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Bioethics 101

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April 28, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 28

  • Bill ignites euthanasia fears (The Herald)
  • Biologist Gets Top Prize in Medicine (AP)
  • Warning over ‘fertility tourism’ (BBC)
  • Circumcision Studied in Africa as AIDS Preventive (New York Times)
  • Effect of male pill could be reversed in months: study (Reuters)
  • 1 in 5 pay more in Medicare Rx plan (USA Today)
  • Pill Pushers Go Into Overdrive (Wired)

Quote of the Week

“When utilitarianism becomes a substitute for right and wrong, the end result is a lot more wrong.”

— Debra J. Saunders, writing an opinion piece on black-market organ transplantation. “American Vampire,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 2006.

April 27, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 27

  • Tough choices can be side effects of Medicare plan (USA Today)
  • Connecticut: Study authorized for possible umbilical cord blood bank (AP)
  • Australian research shows mobile phones affect brain function (AFP)
  • Wisconsin Governor Doyle signs order to market state as research center (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
  • Florida: Stem Cell Research Cash Approved by Senate Committee (AP)
  • Illegal Trade in Bodies Shakes Loved Ones (USA Today)
  • Op-Ed: “We Never Say No” (Weekly Standard)
  • ‘Bubble boy’ therapy cancer risk (BBC)
  • Your Thoughts Are Your Password (Wired)
  • Your cheatin’ heart (Nature)

April 26, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 26

  • Chinese scientists clone mad cow-resistant calf (Reuters)
  • Salvage prospect for ‘junk’ DNA (BBC)
  • Scientists Probe the Use of the Tongue (AP)
  • Disease gene that turns muscle into bone identified (BioNews)
  • ‘Turf war for human subjects’ in Aids trials (Mail & Guardian)
  • Pacemaker Malfunctions Totted Up (Nature)

Book Reviews

The latest edition of The New Atlantis has a review of four books written from a transhumanist perspective:

  • Ramez Naam’s More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
  • James Hughes’s Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future
  • Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—And What It Means to Be Human
  • Michael Chorost’s Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human

In analyzing these books, the author of the review, Charles T. Rubin (associate professor of political science at Duquesne University), is trying to understand their “style of argument,” which he labels “a rhetoric of extinction.” It’s an insightful article; well worth your time.

April 25, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 25

  • Illinois: State Announces Stem Cell Research Grants (AP)
  • Illinois: Governor Slips Funds to Research (Chicago Tribune)
  • Plan to Detain Sick Fliers Opposed (USA Today)
  • UMass-Amherst Wins $16 Million Nanotechnology Grant (AP)
  • A Fix To Forget It (The Herald)
  • Wireless Bionic Arm Would Feel Real (Live Science)
  • University of Pittsburgh: Lax Oversight Blamed for Stem Cell Hoax (AP)
  • Video Game Brain Age Gooses Your Gray Matter (Wired)
  • ‘Bloodless’ surgery avoids risks of transfusion (AP)
  • World Bank accused over malaria (BBC)
  • Many middle-income Americans lack insurance: study (Reuters)

Technology and the Classroom

Writing for a British audience, Oxford professor of pharmacology Susan Greenfield explores a few possible implications of bio-, nano-, and info-technologies on 21st century education, and calls for a diverse coalition to work to consider seriously both the benefits and burdens of technological advancements.

The first third of the article is most directly applicable to bioethics, but a recurring theme throughout the article is the unintended consequences of new technologies.

We must consider the cost of enhancing certain ways of thinking and behaving. Drugs and other technologies used to increase concentration and reduce disruptive behaviour may suppress creativity, spontaneity and calculated risk-taking. If these drugs are widely used, we are in danger of squeezing children into a particular mould, turning our schools into factories that produce a single, standard product.

April 24, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 24

  • Judge Says Calif. Stem Cell Agency Legal (AP)
  • Korea: Misled Egg Donors Sue for Compensation (The Korea Times)
  • A Church Of Scotland Committee Backs Use Of Human Embryos In Quest For Stem Cell Treatments (Scotsman)
  • Eggs for Sale (Oklahoma University Daily)
  • Democrats Hope to Divide G.O.P. Over Stem Cells (New York Times)
  • Australia: Embryo Cloning Dispute Heats Up (The Australian)
  • Researchers Say Scientific Reporting Needs More Perspective, Less Hype (Wisconsin Technology Network)
  • Swiss Clinic Proposes Assisted Suicide for Depressed (UPI)
  • Egypt’s Illegal Organs Trade Thrives on Poverty (AFP)
  • Women’s HIV gel said possible by 2010 (USA Today)

The Price of Eggs

The Oklahoma University Daily notes an increase in advertisements in campus newspapers directed toward encouraging college women to donate their eggs. Kacee Lynn Echols, said she became interested in the process after seeing it advertised in the school newspaper. “The ad mentioned nothing about the potential side effects,” Echols said. “When I researched, I found that severe menstrual periods, weight gain, headaches and cramping were all possible risks, among others.”

Listed among the “other” risks from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome is rapid accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity, chest cavity, and heart, severe pelvic pain, nausea, vomiting, ovarian enlargement, respiratory problems, blocking of blood vessels by blood clots, liver dysfunction, ovarian cysts and cancers, severe pelvic pain, rupture of the ovaries, and possible negative effects on future fertility. That makes the price of egg donation a lot higher than is commonly advertised.

Dignity and Depression

If you do an internet search for “suicide depression” you get a ton of results that also include some form of the word prevent. UPI reports, however, that the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland “Proposes Assisted Suicide for Depressed.”

Dignitas is Latin for dignity, but this organization if founded on a seriously misguided view of dignity. Human dignity is the recognition that human beings are worthy of esteem or respect. It is an inherent aspect of being human. It is not bestowed, nor can it be taken away. Rather, human dignity is recognized, and out of that recognition flow requirements for how we treat one another.

The dignity of human beings who are chronically depressed demands compassion. Compassion, literally meaning “suffering with,” is the opposite of assisting suicide. Compassion means assisting life, preventing suicide.

California: Judge Rules Stem Cell Agency Legal

The Associate Press calls it “an unambiguous victory” for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Established by Proposition 71, the stem cell institute had been challenged as unconstitutional on two grounds: (1) Prop 71 proposed two subjects on a single ballot measure (“the judge said she found no evidence to support that claim”) and (2) the board, which controls $300 million in taxpayer funds per year, is not accountable to the state government (“in a 42-page verdict, the judge rejected those arguments and all others challenging the agency’s legality”).

An appeal is likely to follow, and one of the lawyers is reportedly going to ask the California Supreme Court to take the case directly.

April 21, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 21

  • China criticized for alleged use of prisoner organs (Reuters)
  • Britons warned over China’s ‘harvested’ organ transplants (AFP)
  • Patent offending (Union-Tribune)
  • Op-Ed: Stop the Cloning Madness (Boston Globe)
  • Indian Tribe, Downwinders: Stop Nev. Blast (AP)
  • Wash your hands, doc — and ditch the tie (MSNBC)
  • Cardinal backs limited condom use (BBC)

Quote of the Week

“I could see a broader mobilization where people start saying, ‘No, you can’t take my tissues.’ All I can say is, we better deal with the problems now instead of waiting until that happens.”

— Kathy Hudson, a molecular biologist who directs the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, commenting on the collection and use of bodily tissues in research, often without clear communication to the donor. From “Taking the Least of You,” New York Times, April 16, 2006.

April 20, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 20

  • Financial ties in the field of psychiatry (MSNBC)
  • SA prisoners sue for Aids drugs (BBC)
  • Mumps Epidemic Spreads; More Vaccine Is Promised (New York Times)
  • Los Angeles woman hospitalized with bubonic plague (USA Today)
  • Drinking Problem? Try Drugs (Wired)
  • Portland Hospital Gives Acutely Ill A Homecare Option (Wall Street Journal)

April 19, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 19

  • U.S. Records Big Decline in Death Rate (AP)
  • China ‘Selling Prisoners’ Organs’ (BBC)
  • Benefits Threatened, Auto Workers Line Up for Elective Procedures ()New York Times
  • Wal-Mart Offers to Help Fix US Health Care (Reuters)
  • Judge Blocks Law to Report Sex Under 16 (New York Times)
  • UK: Drug trial victims offered £5,000 (BBC)
  • Stem Cells That Kill (Time)

Innocent by Association?

The Philadelphia Business Journal contains an informative article on current stem cell research. The article largely focuses on a new study, funded by New Jersey’s $5 million stem cell research grant program, studying how umbilical cord stem cells can help heal damaged heart muscle. The article also contains a bulleted list of other heart-related stem cell research currently underway around the world. Highlights include:
– Bone marrow stem cells to treat heart ailments (Malvern, PA)
– Bone marrow stem cells injected into damaged hearts (Pittsburg)
– Blood-derived stem cells to treat severe coronary artery disease (Deerfield, IL)
– Bone marrow stem cells treating heart attach damage (Munich)

For some reason, though, the author drops in the following early in the article:

Researchers believe embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to develop into many different cell types in the body, can be coaxed into treating myriad diseases, conditions and disabilities. Opponents of the research argue the process destroys the embryo and the potential for life. Since 2001, government policy limits federal research funding to 19 existing stem cell lines.

There is so much wrong with this paragraph that it’s difficult to know where to start. Everyone agrees that the embryo is destroyed, not just “opponents of the research.” The opposition isn’t due to a destruction of “the potential for life.” Rather, opposition comes from the fact that a life at a very early stage of development is destroyed. The NIH lists 22 currently available lines, not 19, and there are other eligible derivations in storage that may be made available in the future.

But the real quibble is the juxtaposition of this information on the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research with information on research that has nothing whatsoever to do with embryos. There is no mention anywhere else in the article of any research that is being conducted with embryonic stem cells. In fact, neither the word “embryo” nor the word “embryonic” appears anywhere else in the article. The article simply is not clear about the distinction between the controversial embryonic stem cells and the non-controversial non-embryonic stem cells. Throwing in that bit of information without appropriate explanation—and rife with factual errors—is a disservice to readers.

April 18, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 18

  • Study: Education Level Linked to Heart Disease (HealthDay)
  • Experts Suggest Spacing Pregnancies (AP)
  • UK: Nurse Guilty of Killing Patients (BBC)
  • Effort to Photograph Dying Children Helps Families (Reuters)
  • Med Students Train on Robots (Wired)
  • ‘Wrong Site’ Surgeries on the Rise (USA Today)
  • Kurzweil: Life Is the Fast Lane (Bio IT World)
  • Op-ed: Falling Behind on Stem-Cell Research (Boston Globe)

The Assembly Line to Nowhere

Setting aside the distortions and half-truths that appear to be advanced all too often by advocates of embryonic stem cell research, The Boston Globe column by Christopher Thomas Scott and Jennifer McCormick presents and interesting view of what they call the seven step assembly line of the “biomedical ‘’discovery machine’” :

1.) An academic scientist designs an experiment to answer an important question.
2.) The scientist applies to the government to fund the research.
3.) The money pays for students and fellows who conduct the research.
4.) The results are published in journals, which advance the field.
5.) An invention may result. This may lead to a patent, which then is licensed to a start-up company.
6.) With a monopoly granted by the patent, the company attracts venture capital. If it is successful, the company grows.
7.) Years later, the discovery becomes a therapy for patients.

Most taxpayers support biomedical research because of #7 – it leads to therapies for patients. But if the goal is to find cures, then the “assembly line” should be approached from the opposite direction. Funding of “important questions” should be based on what is most likely to result in ethically-derived therapies rather than on whether it can attract funding to pay for “students and fellows.” Basic research is, of course, important and occasionally does lead to new therapies. But the public should be fully informed that step #5 contains a very big qualifier before they are asked to support research that is not only morally problematic but likely to lead nowhere.

April 17, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 17

The Real Question

The Magazine section of the New York Times has an interesting article on human tissue samples and patenting. It’s a long article, but worth your time to read. Patenting is going to be an increasingly thorny issue in the biotech centry.

Long story short, scientists, universities, biotech companies, etc. obtain patents based on tissues and blood samples from specific patients. Access to processes is restricted. Profits flow. Lawsuits ensue. The article identifies a number of reasons why this situation is not optimal and covers a few suggestions for moving forward.

In the middle of the article, the author attempts to distill the central question:

In the end, the question isn’t whether people have the ability to control their tissues; it is how much science should be obligated (ethically and legally) to put them in the position to do so.

Interesting. As I read the article, I got the impression that the central issue is money. At some point, someone obtains a patent and uses it for financial gain by restricting access to the process and it ends up in court. Sometimes the suit involves a cut of the profits and sometimes it is a demand for freer access to the patented process. It seems to me, however, the real question, never mentioned in the article, is how do we—researchers, patients, lawyers, ethicists—best care for one another? Until we start trying to answer that question, I fear answers to questions of patenting will remain beyond our grasp.

April 13, 2006

Bioethics in the News — April 13

  • Scientists in U.S. to Attempt Human Cloning South Koreans Faked (
  • Missouri: Stem Cell Opponents Appeal Ruling on Ballot Proposal (Kansas City Star)
  • New Zealand: Bioethics Committee Critical of Proposed Ministry of
    Health Guidelines (Radio New Zealand)
  • New York: Spitzer Unveils $1 Billion Stem Cell Proposal (New York Times)
  • Study: Many Researchers Break the Rules (Forbes)
  • Op-Ed: The Legal Lock on Stem Cells (L.A. Times)


The Bioethics Poll
Should individuals and/or institutions be allowed to patent human genes?
Yes, with some qualifications

View results

Which area of research should more money be invested in:
Animal-Human Hybrids
Gene Therapy
Reproductive Technology
Stem Cell Research
"Therapeutic" Cloning
None of the above

View results

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your global information source on bioethics news and issues