Tag: human genome project

Bioethics Blogs

George Church gives good quote. He means what he says, and expresses it succinctly and vividly. The latest publication to exploit this is The Economist, which just ran a feature about him called “Welcome to my genome” that includes some of Church’s predictions for human genetic modification:

In the future Dr Church sees a world in which individuals tinker with their DNA to eliminate diseases, give their offspring extra abilities or simply to look more attractive. … To travel beyond the Earth, astronauts could also have their bodies altered to give them a better chance of surviving the journey. They could be genetically engineered to resist radiation and osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones which would result from prolonged weightlessness. Those that remain on Earth could be altered to reduce their carbon footprint [by making] people smaller.

Church also endorses the concept of “backing up my brain into another that I have in my back-pack” and (smiling) suggests that things people “think are a million years away or never, are actually four years away.”

This might be a shock to Neal Jordan, a young science-fiction author, who set his recently-published mind-uploading book Transgod 500 years in the future. Such uploading is also discussed in another new book, The Proactionary Imperative: A foundation for transhumanism, by Steve Fuller and Veronika Lipinska. Carl Elliott reviewed it in this week’s New Scientist under the descriptive online headline, “a manifesto for playing god with human evolution.” In print, the title was the catchier “More, or less, than human?” — presumably because the piece closes with the important observation that:

It is precisely because the powerless and disadvantaged have always made such tempting research subjects that strict controls on medical research are essential.

Newly published in the UK, though not due out in the United States till next February, is yet another book that considers such issues, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. His take is darker than that of the techno-optimists. Not only does he question whether modern people are happier than our stone-age ancestors, he is deeply concerned that coming human enhancements will lead to a more unequal society than any we have seen:

“In the 20th century, the main task of medicine was to bring everybody to a certain level of health and capability. It was by definition an egalitarian aim,” Harari told the Guardian. “In the 21st century medicine is moving onwards and trying to surpass the norm, to help people live longer, to have stronger memories, to have better control of their emotions. But upgrading like that is not an egalitarian project, it’s an elitist project. No matter what norm you reach, there is always another upgrade which is possible.”

As a consequence of the efforts of Church (who is mentioned specifically) and others:

“In the 21st century, there is a real possibility of creating biological castes, with real biological differences between rich and poor,” said Harari. “The end result could be speciation. We’re used to being the only human species around, but there is no law of nature that says there can only be one species of human. With this kind of upgrading treatment we could have, in the not too distant future, more than one human species on Earth again.”

Harari is by no means the first to suggest this. Lee Silver notoriously made that prediction — which he seemed to relish — in Remaking Eden, which was first published in 1997. At that time, such expansive views of human possibilities were fueled by the approaching end of the Human Genome Project. Gene interactions turned out to be more complicated than was once hoped, and the wilder speculations died down for a bit. But now, with the advent of more precise gene-altering tools such as Crispr, ambition seems to be rising again, and the repeated warning is regrettably relevant.

The Economist is a business-focused newsmagazine, and notes that since 2007, “Dr Church has co-founded 12 biotech companies and advised many more.” His enterprises are mostly focused on genomics, diagnostics, therapeutics and synthetic biology, with a possible sideline coming in DNA-based data storage — all related to his research. They are not apparently driving his choice of projects so much as derived from what he finds and publishes. But he does have a very capitalist orientation, leading him to tell the magazine:

We’re well beyond Darwinian limitations to evolution. Evolution right now is in the marketplace.

Church is expressing here an odd combination of hubris and passivity. His ambition takes him “beyond Darwinian limitations” — he can casually discard a few billion years of evolution — and yet he is irresistibly bound to the current economic system. He has that the wrong way round.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Genetic Selection, Human Rights, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Media Coverage, Medical Gene Transfer, Personal genomics, Pete Shanks’s Blog Posts, Sequencing & Genomics, Synthetic Biology


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Bioethics Blogs

Making Sense of the BRAIN

More than a decade after the historic completion of the Human Genome Project, the ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) are far from being sorted out. The role of genetic information in the courtroom, in research projects, in for-profit companies, at all stages of pregnancies, and in insurance companies is being negotiated across multiple planes on a daily basis. With so many competing interests, reaching consensus on responsible usage can feel like a pipe dream. Nonetheless, important strides have been made in several of these areas through recommendations, regulations, and tireless advocacy.

Are there lessons to be learned from these struggles that might help ease the growing pains of the upcoming projects to understand the brain?

The brain projects are certainly shaping up to be no less momentous or controversial.  According to the 1.2 billion pound, ten-year undertaking in Europe known as the Human Brain Project,

Understanding the human brain is one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century science. If we can rise to the challenge, we can gain profound insights into what makes us human, develop new treatments for brain disease and build revolutionary new computing technologies.

The BRAIN Initiative in the United States (called the cousin of Europe’s Human Brain Project) is no less ambitious. It is set to receive $4.5 billion in federal funding over the next 12 years.

These projects will help make sense of what is probably the least understood part of the human body. The origins of our thoughts, memories, desires, actions, and emotions could become less elusive and provide important keys for helping people deal with neurological disorders.

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

Great Suffering Software

[BioEdge] Most bioethical discourse deals with tangible, nitty-gritty situations like surrogate mothers, stem cells, abortion, assisted suicide, or palliative care.

But there is a theoretical avant garde in bioethics, too. Theoretical bioethics tries to anticipate ethical issues which could arise if advanced technology becomes available. There are always a lot of ifs – but these are what bring joy to an academic’s heart.

The other day an intriguing example appeared in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. Oxford bioethicist Anders Sandberg asks whether software can suffer. If so, what are the ethics of creating, modifying and deleting it from our hard drives?

We’re all familiar with software that makes us suffer because of corrupted files and crashes. But whimpering, yelping, moaning software?

This is a bit more plausible that it sounds at first. There are at least two massive “brain mapping” projects under way. The US$1.6 billion Human Brain Project funded by the European Commission is being compared to the Large Hadron Collider in its importance. The United States has launched its own US$100 million brain mapping initiative. The idea of both projects is to build a computer model of the brain, doing for our grey matter what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

Theoretically, the knowledge gained from these projects could be used to emulate the brains of animals and humans on computers. No one knows whether this is possible, but it is tantalising for scientists who are seeking a low-cost way to conduct animal experiments.

This implies that a being – is it too much to call it a person?

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

Snapshots of Life: The Dance of Development

Credit: Amanda L. Zacharias and John I. Murray, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

This video may look like an aerial shot of a folk dance: first a lone dancer, then two, then four, until finally dozens upon dozens of twirling orbs pack the space in a frenzy of motion. But what you’re actually viewing is an action shot of one of biology’s most valuable models for studying development: the round worm, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans).

Taking advantage of time-lapse technology, this video packs into 38 seconds the first 13 hours of this tiny worm’s life, showing its development from a single cell into the larval, or juvenile stage, with 558 cells. (If you are wondering why C. elegans doesn’t look very worm-like at the end of this video, it’s because the organism develops curled up inside a transparent shell—and after it breaks out of that shell, it squirms quickly away.)

Not only is this cool video among the winners of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2013 BioArt competition, it shows some very cutting edge research. A team led by John Murray, an NIH-funded geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, produced this movie to study how various proteins control the fate of cells during C. elegans’ early development.

We can follow the process because the DNA inside the nucleus of each cell is tagged with green fluorescent protein. Just before a cell divides into two new cells, the DNA in its nucleus copies itself, which is why the amount of green seems to double in a bright flash.

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

Whose profit? Why bioethics needs a global perspective

Global justice and human rights are remarkably absent in discussions of bioethics. Julien Harneis

Innovations deriving from genetics research, stem cell research, nanoscience and neuroscience will soon revolutionise medicine.

With the potential for biotechnologies to alter natural processes and redefine what it means to be human, it’s hardly surprising that there’s been growing interest in bioethical issues.

Bioethics as a field

Bioethics has grown rapidly as a professional field since its emergence in the United States in around 1970.

While it is multi-disciplinary in perspective, in practice the field is dominated by moral philosophy, a discipline concerned with articulating and defending the rights and wrongs of behaviours.

So bioethics has been preoccupied with applying abstract principles to concrete situations. For example, the principle of autonomy has been applied to research involving human subjects.

These abstract principles – autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice – were pioneered and popularised by Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, in their multi-edition book Principles of Biomedical Ethics, originally published in 1979.

While such principles have served, and to some extent continue to serve, a useful purpose in the field, the limits and indeed dangers of their application are becoming increasing apparent.

As one bioethicist has argued, the doctrinal application of bioethics principles, or so-called principlism, has “thinned” public debate on substantive questions arising from new biotechnologies.

According to prevailing accounts of bioethics’ history, these principles were originally developed to resolve dilemmas arising from the increasing use of technologies in biomedical research and practice.

These dilemmas include the use of life support systems, such as dialysis machines, and technologies of reproduction.

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.