Biotechnology

The discussion that the scientists in Nature and Science called for should remain in realism, not go on to superhumans

Just over a week ago, prominent scientists in Nature and Science called for a ban for DNA modification in human embryos. This is because the scientists presume that now it actually would be possible to alter the genome in a human embryo in order to treat genetic diseases. Consequently, this would result in modified DNA in germ cells that would be inherited to future generations. The scientists wish to have a full ethical, legal, and public discussion before any germ-line modifications will be made. Furthermore, issues of safety are of importance.

The scientists’ statement is of utmost importance and hopefully this ethical, legal, and public discussion will emerge. However, the discussion on germ-line DNA modification is at danger if the debate will be taken to the level of science fictional superhumans, as already has happen. Not only can such discussion cause unnecessary public worry, it also leads the deliberation away from the actual and urgent questions.

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Success, Self-esteem, and Human Enhancement

The philosopher turned theologian Jean Vanier was recently awarded the Templeton Prize for his work on behalf of the mentally disabled, and he spoke eloquently of the damage done to that group in particular by our culture of individual success.

Vanier’s point — that we judge people by what they do — is well taken, and it has some broad and important implications. Even those usually thought mentally and physically able may be unable to achieve enough to win the esteem of others, or to gain self-esteem. Of course, success has its benefits for those who succeed and often for others. But because of the close relation in our culture between self-esteem and accomplishment, many are left unsatisfied or even depresseed because of their ‘failure’.

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Smart pills vs. motivation pills – is one morally worse than the other?

Imagine a huge pile of unwashed dishes reminds you that you should clean your kitchen. Would you rather take a pill that increases your ability to clean very elaborately or one that helps you get off the couch and actually bring yourself to start cleaning? No hard decision for me…

Certain substances like methylphenidate can not only enhance cognition, but also motivation or, to be more precise, self-regulation. This is not too surprising as treating conditions associated with decreased self-regulation like ADHD often is a main purpose of such medication. Continue reading

Trust, mistrust, and science – finding the balance between conspiracy theories and naïve trust

Scientific illiteracy and “anti-science”-beliefs are a common topic in scientific and academic communities. For example, how most (or many) Americans do not understand the difference between DNA and a genetically modified food. Another known topic is, for example, skepticism towards vaccinations. In this editorial of the biggest Finnish newspaper, the author predicts that the new rise of the Middle Ages is upon us if people refuse to trust scientific results, and emotions continue to rule out reason.

While excessive skepticism and building conspiracy theories against science might, by and large, be irrational and, most importantly, harmful, the phenomenon deserves a deeper consideration than accusations of irrationality, emotionality, or stupidity.

An important reason for the need of deeper elaboration is in the following controversy: on the one hand, the scientific community, rightly, calls for trust to scientific work. Enormous accomplishments of biomedical science are a great argument for trusting science and its capability to improve life. However, on the other hand, there is strong evidence that the scientific community is not always trustworthy. Medical companies, the paramount founder of medical research, have faced many accusations of scientific misconduct and fraud (how funding affects outcomes – see also this and this -, ghostwriting, corruption). Furthermore, there is discussion about how FDA reacts to questionable and even unreliable scientific papers. It is claimed that despite the knowledge about scientific misconduct, the FDA does little to report the questionable results to physicians and medical researchers. And there is at least much evidence to discuss good practices concerning e.g. Monsanto and how things work with GMO agriculture. “What companies do is not the problem of science” is a legitimate sentence when discussing only the mere possible existence of some biomedical or GMO innovation, but when brought to a concrete level, the real-life questions should be taken back to the issue. Continue reading

What are the ethics of using brain stimulation technologies for ‘enhancement’ in children?

New open access publication: announcement:

In a recently published article, Hannah Maslen, Roi Cohen Kadosh, Julian Savulescu and I present an argument about the permissible (and not-so-permissible) uses of non-invasive brain stimulation technology in children. We consider both children who may be suffering from a specific neurological disorder, for whom the stimulation is intended as a ‘treatment’, and those who are otherwise healthy, for whom the stimulation is intended as ‘enhancement’. For the full article and citation, see here:

Maslen, H., Earp, B. D., Cohen Kadosh, R., & Savulescu, J. (2014). Brain stimulation for treatment and enhancement in children: An ethical analysisFrontiers in Human Neuroscience, Vol. 8, Article 953, 1-5. Continue reading

Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Writers who express caution about the over-enthusiastic embrace of new technologies, such as Michael Sandel, who worries about human enhancement and genetic engineering, and Clive Hamilton, who worries about geoengineering, sometimes warn us about the ‘Promethean attitude’, or ‘the Promethean urge’. According to Sandel, human enhancement and genetic engineering ‘… represent a kind of hyperagency – a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and many even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements’ (‘The Case against Perfection’, in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement, OUP 2012, p. 78). Hamilton worries about geoengineers who desire ‘total domination of the planet’. He describes this desire as a ‘Promethean urge named after the Greek titan who gave to humans the tools of technological mastery’ (Earthmasters, Yale 2013, p. 18). Continue reading

The pill to banish painful memories—forget it!

It is a curious feature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the media regales readers and viewers almost daily with exciting details of breakthroughs in medical science: new cures, reversals of previous certainties about old remedies (and then, often enough, later reversals of the reversals), astonishing information about our brains and numerous other organs, apparently dramatic discoveries about free will and ethical thinking. Much of this is indeed attributable to the rapid rate of the expansion of contemporary scientific understanding which we should not want to underestimate, but it is also sometimes the result of the media’s excitability and search for sensation, combined with the impressive self-promotional skills of practitioners of the medical sciences. This latter factor means that reported “breakthroughs” are often no more than confident early steps on a promising but uncertain path, and when they lead nowhere this sad news tends not to see the light of day. And then there are the cases of outright fraud or incompetence, such as the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s initially much-proclaimed breakthroughs in the early 2000s in stem cell research that were shown to be faked.

So a certain reserve about reported breakthroughs is in order, but a recent case is worth philosophical scrutiny even if its claims turn out to be less valid than they seem. This was a report in The Mail Online, Science and Technology section that was headlined “Could Pill wipe out bad memories? Drug used to treat multiple sclerosis found to help us forget experiences that caused us pain.” But it turns out that the drug has only been tested for memory erasure of pain in mice, and then only of a specific type of pain associated with mild electric shock. The Mail article jumps rapidly from this modest beginning to claim that the experiment “offers hope of a drug that could eradicate memories of traumatic events from years ago and help patients overcome phobias, eating disorders and even sexual hang-ups.” For none of this “hope” is there an iota of evidence in the scientific study and one of the scientists involved in the study at the Commonwealth University of Virginia, Dr Sarah Spiegel, showing appropriate modesty, said of the drug concerned: ‘Fingolimod, a Food and Drug Administration approved drug for treatment of multiple sclerosis, has beneficial effects in the central nervous system that are not yet well understood.” More ambitiously she added: “Fingolimod deserves consideration as an adjuvant therapy for post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”

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Horizon 2020 and The Role of Lay People’s Perspectives in Bioethical Reasoning

By Kimberly Schelle & Nadira Faulmüller

Horizon 2020, the European Union’s 2014-2020 largest research programme ever, includes the call to pursue ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI). RRI stands for a research and innovation process in which all societal actors (e.g. citizens, policy makers, business and researchers) are working together in the process to align the outcomes with the values, needs, and expectations of the European Society. In a recently published paper on the importance of including the public and patients’ voices in bioethical reasoning, the authors describe, although in other words, the value of the RRI approach in bioethical issues:

“A bioethical position that fails to do this [exchange with the public opinion], and which thus avoids the confrontation with different public arguments, including ones perhaps based in different cultural histories, relations and ontological grounds […], not only runs the risk of missing important aspects, ideas and arguments. It also arouses strong suspicion of being indeed one-sided, biased or ideological—thus illegitimate.”

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Genetically Modifying Mosquitoes to ‘Bite the Dust’? Ethical Considerations

At some point, most people will have questioned the necessity of the existence of mosquitoes. In the UK at least, the things that might prompt us into such reflection are probably trivial; in my own case, the mild irritation of an itchy and unsightly swelling caused by a mosquito bite will normally lead me to rue the existence of these blood-sucking pests. Elsewhere though, mosquitoes lead to problems that are far from trivial; in Africa the Anopheles gambiae mosquito is the major vector of malaria, a disease that is estimated to kill more than 1 million people each year, most of whom are African children. Continue reading

Expert workshop on cognitive enhancement device regulation: Are there ‘two worlds’ of devices?

Last week, we held an expert workshop with key stakeholders to discuss our recent Oxford Martin School policy paper. Our policy paper put forward proposals for how we thought cognitive enhancement devices such as brain stimulators should be regulated. At present, if these sorts of devices do not make medical treatment claims (but instead claim to make you smarter, more creative or a better gamer, say) then they are only subject to basic product safety requirements. In our paper we suggested that cognitive enhancement devices should be regulated in the same way as medical devices and discussed how this could be implemented. Indeed, the devices that are being sold for enhancement of cognitive functions use the very same principles as devices approved by medical device regulators for research into the treatment of cognitive impairment or dysfunction associated with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and depression (amongst other conditions). Being the same sorts of devices, acting via similar mechanisms and posing the same sorts of risks, there seemed to be a strong argument for regulation of some form and an equally strong argument for adopting the same regulatory approach for both medical and enhancement devices.

Having published our paper, we were very keen to hear what people more closely involved in making policy and drafting legislation thought of our proposals. Individuals from the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the EU New and Emerging Technologies Working Group, a medical devices company, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and experts on responsible innovation and on brain stimulation joined us. Overall, the response to our recommendations was positive: all participants agreed that some regulatory action should be taken. There was a general consensus that this regulation should protect consumers but not curtail their freedom to use devices, that manufacturers should not be over-burdened by unnecessary regulatory requirements, and that innovation should not be stifled. Continue reading

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