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Bioethics 101

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April 30, 2007

Aldous Huxley was one powerful prophet. Back in 1932, in Brave New World, he warned us that in the future, rather than experience true emotions, humanity would instead opt for the feel good drug soma. (“Was and will make me ill, I take one gram and only am.”) Imagine: No more grief; no more anger; no more disappointment, but also, no more excitement, no more courage, no more love, e.g., no more truly human living.

My friend Caille Millner, an author and editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, has a good piece about all of this in today’s paper regarding a drug that may dull the intensity of human living. In “Drugging Our Memories,” she writes:

RESEARCHERS claim this drug isn’t like the ones in “Men in Black” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but it seems awfully similar: a beta-blocker that’s being studied for its ability to disrupt painful memories as they’re being made. It’s called propranolol, and at the moment it’s just used to fight hypertension. Scientists noticed, however, that it also had the effect of inhibiting the chemical rush of adrenaline that makes intense memories–good and bad–cling to our minds with such force…The idea of the propranolol is to render those events–just the worst ones, researchers hope–less vividly.

Millner explains why this concerns her:

It takes hard work to build happiness amid a world gone mad. In the instance of grief and trauma, it takes patience, time and a life full of pain and sadness until those feelings transform into things that are different and more complex — and not necessarily free of pain, either. In the land of the quick fix, the get-rich-quick scheme, the 4 a.m. wish-your-way-to-weight-loss infomercial, popping a pill seems more attractive.

The problem of human suffering is one that matters a lot. One of our human duties, it seems to me, is to help each other carry our heavy burdens (and share in each other’s joys). But moving toward the “soma solution” would not only be to take us off of the hook for caring for each other, but could doom humanity to infantilization, since it is through our reaction to pain that we often grow and gain wisdom. Millner concludes:

A large part of what makes us human comes from the lessons we choose to take from our emotional experience–how it shapes our values, refines our beliefs and motivates us to make changes in our lives. It’s the touchstone for how we tell right from wrong–the horrible things that we do to each other only become horrible once we remember our emotional responses to them. If we can’t remember how horrible things are, we’ll be less motivated to make–and be–the changes we need.

Kenya: Medics call for test-tube babies law

The Government is yet to formulate laws governing In-Vitro Fertilization, a year after it announced plans to commence the process. (The Standard)

Faster-Healing Artificial Skin

Artificial skin that slowly releases a stem-cell-attracting protein could improve the healing process for patients with severe burns and for diabetics with foot ulcers. Preliminary studies combining a commonly used skin substitute with a growth factor have demonstrated faster healing in mice. The animals even appear to have regenerated new tissue, rather than scar tissue. (Technology Review)

Doctors study surgery through body’s existing openings

A 4-year-old boy lay on an operating table here a few weeks ago with a tumor that had eaten into his brain and the base of his skull. Standard surgery would involve cutting open his face, leaving an ugly scar and hindering his facial growth as he matured. (USA Today)

Reversing Alzheimer’s memory loss may be possible

Mental stimulation and drug treatment may help people with brain ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease regain seemingly lost memories, according to research published on Sunday. (Reuters)

New Toys Read Brain Waves

A convincing twin of Darth Vader stalks the beige cubicles of a Silicon Valley office, complete with ominous black mask, cape and light saber. (AP)

The Possible Future of Cloning

Although several animal species such as goats, sheep, pigs, mice and even kittens have been cloned, the mere mention of human cloning continues to spark a fevered debate. But if human cloning were to become acceptable one day would they be viable and what quality of life would they have. Creating clones for the sole purpose of harvesting organs would have entirely too many moral and ethical issues to debate. Creating a being whether human or animal is creating a life, which someone must be responsible for. (Associated Content)

Are Persons Just an Illusion?

Neuroscientists Martha Farah and Andrea Heberlein, in the January issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (subscription link), wonder if empirical insights from their discipline can naturalize personhood. In other words, they explore the notion that a person is a “natural kind” and “seeks objective and clear-cut biological criteria that correspond reasonably well with most peoples’ intuitions about personhood. (ReasonOnline)

Mouse brain simulated on computer

US researchers have simulated half a virtual mouse brain on a supercomputer.

The scientists ran a “cortical simulator” that was as big and as complex as half of a mouse brain on the BlueGene L supercomputer. (BBC)

April 27, 2007


No doubt about it: whatever the speed of change that gets us there – and we may well believe it will be slower than Kurzweilian singularity-speak suggests – the significance of artificial intelligence will grow and grow. And meanwhile, the social conversation that will shape how and – in some areas – whether it grows has hardly begun to happen. From the story:

Once people have followed a recipe and become acquainted with robots,
they can build on their experience, said Emily Hamner, a senior
research associate in the CREATE Lab. Not only can they customize the
recipes to their liking, they can also design new robot types using
the Qwerk controller.

Qwerk itself is a full-fledged computer with a Linux operating system
that can use any computer language. It features a field programmable
gate array (FPGA) to control motors, servos, cameras, amplifiers and
other devices. It also accepts USB peripheral devices, such as Web
cameras and GPS receivers. We leveraged several low-cost, yet high-
performance components that were originally developed for the consumer
electronics industry when we designed Qwerk, said Rich LeGrand,
president of Charmed Labs. “The result is a cost-effective robot
controller with impressive capabilities.

Adult Stem Cells Also Good for Basic Research

One of the arguments made in favor of human cloning research, is that we need to be able to make cloned human embryonic stem cells in order to study disease processes. Frankly, this is the best argument for permitting cloning, rather than the CURES! CURES! CURES hype–which may well never materialize. However Big Biotech’s propagandists know that advocating for bench science won’t overcome people’s unease with cloning human life; hence the misdirection into cloning as a “self repair kit,” to quote Ron Reagan’s ridiculous speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention.

It is in this context that I bring up an interesting experiment in which Canadian scientists created “leukemia stem cells” from normal human blood and injected them into mice to study the disease (again showing the necessity of medical research with animals). From the story:

Imagine if scientists could peer into the blood and see the very first aberrant cells that will give birth to leukemia and then watch as the disease slowly progresses and takes over the body. Well, Canadian researchers have done just that–converted normal human blood cells into leukemia stem cells, then transplanted them into lab mice and witnessed the disease unfold…

The groundbreaking research involved infecting cells from umbilical cord blood with a virus engineered to carry one of the genes known to cause certain types of leukemia. The genetic alteration created primitive leukemia stem cells, which were then injected into specially bred lab mice. All of the animals–bred with no immune system, so their bodies do not reject human cells–developed leukemia with the same characteristics and patterns experienced by people with the disease, say the researchers, whose study was published Thursday in the journal Science. “We actually created leukemia stem cells,” said Dick. “And we could show that they actually arose, at least in this model, from a very primitive cell.”

I am not asserting that adult stem cells will be able to do anything and everything that cloned embryonic stem cells theoretically could. But I am saying that this experiment clearly demonstrates that adult stem cells are not only beneficial for potential regenerative therapies, but also basic bench science about disease processes. This clear truth should now be plugged into the overall ethical analysis about the propriety of human cloning research.

Canadian researchers ‘create’ leukemia stem cell

Imagine if scientists could peer into the blood and see the very first aberrant cells that will give birth to leukemia and then watch as the disease slowly progresses and takes over the body. (

Hacking Your Body’s Bacteria for Better Health

Modern humans are bacteria-killing machines. We assassinate microbes with hand soap, mouthwash and bathroom cleaners. It feels clean and right. (Wired)

UK: Comment on Reproductive Ethics: HFEA’s role should be questioned

Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) has said that the issues involved with hybrid embryos are ones that must be discussed by the whole country rather than just scientists. (

Op-Ed: The Petri Dish: A moment of ensoulment?

When does life begin? Most people seem to have an opinion on the issue. After all, “When does life begin?” seems like a reasonable thing to ask. We see personhood as an all-or-nothing thing — something either is a person or it isn’t. If there are no degrees of personhood, there should be a clear moment when a new individual comes into existence, a thunderclap announcing a new life — “ensoulment,” if you will. (Stanford Daily Online)

April 26, 2007

The New Eugenics: Eventually No Babies Will Be Allowed to be Born

My partially tongue in cheek headline is in reaction to a story–yet again from Brave New Britain–of embryo screening employed to prevent a child from being born who might contract adult onset cancer–in this case, of the breast. Look how fast we have gone from using genetic selection to prevent birth defects and disease in infancy, to sex selection, to seeking to control fates in adulthood.

One can certainly understand and empathize with the desire to prevent a daughter from ever suffering breast cancer. But eventually we may be able to identify gene defects in each and every human being that increase the likelihood that he or she will eventually contract some dread disease. Not to mention, other conditions the “pain” caused by which some parents might not want their children to experience, such as propensity to obesity, diminutive stature, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, Type 1 diabetes, propensity to homosexuality, etc. etc.

If this eugenic attitude continues, we could get to the point that we permit no babies are born at all! After all, unless we are hit by a truck early on, we will all suffer from some human characteristic, whether illness-related, due to a disability, or ridicule. I was teased mercilessly as an early adolescent because I was “husky.” This was one of the most painful times of my life. Should my parents have prevented me from being born to ensure that I would not experience the anguish of crying myself to sleep at night? In the alternative, should I have been genetically engineered so I didn’t have the propensity to, shall we say, “expand?” I say not: The awful experience of being a chubby and non athletic boy–which at the time I would have given anything to avoid–ultimately proved one of the most beneficial of my life: It was from the pain that I gained empathy.

Behind all of this, particularly among the biotechnologists, is there not a certain hubris, a desire to hyper-control every aspect of human life? But this desire to control the future–rather than live it–is ultimately doomed to failure. We are all born to die. Each of us is “defective” in some manner. Each of us, whether healthy or ill, able bodied or disabled, developmentally disabled or genius–plays a vital part in the human saga. Engaging in the new eugenics of embryo quality control is dehumanizing and an explicit denial of the joy and vitality of human diversity.

Michigan Poll: People Oppose All Human Cloning–But Just You Wait

This poll, published by the Michigan Catholic Conference, asked 500 likely voters in Michigan, their views on human cloning. The results were an overwhelming repudiation of cloning human life.

Not so fast, some might say. It is, after all, a Catholic-sponsored poll. But I believe the results are a consequence of accurate language in the poll questions–notoriously lacking in many polls sponsored by mainstream media outlets. In any event, here are a few results, and then a final comment:

The poll, which was taken April 15-16, 2007, revealed the following:

  1. “Would you vote yes or no on a proposal that would eliminate Michigan’s ban on the cloning of human embryos?” -Yes: 32 percent -No: 65 percent
  2. “Do you support or oppose stem cell research that clones human embryos so the stem cells can be removed?” -Support: 34 percent -Oppose: 59 percent
  3. “Do you support or oppose stem cell research that kills the human embryo so the stem cells can be removed?” – – Support: 25 percent – Oppose: 70 percent
  4. “While I think we need to find cures for horrible diseases, I worry about the future if the cloning of human embryos is allowed” – Agree: 73 percent – Disagree: 22 percent

Michigan currently outlaws all human cloning, and as SHSers know, Big Biotech is mounting a major political campaign to reverse such state laws, having recently succeeded in Iowa. Legislation is currently pending in the MI legislature to this effect, but my sources tell me that it has little, if any chance, of passage.

The likely future scenario is a statewide initiative akin to Proposition 71 and Amendment 2. In this regard, opponents of human cloning should not take comfort in the poll. Remember, Big Biotech will pour tens of millions into a disinformation campaign to convince people that cloning isn’t cloning and a cloned human embryo isn’t really an embryo. The mainstream media will play Ginger Rodgers to BB’s Fred Astaire. Michael J. Fox and other celebrity disease victims will pour into the state and children in wheelchairs will be presented on television begging for cures.

Still, the truth shall set us free. Despite a $30 million + campaign, Amendment 2 nearly lost because the people finally began to hear facts about human somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning instead of misleading spin. Still, MI opponents of human cloning should not be sanguine. I believe that a well-funded (easier said than done) pre-emptive and very public–and scientifically accurate–educational campaign should begin as soon as practicable before Big Biotech’s Circus comes to town spreading misinformation and the hyped promise of CURES! CURES! CURES!

House backs bill barring genetic discrimination

A bill that would prohibit genetic discrimination against people, for instance not hiring or insuring someone predisposed to a given illness, won overwhelming approval in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. (Reuters)

Brain Electrodes Help Treat Depression

Electrically stimulating specific parts of the brain using an implanted electrode can help severely depressed patients, according to two studies published this month. The findings are the latest evidence suggesting that “deep brain stimulation,” a surgical therapy already widely used to treat Parkinson’s disease, could be an alternative treatment for people with severe depression. (Technology Review)

UK: First designer babies to beat breast cancer

Two couples whose families have been ravaged by breast cancer are to become the first to screen embryos to prevent them having children at risk of the disease, The Times has learnt. (TimesOnline)

Texas Legislators Block Shots for Girls Against Cancer Virus

A revolt by lawmakers has blocked Gov. Rick Perry’s effort to make Texas the first state to require sixth-grade girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. (New York 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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