Posts Tagged ‘biotechnology’

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Some scientists make no sense to me

Saturday, 21 March, 2015

There was an opinion piece published in Nature recently called Don’t edit the human germ line. It’s written by leading scientists (Edward Lanphier, Fyodor Urnov, Sarah Ehlen Haecker, Michael Werner& Joanna Smolenski) in somatic cell gene therapy, and to me it reads like they’re very concerned that the association between gene therapy in adults and the concerns about making designer babies would lead to public outcry over gene therapy. Basically they’re trying to shut down germline engineering so they don’t look guilty by association (especially given the same techniques would likely be employed).

The authors do point out a lot of technical issues with embryonic genetic manipulation, namely that any errors or side-effects might not appear until years later. Which is fair, in my opinion. I still think it’s pretty likely that people won’t genetically modify the human embryo until the technology for doing so in consenting adults is well established.

But in the article, the scientists make a few stupid statements. Like saying

We are not, of course, making a comparison between the replacement of faulty mitochondrial DNA in an egg or embryo with healthy DNA from a female donor and the use of genome-editing in human embryos. In mitochondrial transfer, the aim is to prevent life-threatening diseases by replacing a known and tiny fraction of the overall genome.

I don’t see why they wouldn’t make this comparison, because it seems basically identical to me. I will concede that editing the mitochondrial DNA component of the genome is technically a lot easier than editing a small component the nucleic DNA component (due the former already being isolated in the cytoplasm). But ethically, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to edit the mitochondrial DNA or a gene contained in the nucleic DNA, you’re still aiming “to prevent life-threatening diseases by replacing a known and tiny fraction of the overall genome”.

The scientists also seem to tie themselves in a loop with two parts of their argument. The first is this:

Philosophically or ethically justifiable applications for this technology — should any ever exist — are moot until it becomes possible to demonstrate safe outcomes and obtain reproducible data over multiple generations.

Aside from the extreme lack of foresight in doubting the obvious benefits of germline genetic engineering*, this seems a fair point. While the science is in its infancy, it seems wise to be very cautious. But combine this point with a point made in their closing argument:

A voluntary moratorium in the scientific community could be an effective way to discourage human germline modification and raise public awareness of the difference between these two techniques.

Hardly a suprise, given the title of the article, that the scientists are against germline engineering. But how is anyone going to be able to :”demonstrate safe outcomes and obtain reproducible data over multiple generations” if there’s a moratorium and it’s illegal to do those experiments?

Basically these scientists, instead of trying to address the concerns the public has over the ‘scary’ idea of designer babies, are just trying to say “Yeah, designer babies are scary but that’s not what we’re doing at all, so please keep funding us”.

*There are a whole host of genetic diseases that have to be fixed before the development of organs and tissues, so our only option to cure these would be to edit the genome of a gamete (sperm or egg) or embryo. There would be no way to use somatic cell gene therapies after birth for these conditions, especially for those conditions that often result in death shortly after birth. In most but not all cases you could, as the authors suggest, use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select only for embryos without these mutations. But in some cases both parents might be affected by a recessive genetic condition, so there would be no embryo without the mutation to choose, thus ruling out PGD as an option.

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Biotech must be some brilliant science

Monday, 25 August, 2008

I quite liked this comic (hat tip to Pharyngula):

While I was reading this, I was reminded of an interview with the chief scientist of Advanced Cell Technologies, Robert Lanza. The interview, titled “Fighting for the Right to Clone” (where clone unfortunately only includes therapeutic cloning), is subtitled:

Stem cell and cloning guru Robert Lanza has battled the Catholic Church, the White House, and violent protesters.

And later speaks of his time at Advanced Cell Technologies, and the dangers he faced:

[Lanza] At the time, ACT was a subsidiary of a poultry genetics company, doing work in agriculture. When I joined they made the move from animal cloning to human therapy, and we knew we would get hit, big-time. I may be the only person who’s had the [Catholic] Church, the pope, and a couple of presidents condemn my work. At one point we had bodyguards here. There was a bombing up the street; then a doctor at a local in vitro fertilization clinic was targeted. I didn’t think I would be alive for more than a few years.

[Discover] And you, alone on your island, were so vulnerable to attacks.
[Lanza] I would go for a walk, listening for sounds. I was one of the most visible people in cloning and yet I was isolated. I figured there was more than a 50 percent chance that I would be knocked off. But I wanted to go out trying. I’ve always followed my heart.

Hmm, condemned by the Pope, various churches, presidents of various nations, and at a good risk of being bombed. If that comic is anything to go by, biotechnology must be some brilliant science.

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All aboard the Research Vessel Transhuman!

Wednesday, 2 July, 2008

A recent article in the July issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics is about the so-called ‘sperm ships’ – sperm banks located on ships in international waters. Apparently, international law states that a ship in international waters is under the jurisdiction of the country whose flag is flown by that ship. So, ships moor just outside the UK’s territorial waters and fly Danish flags, so that both anonymous donation and sex selection (both of which aren’t allowed in Britain). Such tactics are also being used for providing euthanasia and abortion to countries that don’t allow it.

This article, by Dr David Hunter and Dr Stuart Oultram, is titled “The challenge of “sperm ships”: the need for the global regulation of medical technology”, which should give a clue to the conclusions of the article.

As the authors see it, the options are:

  • Change international shipping legislation to make a ship in international waters be ruled by the closest country – but given the problems this would create for industries and freight heading past strict countries, this is not a good solution
  • Increase the size of territorial waters, therefore shrinking international waters – same problems as above
  • Regulating tourism so that one cannot leave the country for medical reasons – but again, this could cause problems and isn’t enforceable anyway (at least without mind reading technology)
  • Banning certain biotechnologies universally under international law, or every country’s own laws – highly unlikely, and a scary thought to contemplate (in my opinion)

This just shows how hard it will be to prevent human enhancement technologies – i.e. next to impossible. So, maybe we should not be looking at how to best prevent such technologies from happening altogether, but instead focus on how those technologies may be used with the maximum amount of oversight. Because, after all, if you keep driving these technologies further underground, they will just become more and more unsafe and dangerous (leading to them being pushed further underground).

For the sake of all those who will be harmed by such a vicious circle, we should just allow the technologies to proceed in countries where there will be ethical oversight, enforceable safety regulations and legal accountability.

(Note: the ship pictured above is actually the Sorcerer II, not a sperm ship).

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The Swiss must be crazy!

Tuesday, 15 April, 2008

I know arguments about human genetic modification usually use the theme of ‘dignity’ , but I didn’t expect it to appear in plant biotechnology debates. But, it has!

In Switzerland, the federal Ethics Committee on non-human Gene Technology (ECNH) have a report titled “The dignity of living beings with regard to plants. Moral consideration of plants for their own sake“. The conclusions of this report are:

“[T]he Committee members unanimously consider an arbitrary harmcaused to plants to be morally impermissible. This kind of treatment would include, e.g. decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason.”

And, with respect to biotechnology:

“According to the majority position, there is nothing to contradict the idea of dignity of living beings in the genetic modification of plants, as long as their independence, i.e. reproductive ability and adaptive ability are ensured. Social-ethical limits on the genetic modification of plants may exist, but are not the object of this discussion.”

This isn’t really a new conclusion. Apparently, the Swiss constitution gives dignity to all living organisms and discussions in constitutional law use the term “Würde der Kreatur” (dignity of living beings) to apply to both plants and animals.

On page 13, the report summarises the group’s position as follows:

“Answers to the question of whether and to what extent a being itself can be harmed:
Sentientism: Only if a being consciously experiences something as harm is it being harmed.
Non-sentientism: Even if an organism is not able to experience anything consciously, it can be harmed. An intervention may be harmful even if it is not experienced as such.
A clear majority takes the position of non-sentientism. A minority takes a sentientist position.”

Well that’s your problem right there! Most of your members think that you can hurt a tree, despite the clearly obvious fact that they don’t have a brain with which feel pain much less any nociceptors to sense it in the first place. Harm, after all, is only wrong when it causes (a net increase in) pain, suffering or loss of freedom to a sentient being. Harming an anesthetized patient during surgery, for example, is not wrong because is causes no pain (because the pain signals, or the ability for the brain to perceive them, have been stopped) and that harm is a net benefit once the surgery is over.

But wait, there’s more!

“The majority of the committee members at least do not rule out the possibility that plants are sentient, and that this is morally relevant. A minority of these members considers it probable that plants are sentient. Another minority assumes that the necessary conditions for the possibility of sentience are present in plants. The presence of these necessary conditions for sentience is considered to be morally relevant.

Finally, a minority of the members excludes the possibility of plants having sentience, because in their view there are no good grounds for such an assumption.”

Here is another problem – only a minority of members appear to be sentient themselves, because the majority are obviously as thick as a plank of wood. Again, plants do not have a nervous system, and rely entirely on chemical signalling. It is certain (as much as you can be), that without a nervous system (or some other effective information transmission system), sentience cannot exist. You’d have to believe in magic (like the Treant/Ent picture above) to think plants could possibly be sentient.

The report also says that no member took the position of theocentricism – “the idea of a God who is creator, and therefore the creative ground of all living organisms. What counts for its own sake is God. All organisms count because of their relationship to God.” Which is proof that future objections to human biotechnology will not necessarily come from the fundamentalist religions of the right, but also the tree-hugging left.

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Eastern and Western views on Human Enhancement

Tuesday, 18 March, 2008

The spring volume of the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics is now available (you will need a subscription access to read more than the abstract). For the Fourteenth Annual Thomas A. Pitts Lectureship in Medical Ethics, articles by scholars of many different cultures where asked to submit essays regarding the ethical issues of human enhancement. The articles selected for publication are:

If you’ve ever wanted to look at where in the world this sort of technology would be accepted, these articles would be a good read.