Tag: moral status

Bioethics News

Book Review: Cells Are The New Cure (BenBella Books, Inc., 2017). ISBN 9781944648800.

$26.95. Reviewed by Michael S. Dauber, MA

 

Cells Are The New Cure, written by Robin Smith, MD, and Max Gomez, PhD, is a book about the history of medical research on cells, both human and non-human, and recent developments in these techniques that have made cellular medicine one of the most promising fields for therapeutic exploration. While the book’s title suggests an exclusive focus on the healing aspects of genetic modification and human stem cell therapy, the text is much more than that: it is a roadmap for understanding the origins of such techniques, the current state of affairs in cellular and genetic therapies, the administrative landscape investigators must traverse in conducting research, and the areas in which we still need to make progress.

Smith and Gomez make an argument that is structurally simple yet gripping: they suggest that targeted therapies involving stem cells and genetic modifications are the future of medicine by pointing to the immense amount of studies in those fields that have yielded beneficial results. While many readers might acknowledge this fact even before reading the book, many may not be aware of the full extent of the knowledge we have gained from research on cells and genetics, or the myriad ways this knowledge has been applied. Of course, Smith and Gomez cover the big diseases that most people think of when imagining medical research: cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative conditions, etc. However, the book also contains detailed information about how we age, what may cause certain allergies, how the body repairs itself, and the ways stem cell therapies, genetic editing techniques, and other complex medicines that build on these methods can be used to treat these conditions.

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

CRISPR, Pigs, Organs, Ethics: Some Key Considerations

Michael S. Dauber, M.A., GBI Visiting Scholar

Luhan Yang and members of her research team at eGenesis have taken a crucial step in growing organs in animals that may be used to provide organs for therapeutic transplants in humans, according to a study published in Science Magazine on Thursday, August 10th. Researchers involved in the study used CRISPR, a genetic editing technique, to “knock out” 25 genes that cause porcine endogenous retroviruses (sometimes referred to as “PERV genes”) that make ordinary pig organs unsuitable for transplants because PERVs can infect human transplant recipients. The result was the birth of 37 baby pigs without PERV genes.

The move comes at a time when CRISPR experiments are becoming increasingly popular. Last week, a team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov published the results of the first successful attempt to modify human embryos using CRISPR by American scientists in Nature. The researchers successfully deleted a gene responsible for several fatal heart conditions.

While the results are a significant step in developing techniques for growing organs suitable for human transplantation, scientists must still travel a long road before any human patients will receive such organs. Researchers will need to determine whether or not organs from pigs developed using CRISPR can be safely and effectively transplanted into other animals first. Another hurdle is the cost and complexity of the technique: Yang’s experiments with her team involved embryos produced through cloning, an expensive technique that is not always completely effective: indeed, in Yang’s study, only a few of the cloned embryos were viable.

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 ‘Weird’ First Fortnight of the Foetus: Implications for the Abortion Debate

Guest Post: William Simkulet
Paper: The Cursed Lamp: The Problem of Spontaneous Abortion

For many people, the moral status of abortion stands or falls whether or not a human fetus is morally comparable to you or I; whether its death is a significant loss.  Many people believe human fetuses have a right to life from conception, and thus conclude that there is good reason to think induced abortion is seriously morally wrong.  Judith Jarvis Thomson challenges this belief, constructing a scenario where she believes it is morally acceptable to end the life of a person because although he has a right to life, his right to life does not give him a right to use your body.  Her example should be familiar:

Violinist:  You wake up in the hospital, surgically attached to a violinist.  Your doctor explains that last night the Society of Music Lovers kidnapped the two of you and performed the surgery.  The violinist has a serious condition that will result in his death soon unless he remains attached to your kidneys for the next 9 months (you alone are biologically compatible).

The violinist has a right to life, and surely you are free to let him remain attached to your body to save his life.  It would be a great kindness for you to do so, but Thomson says that the violinist’s right to life does not give him the right to use your body.  Anti-abortion theories that focus on the moral status of the fetus neglect to show why the fetus’s moral status – its argued for right to life – would give it a right to use the woman’s body.

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

American CRISPR Experiments and the Future of Regulation

By Michael S. Dauber, MA, GBI Visiting Scholar

According to a report in The MIT Technology Review, researchers in a lab based in Portland, Oregon have successfully created genetically modified human embryos for the first time in U.S. history, using a technique called CRISPR. The project, directed by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, was published in Nature, and consisted of modifying the genes of human embryos to prevent a severe, genetically inherited heart condition. The embryos were destroyed several days after the experiments.

CRISPR stands for “clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats.” It is a genetic editing technique that allows scientists to cut out pieces of DNA and replace them with other pieces. CRISPR originated as a naturally occurring cellular defense system in certain bacterial that allows a cell to defend itself from foreign genetic material injected into cells by viruses. RNA strands that match the problematic genes bind with the piece of DNA to be removed, and enzymes work to remove the defective material. When CRISPR is used to edit the human genome, scientists apply CRISPR RNA strands and the corresponding enzymes that match the genes they wish to edit in order to extract the problematic genes.

Mitalipov is not the first scientist to use CRISPR to edit the human genome. Scientists in China have been using the technique in research using human embryos dating back to 2015. One notable study consisted of attempts to make cells resistant to HIV. Another controversial study involved the injection of CRISPR-modified cells into a patient with advanced lung cancer.

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

What We Do When We Resuscitate Extremely Preterm Infants

by Jeremy R. Garrett, Brian S. Carter & John D. Lantos

This editorial is made available on bioethics.net. The editorial along with the target article and open peer commentary is available via tandfonline.com

Neonatal intensive care is one of the most successful medical innovations of the last half century. Every year, in the United States alone, nearly 500,000 babies are born prematurely. Before neonatal intensive care, most of those babies died, and those who survived often suffered significant life-limiting impairments. Today, most preemies survive without impairments.

In spite of this success, neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) care has always been viewed as ethically problematic. The objections to this care have taken different forms at different times.

Economists questioned whether neonatal intensive care was cost-effective. Careful studies showed that it was more cost-effective than any other form of intensive care, and even more cost-effective than many modalities of preventive care (including, for example, Pap smears).

Some parents claimed that doctors were not honestly informing them of the potential long-term sequelae of NICU care, and that, if honestly informed, many parents would choose palliative care. Careful studies showed that these parents were unusual. Most parents want more intensive care than even doctors and nurses think is appropriate, and they want it even when informed that survivors might be left with significant disabilities.

Bioethicists and doctors argued that neonatologists were playing God, that premature babies were not full-fledged persons, and that saving disabled babies was like an ill-conceived military mission. Each of these attempts to undermine the commitment made by parents, doctors, and society to saving preemies has been met with hard questions and strong rebuttals.

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

Charlie Gard: Three Issues That Did Not Make Social Media

by Ann Mongoven, Ph.D., MPH

All hearts go out to the Gard family in this time of grief for their son, Charlie.

The legal wrangling over Charlie’s care became a political football–unfortunately, about many things having little to do with Charlie.

Despite the involvement of Pope Francis, this was not a case about abortion rights or the sanctity of human life. Catholic tradition warns both that quality-of-life arguments can dehumanize the disabled, and that unduly burdensome medical care can become assaultive. There is no “Catholic” view of the case, and Catholic moral theologians disagree about it.

Despite the involvement of Donald Trump, this was not a case about the relative merits of the U.K. National Health Service (NHS) versus other health systems. It was not a case of utilitarian ethics pitted against duty-based ethics or love. The NHS provided extremely expensive intensive care for Charlie for most of his life, and British courts governed cases related to his care solely by a “best interest of the child” standard– amidst heated disagreement between Charlie’s parents and doctors about his interests. The European Court of Human Rights backed the British court decision.

The case did address questions about who should decide when parents and doctors disagree about a child’s medical interest. But contrary to some portrayals in the American press, it neither changed conventional parameters for addressing those questions, nor exposed major differences in legal reasoning used to address them in the U.K. and the U.S.  Both countries appeal to “best interest” standards for resolution, and both reject an absolutist interpretation of parental rights.

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 goal of human embryonic gene editing is enhancement

As Jon Holmlund reported in his post last week, research on the editing of genes in human embryos is now being conducted in the United States. The door to doing this research was opened by the consensus report on Human Genome Editing published by the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. That report encouraged the pursuit of research on gene editing in human embryos and justified that based on the potential benefit of editing human embryos to correct genes for serious human genetic disorders. The report recommended that once basic research could show the reliability of the gene editing techniques it would be reasonable to proceed with human clinical trials as long as those trials involved the correction of genes responsible for serious genetic disorders. They stated that there were significantly more moral concerns about using human genome editing for enhancement and that enhancement should not be pursued until those moral concerns were resolved. Thus, the research currently being done in Portland, Oregon by Shoukhrat Mitalipov (see article in MIT Technology Review) involves creating human embryos with a single gene genetic disorder and then editing the abnormal gene to remove the disorder.

However, the idea that human germline genetic modification should be pursued to correct serious genetic disorders is a flawed concept. The technique used by Mitalipov does not involve treatment of a diseased human embryo, but the creation at the time of conception of a genetically altered embryo. Since the goal of this procedure is not the treatment of a diseased individual, but the creation of a child free of a particular genetic disease for parents who desire such a genetically related child, there is a much simpler and already available means to accomplish that goal.

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: Be Right Back

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. 
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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.

Bioethics Blogs

The Very Early Embryo & Its Moral Signifiance

by Andrew J. Prunty

As technology and biological research continue to develop in the twenty-first century, it is necessary to address and further define the ethical considerations of embryonic research and the appropriate rights that may limit the extent of human research on zygotes, blastocysts, and fetal scientific advancement. Because the area of harvesting embryonic stem cells remains significantly undefined, both legally and morally, there are vastly different opinions between researchers and bioethicists, mainly because of ethical limitations, on the rights that should be granted to cells with the potential to develop into human beings and the consequences of neglecting significant scientific research or advancement.

Current laws in the United States differ at the federal and state level, but there is no consistency in recognizing human embryos as humans, or affording them the same legal rights granted to a child; in fact, legal precedent actually detracts certain rights from developing embryos, favoring a human’s ability to destroy a potential human being (i.e. Roe v. Wade[i]) or the categorization of embryos as property (i.e. Davis v. Davis[ii], A.Z. v. B.Z.[iii], Marriage of Dahl[iv], or Reber v. Reiss[v]). These case law samples suggest the courts’ inability to reach a conclusion as to what is the status of an embryo.

The debate is not only circumscribed to matters of research, but to fundamental controversial and intertwined issues of bioethics such as: when life begins, embryonic stem cells, fetal rights, abortion, et cetera. All these topics are contentious and when one topic arises, they begin to comingle.

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

All we like SHEEFs, Part 2

Carrying on with last week’s musings…

In thinking further, I think my attempt was confused by conflating the moral status of a SHEEF—a synthetic human entity with embryo-like features, something more than a clump of cells of human origin, but less than a human being—with reasons why I might want to hold that nobody should ever make certain sorts of SHEEFs.

Again, SHEEFs are human, not non-human.  But they may not command a “right to life” in every instance.

I would return to a statement I made last week, that any totipotent human entity, that is, any human entity capable of developing into a full human being under the right circumstances, should be accorded a full human right to life from the moment he or she comes into existence.  We other humans ought to give him or her a chance to live, care for him or her as one of us, grant him or her any research protections extended to human research subjects in general, and so on.  So-called human “embryos in a dish” would be in this group.

The same cannot be said for individual human cells, including human gametes formed from cells like induced pluripotent stem cells.  There may be arguments why those ought not to be produced, but that is for another time.

I would not say that a laboratory-created or sustained human heart, for example, ought to be protected from instrumental uses, including destruction for the research enterprise.  I think I would want to argue that we humans ought not make such a thing as part of a human-non-human animal hybrid, but again, that’s a different argument.  

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.