Chris Gyngell

Press Release: The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science

The first study in which the DNA of human embryos was intentionally modified has been published in the journal Protein & Cell, released on Saturday. This research is significant because it may be an important step toward a world where we are free from genetic disease. However allegations that Nature and Science refused to publish this research on ethical grounds are concerning.

The Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics Professor Julian Savulescu has called on Nature and Science to clearly explain their editorial decisions in relation this study.

“If these studies were rejected for ethical reasons we need to know what these reasons are.” Professor Savulescu said.

“There was absolutely no potential for this research to directly result in the birth of a modified human and it is unclear how the study could have harmed or wronged anyone.

Nature should explain why it deems this research ethically problematic, and yet publishes other controversial research, involving viruses, with the potential to directly kill millions of people.” Continue reading

The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science

Chris Gyngell and Julian Savulescu

Human genetic modification has officially progressed from science fiction to science.  In a world first, scientists have used the gene editing technique CRISPR to modify human embryos. While the study itself marks an important milestone, the reason it is truly extraordinary is the scientific community’s reaction to it. In refusing to publish this study on ethical grounds, the world’s two leading science journals Nature and Science, appear to be demonstrating a lack of clear and consistent thinking on ethical issues. Continue reading

Brain size and socioeconomic status

A new drug, Numarol, is currently being trialled which increases the surface area of the brain in children. Numarol causes children to have bigger brains, do better in cognitive tests and generally improves their life prospects. One critic of Numarol recently pointed out it would be very expensive, and only the rich would be able to afford it. Its release would likely create a significant difference in brain size between the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups. Numarol would create a world in which biological inequalities are forged from economic ones.   The rich would not only have bigger houses, better cars, and better healthcare than the poor, their children would also have bigger brains. Such a world would be abhorrent.

But we already live in this world.  Numarol is fictional, but the rich do have children with bigger brains than the poor.   Social inequalities have already been written into our biology.  Continue reading

Editing the germline – a time for reason, not emotion

Gyngell, Douglas, Savulescu

There are rumours in the scientific community that the first studies involving the genetic modification of a human embryo are about to be published.[1] If true this would be the first case of an experiment in which genes in germ cells (sperm and egg cells) have been intentionally modified.  This has caused some concerns in the scientific community due to the fact that these modification are potentially heritable.  A commentary in Nature, (written by four leading scientists and one philosopher) published an appeal that we “Don’t edit the human germ line”.  Science meanwhile published a commentary which outlines “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification”. The fact that two of the world’s most prestigious journals are publishing commentaries on human genetic modification shows just how powerful gene editing techniques have become. The rapid speed with which these technologies have developed has taken the scientific community, and everyone else, by surprise. Just three years after the DNA cutting nuclease Cas-9 was first used to modify DNA, scientists have been able to make heritable modifications to yeast, plants, mice, rats, pigs and even primates. It has been claimed that experiments conducted in China, currently under review, have used these same technologies to modify the DNA of human embryos.[2] Continue reading

Death and the Self

On Tuesday the 10th of March, Shaun Nichols delivered the 2015 Wellcome & Loebel Lecture in Neuroethics. You can listen to the lecture here.

Nichols presented a range of intriguing empirical data on how our view of the self affects our attitudes. The common view about the self is that it is something that persists through our lives. The self is an essential part of us that remains the same from childhood to adulthood.  However some views in philosophy and religion see the self as something much less permanent. Continue reading

Living to 150

The Treasurer of Australia, the Hon Joe Hockey MP, recently received widespread attention with the statement:

It’s kind of remarkable that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable that a child has been born who will live to be 150.[1]

Hockey made the claim while discussing some of the problems Australia faces as a result of an ageing population.  While his statement was ridiculed by cartoonists and political rivals, he received support from some in the medical community.  The Dean of Medicine at the University of New South Wales, Peter Smith, described Mr Hockey’s claim as a “reasonable assumption”. Professor Smith noted that life expectancy for Australians has been climbing dramatically over the past 100 years. A boy born between 2010 and 2012 can expect to live to 80 years and a girl can expect to live to 84 years. This is up from 55 and 59 years respectively in 1910.

However the fact that, on average, people have been living longer and longer does not support the claim that there is someone living today who will reach 150. Continue reading

Foetal alcohol syndrome, compensation and harm

A case currently before the UK Court of Appeal could have far-reaching implications for mothers who drink during pregnancy.  Lawyers for a seven-year-old child with foetal alcohol syndrome caused by her mother’s heavy drinking, argue she should receive compensation from the government-funded Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority as she has been the victim of a crime. Continue reading

Where are my smart genes? Searching for intelligence in our DNA

Reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) mean it is currently possible for parents to create a range of embryos and make decisions about which to implant on the basis of their genetic makeup.  One interesting possibility is that we will soon be able to use such technologies to influence the intelligence of our future children. It is known that intelligence has at least a moderately important genetic component. Identical twins are significantly more similar in intelligence than dizygotic twins, who are in turn significantly more similar than adopted siblings raised together. In fact, a range of studies indicate that the heritability of intelligence is approximately 0.7, which is only slightly lower than the heritability of height. This means that 70% of the variation we observe in intelligence is due to genetic factors. Once we can identify the genes which explain this variation it will be relatively simple to test embryos for them, meaning it will be technically possible for parents to select embryos on the basis of their likely intelligence.

However scientists are finding it surprisingly difficult to locate the specific genes which affect intelligence. Continue reading

When to eat the marshmallow: new perspectives on impulse control

In light of the fact that many readers will have an assortment of Christmas treats tempting them, I thought a post on impulse control would be timely.

In the now paradigmatic Stanford marshmallow experiment, children were given an option – one marshmallow which they could have immediately, or two marshmallows, provided they could wait 15 minutes. This option presents a problem of sorts. Is it better to have a small reward immediately, or a larger one after some delay? Common sense says that waiting is the better option. Doubling your reward whilst only paying a marginal cost of your time seems like the rational thing to do. Children who fail to wait are, therefore, seen as succumbing to temptation. A deficiency in self control leads them to make a poor decision. Continue reading

Brian Earp on Anti-Love Drugs

In the final Uehiro Seminar of 2012, Brian Earp provides an absorbing analysis of the science and ethics of anti-love biotechnology. You can listen to the seminar here.

While some personal distress as a result of love may be an important means of self-development, certain forms of love may be particularly perilous. Examples given by Earp include an older person’s sexual love for a child, incestuous love, and the love that prevents an abused spouse from leaving their partner. In these cases love can become like an ‘interpersonal heroin’ – an individual may recognise the harm their love is causing them, but be unable to stop feeling it. Continue reading

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