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Bioethics 101

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August 31, 2006

Bioethics in the News — August 31

  • British Fertility Society speaks out on access to IVF (BioNews)
  • Significant Adult Stem Cell Advance Drew Modest Attention (CNSNews)
  • Wiley Partners With The International Society For Stem Cell Research (Medical News Today)
  • Blondes preferred: the trade in human eggs on US university campuses (M & C News)
  • Relatives lose right to block organ donations (Kerala Next)
  • Is the cost of health care worth it? Maybe (MSNBC)
  • FDA Weighs Oversight of Body Parts Trade (AP)
  • Medical practices blend health and faith (Washington Post)
  • Live Long? Die Young? Answer Isn’t Just in Genes (New York Times)
  • Risk of prenatal CVS same as amniocentesis: study (Reuters)
  • Op-Ed: Where cynical politics meets consumer illusions — single-payer health insurance (San Francisco Chronicle)

August 30, 2006

Forget Accurate Reports of New Discoveries on Memory

A trio of articles this week on how the brain may form and maintain memories in the journal Science has led certain news outlets to jump to conclusions about the nature of the human brain and our present ability to manipulate it.

For example, is announcing that scientists have found the “memory molecule,” and these studies demonstrate that we “can erase long-term memories . . . that had been stored for one day, or even one month . . . as you might erase a computer disc.” The article neglects to mention, however, that the studies only involved rats, not humans, and were therefore limited to the rats’ abilities to remember spatial relations (such as learning to avoid a painful shock).

Since a rat cannot communicate to researchers what it does or doesn’t remember from yesterday or last month, evidence that memories can be selectively erased is, at best, inconclusive and circumstantial. These articles in Science only show that (1) rats use a certain area of their brains (the hippocampus) to remember spatial information, and (2) inhibiting a critical enzyme in this region can destroy these learned relations. We know that humans also use their hippocampi in similar ways, though it remains to be seen what this inhibitor would do to our own memories – spatial or otherwise.

Meanwhile, claims about turning our brains into selectively re-writable media through biotechnology are mere speculation. Considering Mayo Clinic found in 2003 that 1 in every 5 news articles on neurological conditions misrepresent or exaggerate the studies they cite, such hyperbole probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. While these discoveries do open up the possibility of a real Lacuna Inc. someday, much more research – and ethical debate – will need to take place before then.

Update on 8/31 by Eric Spaulding: For anyone interested, I just found this article from The Scientist which explains the importance of these discoveries without all the hype.

Bioethics in the News — August 30

  • Medical mistakes ‘a result of overwork’ (The Australian)
  • Australia: Abbott’s stem cell views ‘not religious’ (Herald Sund)
  • Single cell stem cell lines created (BioNews)
  • Cryo Stemcell plans to foray into consultancy, training space (HINDU Business Line)
  • Australia: MP details suicide tips to spark clash (The Age)
  • UK: Experts advise ban on free IVF for obese women (Reuters)
  • Drug maker settles for $435 million (AP)
  • Covert DNA analysis to be illegal in UK (People’s Daily)
  • Playing to our strengths (Unlimited)
  • Op-Ed: Letter from Washington: Plan B decision alienates conservatives (Kansas City Star)
  • Op-Ed: The gift of life — by law (Mail & Guardian)

August 29, 2006

Bioethics in the News — August 29

  • The Lanza Protocol: Damned with very faint praise (BioNews)
  • Call for stem cell research on plants (The Age)
  • Nigeria: Frustrations Over Fruit Of The womb (The Guardian)
  • Choosing a ‘God Squad,’ When the Mind Has Faded (New York Times)
  • Straight Talk About Preparing to Die (Missourinet)
  • Older twins to shed light on ageing (NineMsn)
  • Stem cell ‘wonder cures’ warning (BBC)
  • Saving Lives With Tailor-Made Medication (New York Times)
  • Rats Born to Mice in Bizarre Lab Work (Live Sciene)
  • Opponents blast stem cell measure in latest rally (AP)
  • Op-Ed: We need compromise on stem cells (Albuquerque Tribune)
  • Op-Ed: Medicaid doesn’t deserve bad rap (Post-Standard)

August 28, 2006

Update on Last Week’s Embryonic Stem Cell Study

Over the weekend there has been quite a bit of development regarding last week’s embryonic stem cell announcement. Briefly, Advance Cell Technology (ACT) of Worcester, Massachusetts published an article in the science journal Nature on Wednesday, August 23, 2006, purporting that they had let an embryo grow to the 8- to10-cell stage, extracted cells, and cultivated some of those cells into stem cell lines, without destroying the embryo. The article was criticized immediately for not showing what it claimed to show.

In fact, it has now become clear the that early media reports (apparently based on a press release by ACT) were simply wrong. The Washington Post on Saturday reported, “Nature corrected wording in a lay-language news release it had distributed in advance and posted clarifying data it had asked the scientists to provide.”

Much of the controversy surrounds the fact that it was not made clear in the original press release or in the early media coverage that all of the embryos used in the study were destroyed in the process of the study (the paper published in Nature did disclose this). The embryos used were at the eight-cell stage, and up to seven of the eight cells were used from each embryo, which destroyed the embryos.

Let me back up. It was originally reported that scientists had removed a single cell from an embryo, and used that cell to make a stem cell line. In fact, two separate experiments were conducted.

In the first experiment, researchers removed a single cell from an embryo, and the embryo was allowed to continue to grow and develop. It is a well-known scientific fact that a single cell can be removed from an embryo, and that the embryo can continue to grow and develop. So this experiment proved nothing new. What is not known are the long term effects of removing a single cell at this stage, and the experiment did not address that issue.

Second, multiple cells were taken from 16 embryos (a total of 91 cells) and in the end those cells yielded two stem cell lines.

The original press release sort of combined the two different experiments. To make matters worse, apparently the original article has a series of pictures of embryos that adds to the confusion.

Saturday’s Washington Post picked up on it with an article entitled, “Critic Alleges Deceit in Study on Stem Cells.” Newsweek also weighs in with “ Embryonic War: Scientists and ethicists put the latest stem-cell ‘breakthrough’ under the microscope.” Two choice quotes from the Newsweek article:

A more careful examination of Lanza’s work showed he’d only proposed a new method, but hadn’t in fact proved it worked from start to finish.


“We’re against manipulating, harming, assaulting embryos for their cells even if it doesn’t always kill them,” says Richard Doerflinger, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Well said.

Wesley J. Smith does a great job of covering the saga in an article in The Weekly Standard. Smith also reminds readers that this isn’t the first time ACT has over-hyped the scientific discoveries of its researchers. In 2001, it was cloned human embryos (“The ACT report was quickly debunked by the science community”).

But why? The San Francisco Business Times reports, “Advanced Cell Technology raises money after stem cell news.”

The less cynical reason is that it is thought that embryonic stem cells are more flexible than adult stem cells (the technical term is pluripotent). However, there are now several peer-reviewed studies that have been published, which indicate that non-embryonic (or adult) stem cells are pluripotent. Two of the latest studies:

Ling T-Y et al., “Identification of pulmonary Oct-4+ stem/progenitor cells and demonstration of their susceptibility to SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) infection in vitro,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 103, 9530-9535, 20 June 2006.
Quote: “Lung tissue contains a pluripotent adult stem cell.”

Kucia M et al., “A population of very small embryonic-like (VSEL) CXCR4+SSEA-1+Oct-4+ stem cells identified in adult bone marrow,” Leukemia 20, 857-869, May 2006.
“Small Bone Marrow Stem Cell population expresses pluripotent genes Oct-4, Nanog, and others, and can form derivatives of all 3 primary germ layers”

Bioethics in the News — August 28

  • Embryonic War (Newsweek)
  • Christian Groups Condemn Over-the-Counter Plan B (Christian Post)
  • Australia: Therapeutic cloning winning MPs support (The Age)
  • UK: Footballers using babies as ‘repair kits’: report (AFP)
  • Industry Sees 2nd Tissue Scandal in Year (AP)
  • Morning-After’ Pill Approval Prompts Mixed Reactions (HealthDay)
  • Cancer cell ‘executioner’ found (BBC)

August 25, 2006

Quote of the Week

My anxiety given how far we have come in just four years is that they (scientists) want a little a bit of cloning now, and in a couple of years time they will want a little bit more cloning, and a few years after that they will want still more cloning and very soon we will have reproductive cloning.

— Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott on a move to overturn a ban on human cloning for research purposes in his country. From “Abbott Warns on Stem Cell Cloning,” The Australian, August 22, 2006.

Bioethics in the News — August 25

  • Morning-after pill soon will appear on shelves (Chicago Tribune)
  • UK: ‘Designer baby’ fund hits £20,000 (BBC)
  • Why the Stem Cell Advance May Not Be a Breakthrough (The Times)
  • Organ trade in China raises alarm over human rights (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
  • Glaxo in Deal to Develop New Drugs (Reuters)
  • Biotech hopes to woo investors with stem cell research advance (AP)
  • Op-Ed: Stem cell ‘breakthrough’ more hype than hope (MSNBC)

August 24, 2006

CBHD Press Release

New Embryonic Stem Cell Study Smoke and Mirrors Says Bioethicist

Chicago, Illinois – August 24, 2006 - Bioethics professor C. Ben Mitchell says that a Massachusetts laboratory’s claim to have developed a new way to derive embryonic stem cells without harming embryos is just “ethical smoke and mirrors.”

Advance Cell Technology (ACT) of Worcester, Massachusetts published an article in the science journal Nature on Wednesday, August 23, 2006, purporting that they had let an embryo grow to the 8- to10-cell stage, extracted cells, and cultivated some of those cells into stem cell lines, without destroying the embryo.

The study does not really show what it claims to show. “There are huge unresolved ethical problems here,” says Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity International University in North-suburban Chicago.

The method of extracting cells from the embryo is similar to the procedure used for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which has ethical problems of its own. The long-term effects of removing a cell or cells from an early embryo are unknown; it is likely some embryos will not even survive the procedure. In addition, it is widely believed that a single cell of a very early embryo may be capable of becoming a new embryo itself.

“Using healthy embryos in research that could harm them is not morally justifiable,” declares Mitchell. “Life threatening experiments should only be done by consent or, in the case of children, with parents’ consent and only where the experiment might benefit the child. These embryos had nothing to gain by being used like laboratory rats.” According to the paper, at least 16 human embryos were killed in the process of developing the technique.

Last May, when discussing the use of this technique to derive stem cells, the President’s Council on Bioethics unanimously agreed: “We find this proposal to be ethically unacceptable in humans . . . we should not impose risks on living embryos destined to become children for the sake of getting stem cells for research.”

The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity maintains that stem cell research does not require the destruction of human embryos. To date, there are over 70 therapies benefiting human patients (and more than 500 clinical trials underway) using stem cells from non-controversial sources such as bone marrow and umbilical cord blood.

“Why scientists do not invest more time, energy, and resources in researching these non-controversial sources probably has more to do with economics than anything else,” says Mitchell. “Follow the money.”

Bioethics in the News — August 24

  • The stem-cell breakthrough that could lift ethical taboo (The Times)
  • `Stem-cell banking picking up’ (The Hindu)
  • Insurance Company Yields in Fight With Parents of a Tay-Sachs Child (New York Times)
  • Could walk-in retail clinics help slow rising health costs? (USA Today)
  • FDA Eases Limits on Morning-After Pill (AP)
  • Genes Linked to 2 Health Problems in Blacks (HealthDay)

August 23, 2006

Booting the Latest Brain = Computer Idea

LiveScience is reporting that neuroscientists have found that our brains boot “like a computer” as we rouse from sleep. While the article is sparse on details, I suspect brains require much more than “puffs of nitric oxide” to even begin our return to consciousness. No word on how the thalamus solves the bootstrapping paradox, either.

Technicalities aside, what strikes me here is that scientists are stretching the brain/computer simile to the breaking point. Granted, the brain has been compared throughout history to devices like clocks and pipe organs, which were the most advanced technologies of their day. Perhaps this is just another attempt to make neurology more accessible to the public. (This is brain science, after all!) Yet because of their complexity few people understand how computers work any better than they understand neuroscience, so this analogy isn’t particularly helpful.

What it does help to do, though, is encourage readers to take the brain-as-computer metaphor literally. Notice that this article depicts the thalamus as acting on its own, determining what sensory information to let in regardless of the person’s intentions. If the brain is merely an information processing unit (as some computer scientists have claimed) then this makes sense. The thalamus picks among sensory inputs so that my brain can understand its surroundings, not me. By shifting analogy to reality, we are led to believe that we’re only biological machines operating by the laws of physics; mind does not matter.

This trend is both disturbing and, at a fundamental level, dehumanizing. If I have no choice over what my brain does, “I” am not responsible for my actions, whether good or bad. From this viewpoint, how can “good” and “bad” have meaning at all? Science seeks to describe the natural world as simply as possible. Scientists overstep their bounds, though, when they try to simplify human imagination, morality, and intentionality to biochemistry in a paltry attempt to explain (away) everything. We would do well to jettison this nonsense of equating ourselves to computers, as it is only a small semantic step from making us all robots.

Bioethics in the News — August 23

August 22, 2006

Bioethics in the News — August 22

  • Choice of Health Care ‘Proxy’ Often Surprising (HealthDay)
  • Australia: Cloning can affect votes, MPs told (The Age)
  • Cord Blood Registry’s Newborn Possibilities Program (Washington Times)
  • Placebo’s power goes beyond the mind (MSNBC)
  • Gene clue to premature birth risk (BBC)
  • Half a million Britons set for DNA disease quest (Reuters)
  • Maybe we are different: New book argues female brain wired to nurture (USA Today)
  • Making Health Care the Engine That Drives the Economy (New York Times)
  • Missouri stem cell debate spills into Kansas governor’s race (AP)
  • Implants, [bone marrow] stem cells tried to grow cartilage in knee (AP)

August 21, 2006

Bioethics in the News — August 21

  • Australian PM changes mind over conscience vote on cloning (BioNews)
  • A New Wonder Drug? Just Wait (HealthDay)
  • HIV ‘switches off’ immune cells (BBC)
  • The Outlaw Drug: Despite Its Popularity, Most H.G.H. Use Is Illegal (New York Times)
  • Raging Hormones (New York Times)
  • Study: Decorated Needles Calm Patients (AP)
  • Childhood Cancer Survivors at Raised Risk for Suicide (HealthDay)
  • Smart Care via a Mouse, but What Will It Cost? (New York Times)
  • Study highlights dangers of counterfeit medicines (AFP)
  • Op-Ed (Australia): Frank Brennan: It’s still embryonic (The Australian)

August 18, 2006

Quote of the Week

We’re not likely to get enough data to get definitive results to say we’re ready to treat all children with diabetes. But hopefully it will generate enough data to support future studies of cord blood with other agents.

— Dr. Michael J. Haller, a pediatric endocrinologist who is conducting a pilot study using cord-blood stem cells to treat juvenile diabetes. From “Stem Cells May Help Bergen, NJ Boy Fight Diabetes,” The Record, August 18, 2006.

Bioethics in the News — August 18

  • TV Found to Be a Painkiller for Children (AP)
  • Illinois hands out another $5 million in stem cell research grants (AP)
  • Disgraced S.Korean stem cell scientist back in lab (Reuters)
  • Shanghai: First umbilical cord blood bank opens (Shanghai Daily)
  • FDA, MIT to Collaborate on Drug Safety (AP)
  • Breast implants linked to suicide, not cancer (Reuters)
  • Merck suffers 2 setbacks over Vioxx (AP)
  • Many Americans Say They Get Poor Health Care (HealthDay)
  • Heart Procedure Is Off the Charts in an Ohio City (New York Times)
  • Stem cells may help Bergen, NJ boy fight diabetes (The Record)
  • U.S. is suffering a medical crisis of conscience (Washington Post)
  • Singapore hires US consultant to map out medical tourism strategy (AFP)
  • Singapore fills stem-cell void created by a U.S. ban (New York Times)

August 17, 2006

Who Will Care for the Parents?

A trio of articles today address issues of increasing life spans and decreasing fertility rates. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) alerts us to the “Latest Custody Battle: Who Gets Mom?”

Some of the thorniest custody battles these days are over the care of elderly parents, spouses or grandparents. As longevity increases, a growing number of siblings and other family members are fighting over where elderly parents should live, who should be their primary caregiver, and who should control their finances.

The Australian carries the text of a speech on what declining fertility rates in the West might mean for the future of Western Civilization. It’s a little off our usual topics, but an interesting read.

One would assume a demographic disaster is the sort of thing that sneaks up on you because you’re having a grand old time: You stayed in university till you were 38, you took early retirement at 45, you had two months a year on the Cote d’Azur, you drank wine, you ate foie gras and truffles, you marched in the street for a 28-hour work week… It was all such great fun there was no time to have children. You thought the couple in the next street would, or the next town, or in all those bucolic villages you pass through on the way to your weekend home.

What can be done? Well, back to the WSJ: throwing money at the problem won’t help.

A growing number of nations, seeking to replace aging work forces and retain their national identities, are paying people to become parents. But the cash incentives to spawn new citizens may already be too late.

Bioethics in the News — August 17

  • Hwang Resumes Research (The Korea Times)
  • Balancing Robot May Care for Elderly (AP)
  • More hurt by health costs (AP)
  • Illinois: Governor to announce recipients of stem cell research funding (Bellville)
  • Singapore Acts as Haven for Stem Cell Research (New York Times)
  • Scientists Find Brain Evolution Gene (Washington Post)
  • New source of replacement brain cells found (LiveScience)
  • Op-Ed: Inject competition into health care (Baltimore Sun)

August 16, 2006

Bioethics in the News — August 16

August 15, 2006

Two Views on the Genetic Screening of Embryos

BusinessWeek recently ran two commentaries on a genetic test known as pre-implantation genetic haplotyping, or PGH. This new method will enable fertility clinics to quickly detect over 6,000 genetic disorders when screening for healthy embryos created in-vitro.

The first article, “Confessions of a ‘Genetic Outlaw’,” predicts that techniques like PGH will increasingly pressure parents to prevent “defective” children from coming into the world. The counterpoint, “New Hope for Families with Genetic Risk,” argues that couples with a history of genetic disease, such as cystic fibrosis, should be able to ensure that their children are not also affected.

With about 1% of the babies born in the U.S. and over 4% in some European countries now conceived in-vitro, will this ability to exact “quality control” over the next generation change the relationship between parents and children? How can we avoid the slippery slope toward a culture of eugenics, where being welcomed as a member of the human family is contingent on being “perfect”?

Bioethics in the News — August 15


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

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