Strange brew: opiates from yeast

A recent series of papers have constructed a biochemical pathway that allows yeast to produce opiates. It is not quite a sugar-to-heroin home brew yet, but putting together the pieces looks fairly doable in the very near term. I think I called the news almost exactly five years ago on this blog.

People, including the involved researchers, are concerned and think regulation is needed. It is an interesting case of dual-use biotechnology. While making opiates may be somewhat less frightening than making pathogens, it is still a problematic use of biotechnology: millions of people are addicted, and making it easier for them to get access would worsen the problem. Or would it?

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Speculating about technology in ethics

Many important discussions in practical ethics necessarily involve a degree of speculation about technology: the identification and analysis of ethical, social and legal issues is most usefully done in advance, to make sure that ethically-informed policy decisions do not lag behind technological development. Correspondingly, a move towards so-called ‘anticipatory ethics’ is often lauded as commendably vigilant, and to a certain extent this is justified. But, obviously, there are limits to how much ethicists – and even scientists, engineers and other innovators – can know about the actual characteristics of a freshly emerging or potential technology – precisely what mechanisms it will employ, what benefits it will confer and what risks it will pose, amongst other things. Quite simply, the less known about the technology, the more speculation has to occur.

In practical ethics discussions, we often find phrases such as ‘In the future there could be a technology that…’ or ‘We can imagine an extension of this technology so that…’, and ethical analysis is then carried out in relation to such prognoses. Sometimes these discussions are conducted with a slight discomfort at the extent to which features of the technological examples are imagined or extrapolated beyond current development – discomfort relating to the ability of ethicists to predict correctly the precise way technology will develop, and corresponding reservation about the value of any conclusions that emerge from discussion of, as yet, merely hypothetical innovation. A degree of hesitation in relation to very far-reaching speculation indeed seems justified. Continue reading


Darlei Dall’Agnol

 The British Parliament has, recently, passed Act 1990 making possible what is, misleadingly, called “three parents babies,” which will become law in October 2015. Thus, the UK is the first country to allow the transfer of genetic material from an embryo or an egg that has defects in the mitochondrial DNA to generate a healthy baby. As it is perhaps known, a defect in the mitochondrial DNA causes several genetic disorders such as heart and liver failure, blindness, hearing loss, etc. Babies free from these genetic problems are expected to be born next year. This is good news and shows how science and technology can really work for human benefit.

This procedure raised several concerns, but also revealed confusion and misunderstandings in public debates. There was the fear of opening the way to Nazi practices considered intrinsically immoral. This is certainly not the case since the prevention of mitochondrial defects does not, strictly speaking, involves any gene editing, which is a different kind of genetic engineering.[1] Now, embryo editing, which will be illustrated soon, does divide scientists and ethicists and needs further public debate. I will here present some real ethical concerns relating to embryo editing and to comment on the recent call, published by Nature, for a moratorium on the germline experiments. Continue reading

Treatment for Crime Workshop (13th – 14th April) – Overview

Practical ethicists have become increasingly interested in the potential applications of neurointerventions—interventions that exert a direct biological effect on the brain. One application of these interventions that has particularly stimulated moral discussion is the potential use of these interventions to prevent recidivism amongst criminal offenders. To a limited extent, we are already on the path to using what can be described as neuro-interventions in this way. For instance, in certain jurisdictions drug-addicted offenders are required to take medications that are intended to attenuate their addictive desires. Furthermore, sex-offenders in certain jurisdictions may receive testosterone-lowering drugs (sometimes referred to as ‘chemical castration’) as a part of their criminal sentence, or as required by their conditions of parole.

On 13-14th April, a workshop (funded by the Wellcome Trust) focussing on the moral questions raised by the potential use of neuro-interventions to prevent criminal recidivism took place at Kellogg College in Oxford. I lack the space here to adequately explore the nuances of all of the talks in this workshop. Rather, in this post, I shall briefly explain some of the main themes and issues that were raised in the fruitful discussions that took place over the course of the workshop, and attempt to give readers at least a flavour of each of the talks given; I apologise in advance for the fact that I must necessarily gloss over a number of interesting details and arguments. Continue reading

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


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