of the soul, such as guilt, fear and happiness. But just as I said for question four, a Christian can simply believe that the soul is the cause of the biochemical and cellular processes that result with pleasure and pain. As for the morality issue, people often receive moral assistance (help doing what they know is right) from laws of the country, laws of other religions and other people. But I believe that most Christians think that acting moral for those reasons isn’t enough to save a person, one has to act moral because one is ‘born again’ and being led by Christ. Perhaps I should quote a Biblical passage for this:

Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. (Mark 7:18-20 – KJV)

So, if one follows what Jesus is saying here, that external agents cannot defile a person, perhaps it is true that external agents (save God) cannot save a man. That is, a brain implant for morality will not be considered to save a man – that must be done by oneself. Christians believe that good comes from God in origins, but only if it comes from God in ourselves each day will it save our souls.

2) Would it be a sin to extend someone’s lifespan indefinitely using anti-aging therapies, because that would forever prevent them from getting into Heaven? Or would indefinite life extension merely be God’s will, because if he wanted us to die anyway, he could easily make it happen at any time?

Considering that the universe is going to suffer a heat death eventually, and that accident is likely to still exist, I doubt that a person would be prevented from getting to heaven eventually. The prophecies for a New Earth mentioned in Revelation 21:1 can be compatible with the incineration of the planet when our sun (Sol) becomes a red giant in 5 or so billion years. So we should be able to last at least that long. By then, Christianity will either be gone, or changed enough for any further musings to be futile.

1) If man was created in God’s image, would it be blasphemous for people to radically alter their body and brain as it becomes technologically possible, through genetic engineering or nanotechnology? (See “What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud” by J. Storrs Hall.)

This is a massive question, and I doubt there will a Christian consensus on the issue. There are those Christians who will say things like “Jesus never enhanced, only healed” and quote Ecclesiastes 7:13 until the day their physically-unchanged bodies wither and die. Then there will be those oft-quoted ones that consider human enhancement to be part of some divine co-creation scheme with their Creator. Most Christians will probably fall somewhere in the middle, probably closer to the former. They will likely be very cautious towards any technologies, but eventually may accept them. It really depends whether some activists campaign hard to attack the science and how much the people want the technology themselves. It’s possible that the science even be condemned so much that gene enhancement clinics are bombed and cyborgs suffer hate crimes, or it’s possible that the science is integrated into religious themes (wasn’t Samson a superhuman, with some ‘divine’ strength enhancement in his hair?).

Such questions are good to consider, but any answers we get from particular Christians are never going to reflect what will happen to society as a whole. Personally, because religion can’t directly influence public policy, I think we should worry about the secular objections to human enhancement for now. Faith responds better to hard evidence, whereas the secular objections may be tackled with rational speculation. I don’t mean to ignore the religious objections, just that I feel they are over-emphasised in the debate.

Thanks to Michael Anissimov for the excuse to write another blog entry today!

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How can one be pro-sex AND pro-life?

Sunday, 24 February, 2008

If sex destroys embryos, how can one be a pro-lifer and yet still seek to conceive naturally? John Harris, in his recent work Enhancing Evolution, asks this question in the chapter titled ‘The Irredeemable Paradox of the Embryo’. It brings up an interesting point, so I shall summarise the argument.

The argument stems from three separate premises. Firstly, the fact is that the stage of the embryo used in embryonic stem cell research would, in a normal conception, be the stage before pregnancy (a blastocyst is defined as the mass of cells that exist before implantation). The second premise used in the argument is that normal human procreation is very efficient at creating embryos, but very inefficient at seeing them lead to pregnancy (most experts agree that more embryos fail to implant than succeed). The final premise is that saving a life is more important than creating a new one (or else nurses and doctors would not be using hospital beds for their intended function).

The combination of these premises leads to the conclusions that if embryo loss is acceptable in sexual reproduction (creating a new life), then it is even more acceptable in embryonic stem cell therapy (saving lives) because both lead to the destruction of life at the same stage (the blastocyst stage). Therefore, unless one takes the view that normal sexual reproduction should be abandoned in favour of newer, more embryo-safe means of reproduction, then one must accept embryonic stem cell research. Even if the embryo is a full person, embryonic stem cell therapies should be not only better than having unprotected sex, but morally superior.

For those who didn’t follow, I shall try again. In ethics, one should be capable of determining how wrong something in a linear manner. Preventing verbal abuse is important, but preventing a theft is more important, and preventing murder is more important again. In general it should always be acceptable to verbally abuse somebody to prevent them from stealing a car, or to take away the guns of a known killer to prevent another murder. In the bioethical case that Harris brings up, there is a clear inconsistancy, which I have tried to demonstrate in a diagram:

There are a few easy ways to make such a circular system into a linear hierarchy.

  1. One could say that saving lives is not more important than sex, creating a hierarchy where sex trumps prevention of embryo destruction which in turn trumps saving lives. However, this would mean that having sex with a patient to conceive a child is more important than saving a patient from death. The health care system collapses, and infant mortality sky-rockets because the obstetricians and midwives are at home making babies of their own.
  2. One could say that sex is not more important than preventing embryo destruction, creating a hierarchy where preventing embryo destruction is more important than saving lives which is in turn more important than sex. This would result in similar bans on unprotected sex as exist on embryonic stem cell research. Assisted reproductive technologies would be required to have 100% success rates to justify their use. Humanity collapses due to extremely low birth rate.
  3. One could say that preventing embryonic death is not more important than saving lives, meaning that saving lives is the top priority, followed by having sex to reproduce and then preventing the destruction of embryos. If this is the route taken, having unprotected sex to conceive would be fine, as would embryonic stem cell research. Humanity survives (and has a better quality of life), but the pro-life camp doesn’t.

Therefore, unless the pro-lifers wants to take route 1 or 2, they need to abandon their irrational protection of little bundles of human cells and start to accept a logically consistent ethical framework.

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Blue-tooth enabled subcutaneously-implanted, blood powered touch display tattoo

Saturday, 23 February, 2008

Cool concept for a cyborg (via Gizmodo and Geekologie). But still a concept, presumably because of the technological issues.

As the title says, it’s blue-tooth enabled subcutaneously-implanted, blood powered touch display implanted below a tattoo on the skin. When you get a call, the implant turns on, producing a field that causes microspheres of ink to aggregate, causing the tattoo (in the skin above the implant) to become visible. So, this can happen in real-time (although I wonder what the refresh-rate is), so you can potentially watch videos on it, albeit in black and white. Once the call ends, the field dissipates causing the tattoo ink to become invisible again.

The implant is powered by a fuel-cell, presumably converting blood glucose and oxygen with a catalyst into a usable electric current. I assume that the catalyst will need replacing every now and then, as this is a problem with most implantable fuel cells, though none of the articles I’ve read seem to pick up on that fact. A good implant would enable this refuelling to be done via syringe, and a bad one would require replacement. But that might not matter, because if it lasts up to a year, the newer model with greater resolution and colour screen would be out!

However, if one needs ink injected in the skin, how would that ink be removed for the next version with greater colour depth?

Additionally, the implant monitors health, which I assume means just blood glucose and blood pressure (perhaps pulse as
well). It would likely run out of power if it displayed this at all times, but every once in a while one could check blood glucose. Perhaps a few Type 1 diabetes would like this feature more than the ability to make phone calls. This is probably a better use for the device, at least to begin with, as the tattoo would not need to show moving images and would not need to be active for as long.

But remember people, this is just a concept – not even a prototype yet. You’re not going to see one for a few years yet, because of the problems above. And to those commenters on Gizmodo and Geekologie that cast doubt on the ability to use blood glucose for electric current, that stuff is old news (actually, with microbial fuel cells using E.Coli, electricity was created from glucose way back in 1912). It’s possible to do it, just not yet possible to do it well enough for long-term implants.

But once these problems are overcome, it will be interesting to see any objections to this technology. Mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:16-17) perhaps? Will an invasive procedure be justifiable for cosmetic or entertainment purposes? All questions that will need to be answers, in addition to the technological feasibility, in coming years.

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Embryonic stem cells CAN cure!

Friday, 22 February, 2008

Another argument, the one that says no therapies have ever come from embryonic stem cells, has died this week, due to two announcements about human stem cells curing rats of stroke and mice of Type-1 diabetes.

Injection of human neural stem cells, derived from human embryonic stem cells, into the brains of stroke-affected rats allowed those rats to regain strength and control of limbs. And, during the process that caused the stem cells to differentiate into neural progenitor cells, the probable cancer-causing cells were weeded out, resulting in no signs of tumours in the rats. To make things ever better again, the results were published in the open-access journal PLoS One, meaning anyone can access the full research paper.

Embryonic stem cells, again human-derived, were successfully transformed into insulin-producing cells (beta-cells) of the pancreatic islets that are destroyed in Type-1 (Insulin-dependant) diabetes mellitus. What sets this research apart is not only the fact that the final step of differentiation into beta-cells occurred within the body of the mice, but also that these cells allowed blood glucose to be controlled, showing for the first time that the cells can respond to glucose. It’s not all quite so rosy in this story, because not only did a few mice (7 of 105) develop cancer, but also the work was published in the subscription-required (albeit very prestigious) journal Nature Biotechnology, so you need access to read the research paper.

Stroke affects 1-in-60 people each year (mostly the elderly – the 65+ group has a prevalence of up to 1 in 10) and 1-in-800 people have Type I diabetes (in most of the Western world), so the research is certainly going to put a severe dent in the “embryonic stem-cells don’t cure anything” camp. But I fear the anti-embryo research camp will (merely) engage in some goal-shifting and demand proof of cures in humans (while simultaneously fighting against using the research to cure humans).

Added by edit: The argument should have already been dead, as in August 2007, researchers showed that human embryonic stem cells could help rebuild heart tissue in rats. Other research into embryonic stem cells has also shown promise in animal trials.