Tag: biology

Bioethics Blogs

More than Local Arrangements: How Conference Logistics Can Speak to Values by Sarah Pickman

In the fall of 2016, my colleagues Tess Lanzarotta, Marco Ramos, and I met as the core organizers for the “Critical Histories, Activist Futures” conference to hammer out our individual roles. We decided that I would take on the role of head of local arrangements, managing all of the practical logistics for the conference: food, room reservations, registration, etc. “Local arrangements” is, at first glance, a series of crucial but unsexy grunt work tasks. Perhaps, at this very moment, images from your own past of stacking folding chairs and wrestling with projector cords are beginning to swirl in your head at the mention of this phrase. Before you roll your eyes and click away, let me try to convince you that local arrangements can be a productive space to think about what an academic conference looks like and who it is for, as well as to grapple with the limits of the conference as a model for academic discourse.

I embraced the role initially because I do feel strongly that in order for an event to achieve its objectives, the mundane aspects must be taken care of and must run as seamlessly as possible. Prior experience organizing events has taught me that no matter how interesting and well-presented a symposium or lecture’s content is, if there is not enough food served afterwards or the room is very cold that’s all anyone will talk about. This is to say nothing of my own personal experience as a graduate student, scooping up free sandwiches at events and watching my professors race each other to the coffee dispenser during break times.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Protein Links Gut Microbes, Biological Clocks, and Weight Gain

Caption: Lipids (red) inside mouse intestinal cells with and without NFIL3.
Credit: Lora V. Hooper, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

The American epidemic of obesity is a major public health concern, and keeping off the extra pounds is a concern for many of us. Yet it can also be a real challenge for people who may eat normally but get their days and nights mixed up, including night-shift workers and those who regularly travel overseas. Why is that?

The most obvious reason is the odd hours throw a person’s 24-hour biological clock—and metabolism—out of sync. But an NIH-funded team of researchers has new evidence in mice to suggest the answer could go deeper to include the trillions of microbes that live in our guts—and, more specifically, the way they “talk” to intestinal cells. Their studies suggest that what gut microbes “say” influences the activity of a key clock-driven protein called NFIL3, which can set intestinal cells up to absorb and store more fat from the diet while operating at hours that might run counter to our fixed biological clocks.

NFIL3 is a transcription factor, a protein that switches certain genes on and off. Earlier studies had focused on its role in immune cells, but a team led by Lora Hooper at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, discovered that NFIL3 is also found in cells in the inner lining, or epithelium, of the mouse small intestine.

Intriguingly, as reported recently in the journal Science [1], they noticed that NFIL3 levels were much lower in the intestines of “germ-free” mice that don’t have any gut microbes.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics News

Pre-embryo. This term is no longer used in current discussions regarding the nature of the embryo

Everything suggests that the term has been artificially created to justify the use of embryos for IVF and biomedical experiments
A recent article has studied the use of the term “pre-embryo” (see “Determining whether the preimplantation human embryo is a living being of our species“) since its origin in June 1979 until the end of 2014, in both the scientific and bioethical literature. Its evolution over time was compared with other terms generally used in embryology. The authors also studied in which journals this term most frequently appeared, its impact factor within journals in its field, and which authors used it most. The term “pre-embryo” first emerged in the scientific literature in 1979, but it was 6 years before it next appeared. Then, after an increase in articles in the 1990s, its use began to decline, although the term never completely disappeared. This study also shows that the use of the word “pre-embryo” has not increased over time; in contrast, it is becoming less frequently used in the biomedical literature. This has not happened with other terms that refer to the pre-implantation embryo, which have continued to increase over these years, in relation to both the human and other animal species. In addition, this word has abnormally high use in humans for no apparent reason, which supports its artificial nature. Finally, the term “pre-embryo” very seldom appears in journals in the area of reproductive biology, unlike the fields of obstetrics and gynecology, where many articles on assisted reproduction are published. In conclusion, instead of substituting classical embryological terms, the word “pre-embryo” seems not to affect the use of them, while in current discussions regarding the human nature of the embryo, this term is no longer used, everything suggests that the term has been artificially created to justify the use of embryos for IVF and biomedical experiments.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

FDA Approves First CAR-T Cell Therapy for Pediatric Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Caption: Cancer survivor Emily Whitehead with her dog Lucy.
Credit: Emily Whitehead Foundation

Tremendous progress continues to be made against the Emperor of All Maladies, cancer. One of the most exciting areas of progress involves immunotherapy, a treatment strategy that harnesses the natural ability of the body’s own immune cells to attack and kill tumor cells. A lot of extremely hard work has gone into this research, so I was thrilled to learn that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced today its first approval of a promising type of immunotherapy called CAR-T cell therapy for kids and young adults with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)—the most common childhood cancer in the U.S.

ALL is a cancer of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Its treatment with chemotherapy drugs, developed with NIH support, has transformed ALL’s prognosis in kids from often fatal to largely treatable: about 90 percent of young patients now recover. But for those for whom the treatment fails, the prognosis is grim.

In the spring of 2012, Emily Whitehead of Philipsburg, PA was one such patient. The little girl was deathly ill, and her parents were worried they’d run out of options. That’s when doctors at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, gave Emily and her parents new hope. Carl June and his team had successfully treated three adults with their version of CAR-T cell therapy, which is grounded in initial basic research supported by NIH [1,2]. Moving forward with additional clinical tests, they treated Emily—their first pediatric patient—that April. For a while, it was touch and go, and Emily almost died.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Are you a person or an animal?

The question in the title may sound like an insult. That is, not as a question, but as something one might say in anger to reprimand someone who misbehaves.

In philosophy, the question is asked seriously, without intention of insulting. A philosopher who misbehaves at a party and is reprimanded by another guest – “Are you a person or an animal?” – could answer, shamelessly: Eh, I really don’t know, philosophers have contemplated that question for hundreds of years.

What then is the philosophical question? It is usually described as the problem of personal identity. What are we, essentially? What constitutes “me”? What holds the self together? When does it arise and when does it disappear?

According to proponents of a psychological view, we (human beings) are persons with certain psychological capacities, such as self-awareness. That psychology holds the self together. If an unusual disease made my body deteriorate, but doctors managed to transplant my mental contents (self-awareness, memories, etc.) into another body, then I would survive in the other body. According to proponents of the rival, animalist view, however, we are animals with a certain biology. An animalist would probably deny that I could survive in a foreign body.

The difference between the two views can be illustrated by their consequences for a bioethical question: Is it permissible to harvest organs from brain-dead bodies to use as transplants? If we are essentially persons with self-awareness, then we cease to exist when the brain dies. Then it should be permissible to harvest organs; it would not violate personal autonomy.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Memo To White Nationalists From A Geneticist: Why White Purity Is A Terrible Idea

On
August 14th, UCLA researchers Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan presented
findings of their study,  “When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity: Genetic
Ancestry Testing among White Nationalists,”
 at a sociology
conference in Montreal. They’d analyzed 3,070 comments organized into 70
threads publicly posted to the (sometimes difficult to access) “social movement
online community”  Stormfront.

Former
KKK Grand Wizard Don Black launched Stormfront on March 27, 1995. Posts exceed
12 million, ramping up since the 2016 election season. Panofsky and Donovan’s
report has a lot of sociology speak, such as “scholars of whiteness” and
“affiliative self-fashioning,” amid some quite alarming posts – yet also
reveals a sophisticated understanding of genetics from some contributors.

A
WHITE NATIONALIST ONLINE MEET-UP: STORMFRONT

“We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority!”proclaims the
bold, blood-tinged-hued message on the opening page of Stormfront, the “community
of racial realists and idealists.”
 It’s a site for white nationalists,
who are a little less extreme than white supremacists, who want to dominate the
world from their pinnacle of a perceived racial hierarchy. The Stormfronters
seem more concerned with establishing their white purity – defined as “non-Jewish
people of wholly European descent.”

Yet
the lines between white nationalist and supremacist blur, as Stormfront states, “If Blacks or
Mexicans become a majority, then they will not be able to maintain the White
man’s social, cultural and economic systems because they do not have to (sic)
minds needed to do so.”

The
idea of white rights is rather new, catalyzed by the revolts of the truly
marginalized, murdered, abused, ignored, and enslaved.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Memo To White Nationalists From A Geneticist: Why White Purity Is A Terrible Idea

On
August 14th, UCLA researchers Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan presented
findings of their study,  “When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity: Genetic
Ancestry Testing among White Nationalists,”
 at a sociology
conference in Montreal. They’d analyzed 3,070 comments organized into 70
threads publicly posted to the (sometimes difficult to access) “social movement
online community”  Stormfront.

Former
KKK Grand Wizard Don Black launched Stormfront on March 27, 1995. Posts exceed
12 million, ramping up since the 2016 election season. Panofsky and Donovan’s
report has a lot of sociology speak, such as “scholars of whiteness” and
“affiliative self-fashioning,” amid some quite alarming posts – yet also
reveals a sophisticated understanding of genetics from some contributors.

A
WHITE NATIONALIST ONLINE MEET-UP: STORMFRONT

“We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority!”proclaims the
bold, blood-tinged-hued message on the opening page of Stormfront, the “community
of racial realists and idealists.”
 It’s a site for white nationalists,
who are a little less extreme than white supremacists, who want to dominate the
world from their pinnacle of a perceived racial hierarchy. The Stormfronters
seem more concerned with establishing their white purity – defined as “non-Jewish
people of wholly European descent.”

Yet
the lines between white nationalist and supremacist blur, as Stormfront states, “If Blacks or
Mexicans become a majority, then they will not be able to maintain the White
man’s social, cultural and economic systems because they do not have to (sic)
minds needed to do so.”

The
idea of white rights is rather new, catalyzed by the revolts of the truly
marginalized, murdered, abused, ignored, and enslaved.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Françoise Baylis and Carolyn McLeod (eds), Family-Making: Contemporary Ethical Challenges, Oxford University Press, 2014

This fascinating anthology focuses on the question of how we make families, and how bionormative assumptions shape or distort our collective thinking about parenting, children’s welfare, and state obligations to parents and children. The editors are primarily interested in the question of whether parents’ moral responsibilities toward children differ for children produced through assistive reproductive technologies (ART) compared to children brought into the family via adoption. As the editors point out, in the realm of ART, most of the philosophical literature has been focused on parental autonomy and rights to assistance in reproducing, while the adoption literature is almost entirely focused on the protection of children. The anthology does an excellent job of exploring this disconnect, and probing assumptions about moral responsibilities within family-making. Taken as a whole, the chapters explore “whether people should rely on others’ reproductive labour in having children, whether they should ensure that they will have a genetic tie to their children or that their children will have some connection to genetic relatives, whether they should bring a new child into the world at all, whether they should agree to what the government would require of them for an adoption, where they should live if the family they make is multi-racial, at what age they should forgo having children, and the list goes on” (6).

The first section of the book sets the stage with two excellent chapters on the goods of parenting (Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift) and the goods of childhood (Samantha Brennan). The goods of parenting are distinguished from other related goodsintimacy with another adult or friend, friendship with a child, being an uncle, having a pet, etc.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

A Feminist Neuroethics of Mental Health

By Ann E. Fink
Ann Fink is currently the Wittig Fellow in Feminist Biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with an appointment in Gender and Women’s Studies and concurrent affiliations with Psychology and the Center for Healthy Minds. Her research in cellular and behavioral neuroscience has appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Neurophysiology, PNAS and other journals. Ann’s interdisciplinary work addresses the ethics of neuroscience in relation to gender, mental health and social justice. 

Emotionality and gender are tied together in the popular imagination in ways that permeate mental health research. At first glance, gender, emotion, and mental health seem like a simple equation: when populations are divided in two, women show roughly double the incidence of depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders1-3. Innate biological explanations are easy to produce in the form of genes or hormones. It could be tempting to conclude that being born with XX chromosomes is simply the first step into a life of troubled mood. Yet, buried in the most simplistic formulations of mental illness as chemical imbalance or mis-wiring is the knowledge that human well-being is a shifting, psychosocial phenomenon. Learning and memory research offers a treasure trove of knowledge about how the physical and social environment changes the brain. Feminist scholarship adds to this understanding through critical inquiry into gender as a mode of interaction with the world. This essay explores how a feminist neuroethics framework enriches biological research into mental health. 
Problems with “Biology-from-birth” stories 
What if understanding gender and health isn’t a tale of two gonads (or genitalia, or chromosomes)?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

The Neuroethics Blog Series on Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

By Somnath Das
Somnath Das recently graduated from Emory University where he majored in Neuroscience and Chemistry. He will be attending medical school at Thomas Jefferson University starting in the Fall of 2017. The son of two Indian immigrants, he developed an interest in healthcare after observing how his extended family sought help from India’s healthcare system to seek relief from chronic illnesses. Somnath’s interest in medicine currently focuses on understanding the social construction of health and healthcare delivery. Studying Neuroethics has allowed him to combine his love for neuroscience, his interest in medicine, and his wish to help others into a multidisciplinary, rewarding practice of scholarship which to this day enriches how he views both developing neurotechnologies and the world around him. 
Humans in the 21st century have an intimate relationship with technology. Much of our lives are spent being informed and entertained by screens. Technological advancements in science and medicine have helped and healed in ways we previously couldn’t dream of. But what unanticipated consequences may be lurking behind our rapid expansion into new technological territory? This question is continually being explored in the British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror, which provides a glimpse into the not-so-distant future and warns us to be mindful of how we treat our technology and how it can affect us in return. This piece is part of a series of posts that will discuss ethical issues surrounding neuro-technologies featured in the show and will compare how similar technologies are impacting us in the real world. 

*SPOILER ALERT* – The following contains plot spoilers for the Netflix television series Black Mirror.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.