Biomedical Science

Cross-Post: Self-experimentation with vaccines

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu.

This is a crosspost from the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog.

This is an output of the UKRI Pandemic Ethics Accelerator project.


A group of citizen scientists has launched a non-profit, non-commercial organisation named ‘RaDVaC’, which aims to rapidly develop, produce, and self-administer an intranasally delivered COVID-19 vaccine. As an open source project, a white paper detailing RaDVaC’s vaccine rationale, design, materials, protocols, and testing is freely available online. This information can be used by others to manufacture and self-administer their own vaccines, using commercially available materials and equipment.

Self-experimentation in science is not new; indeed, the initial development of some vaccines depended on self-experimentation. Historically, self-experimentation has led to valuable discoveries. Barry Marshall famously shared the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his work on the role of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and its role in gastritis –this research involved a self-experiment in 1984 that involved Marshall drinking a prepared mixture containing the bacteria, causing him to develop acute gastritis. This research, which shocked his colleagues at the time, eventually led to a fundamental change in the understanding of gastric ulcers, and they are now routinely treated with antibiotics. Today, self-experimentation is having something of a renaissance in the so-called bio-hacking community. But is self-experimentation to develop and test vaccinations ethical in the present pandemic? In this post we outline two arguments that might be invoked to defend such self-experimentation, and suggest that they are each subject to significant limitations. Continue reading

The Duty To Ignore Covid-19

By Charles Foster

This is a plea for a self-denying ordinance on the part of philosophers. Ignore Covid-19. It was important that you said what you have said about it, but the job is done. There is nothing more to say. And there are great dangers in continuing to comment. It gives the impression that there is only one issue in the world. But there are many others, and they need your attention. Just as cancer patients were left untreated because Covid closed hospitals, so important philosophical problems are left unaddressed, or viewed only through the distorting lens of Covid. Continue reading

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Regulating The Untapped Trove Of Brain Data

Written by Stephen Rainey and Christoph Bublitz

Increasing use of brain data, either from research contexts, medical device use, or in the growing consumer brain-tech sector raises privacy concerns. Some already call for international regulation, especially as consumer neurotech is about to enter the market more widely. In this post, we wish to look at the regulation of brain data under the GDPR and suggest a modified understanding to provide better protection of such data.

In medicine, the use of brain-reading devices is increasing, e.g. Brain-Computer-Interfaces that afford communication, control of neural or motor prostheses. But there is also a range of non-medical applications devices in development, for applications from gaming to the workplace.

Currently marketed ones, e.g. by Emotiv, Neurosky, are not yet widespread, which might be owing to a lack of apps or issues with ease of use, or perhaps just a lack of perceived need. However, various tech companies have announced their entrance to the field, and have invested significant sums. Kernel, a three year old multi-million dollar company based in Los Angeles, wants to ‘hack the human brain’. More recently, they are joined by Facebook, who want to develop a means of controlling devices directly with data derived from the brain (to be developed by their not-at-all-sinister sounding ‘Building 8’ group). Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s ‘Neuralink’ is a venture which aims to ‘merge the brain with AI’ by means of a ‘wizard hat for the brain’. Whatever that means, it’s likely to be based in recording and stimulating the brain.

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The Dangers Of Deferring To Doctors

By Charles Foster


There is a dizzying circularity in much medical law. Judges make legal decisions based on the judgments of rightly directed clinicians, and rightly directed clinicians make their judgments based on what they think the judges expect of them. This is intellectually unfortunate. It can also be dangerous.

There are two causes: Judges’ reluctance to interfere with the decisions of clinicians, and doctors’ fear of falling foul of the law.

In some ways judicial deference to the judgment of professionals in a discipline very different from their own is appropriate. Judges cannot be doctors. The deference is best illustrated by the famous and ubiquitous Bolam test, which is the touchstone for liability in professional negligence cases.1 A doctor will not be negligent if their action or inaction would be endorsed by a responsible body of professional opinion in the relevant specialty.

In the realm of civil litigation for alleged negligence this deference is justified. The problem arises when the deference is exported to legal arenas where it should have no place. The classic example relates to determinations of the ‘best interests’ of incapacitous patients. Something done in relation to an incapacitous patient will only be lawful if it is in that patient’s best interests. Continue reading

Damages and communitarianism

By Charles Foster

The Lord Chancellor recently announced that the discount rate under the Damages Act 1996 would be decreased from 2.5% to minus 0.75%. This sounds dull. In fact it is financially tectonic, and raises some important ethical questions.

In the law of tort, damages are intended to put a claimant in the position that she would have been in had the tort not occurred. A claimant who, as result of negligence on the part of a defendant, suffers personal injury, will be entitled to, inter alia, damages representing future loss of earnings, the future cost of care and, often, private medical and other treatment.

Where damages are awarded as a lump sum, there is a risk of over-compensating a claimant. Suppose that the claimant is 10 years old at the time of the award, and will live for 70 years, and the future care costs are £1000 a year for life. Should the sum awarded be £1000 x 70 years = £70,000? (70, here, is what lawyers call the ‘multiplier’). It depends on the assumption one makes about what the claimant will do with the lump sum. If she invests it in equities that give her (say) an annual 5% return, £70,000 would over-compensate her.

In the case of Wells v Wells1, the House of Lords decided that, to avoid the risk of under-compensation, claimants should be treated as risk-averse investors. It should be assumed, said the House, that the discount rate should be fixed by reference to the return on index-linked gilts – Government securities. The rate was 2.5% from 2001 until February of this year. The reasons for the change to minus 0.75% are hereContinue reading

Guest Post: Mind the accountability gap: On the ethics of shared autonomy between humans and intelligent medical devices

Guest Post by Philipp Kellmeyer

Imagine you had epilepsy and, despite taking a daily cocktail of several anti-epileptic drugs, still suffered several seizures per week, some minor, some resulting in bruises and other injuries. The source of your epileptic seizures lies in a brain region that is important for language. Therefore, your neurologist told you, epilepsy surgery – removing brain tissue that has been identified as the source of seizures in continuous monitoring with intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG) – is not viable in your case because it would lead to permanent damage to your language ability.

There is however, says your neurologist, an innovative clinical trial under way that might reduce the frequency and severity of your seizures. In this trial, a new device is implanted in your head that contains an electrode array for recording your brain activity directly from the brain surface and for applying small electric shocks to interrupt an impending seizure.

The electrode array connects wirelessly to a small computer that analyses the information from the electrodes to assess your seizure risk at any given moment in order to decide when to administer an electric shock. The neurologist informs you that trials with similar devices have achieved a reduction in the frequency of severe seizures in 50% of patients so that there would be a good chance that you benefit from taking part in the trial.

Now, imagine you decided to participate in the trial and it turns out that the device comes with two options: In one setting, you get no feedback on your current seizure risk by the device and the decision when to administer an electric shock to prevent an impending seizure is taken solely by the device.

This keeps you completely out of the loop in terms of being able to modify your behaviour according to your seizure risk and – in a sense – relegates some autonomy of decision-making to the intelligent medical device inside your head.

In the other setting, the system comes with a “traffic light” that signals your current risk level for a seizure, with green indicating a low, yellow a medium, and red a high probability of a seizure. In case of an evolving seizure, the device may additionally warn you with an alarm tone. In this scenario, you are kept in the loop and you retain your capacity to modify your behavior accordingly, for example to step from a ladder or stop riding a bike when you are “in the red.”

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Organ Mules

Julian Savulescu

While politicians wring their hands about sensible solutions to the organ shortage, scientists are progressing with genetic manipulations that may see human organs grown in pigs.

US scientists are creating novel life forms: “human pig chimeras”. These are a blend of human and pig characteristics. They are like mules who will provide organs to us. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare). Horses and donkeys are different species, with different numbers of chromosomes but they can breed together.

In this case, they take a skin cell from a person and turn it back in time to make stem cells capable of producing any cell or tissue in the body, “induced pluripotent stem cells.” They then inject this into a pig embryo. This makes a pig human chimera.

However they do a modification to the pig embryo first. They use gene editing, or CRISPR, to knock out the pig’s genes which produce an organ, say the pancreas. The human stem cells for the pancreas then make an almost entirely human pancreas in the pig human chimera. It functions like an organ mule. (The blood vessels are still porcine.)

In this way, your skin cell could grow a new liver, heart, pancreas, or lung.

This is a technique with wider possibilities: other US teams are working on a chimera –based treatment, this time for Parkinson’s disease which will use chimeras to create human neurones.

CRISPR is also credited with enhancing the safety of this technique, with the BBC reporting  that a Harvard team were able to use the new and revolutionary technique to remove copies of a pig retrovirus.

Safety is always a major concern when science crosses new boundaries. But even if a sufficient guarantee of safety could be reached, are there ethical problems?

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Guest Post: Scientists aren’t always the best people to evaluate the risks of scientific research

Written by Simon Beard, Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

How can we study the pathogens that will be responsible for future global pandemics before they have happened? One way is to find likely candidates currently in the wild and genetically engineer them so that they gain the traits that will be necessary for them to cause a global pandemic.

Such ‘Gain of Function’ research that produces ‘Potential Pandemic Pathogens’ (GOF-PPP for short) is highly controversial. Following some initial trails looking at what kinds of mutations were needed to make avian influenza transmissible in ferrets, a moratorium has been imposed on further research whilst the risks and benefits associated with it are investigated. Continue reading

Why edited embryos won’t lead to designer babies or eugenics (unless we want it too)

The UK became the first country to officially approve gene editing research in human embryos on Monday. The HFEA decision means experiments in which the genes of embryos are manipulated will likely begin at the Francis Crick Institute within the next few months.

Gene editing (GE) technologies are immensely powerful. They have already been used to manipulate mosquitos so they cannot carry diseases like malaria or Zika. They have been used in medicine to reprogram human immune cells to target cancer. When used for research purposes, they promise to greatly increase our knowledge of genetics and human heredity. This will lead to a better understanding of disease, which in turn will allow better treatments – including better drugs.

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