Cross Post

First synthetic embryos: the scientific breakthrough raises serious ethical questions

synthetic mouse.
Weizmann Institute of Sciences

Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford; Christopher Gyngell, The University of Melbourne, and Tsutomu Sawai, Hiroshima University

Children, even some who are too young for school, know you can’t make a baby without sperm and an egg. But a team of researchers in Israel have called into question the basics of what we teach children about the birds and the bees, and created a mouse embryo using just stem cells.

It lived for eight days, about half a mouse’s gestation period, inside a bioreactor in the lab.

In 2021 the research team used the same artificial womb to grow natural mouse embryos (fertilised from sperm and eggs), which lived for 11 days. The lab-created womb, or external uterus, was a breakthrough in itself as embryos could not survive in petri dishes.

If you’re picturing a kind of silicone womb, think again. The external uterus is a rotating device filled with glass bottles of nutrients. This movement simulates how blood and nutrients flow to the placenta. The device also replicates the atmospheric pressure of a mouse uterus.

Some of the cells were treated with chemicals, which switched on genetic programmes to develop into placenta or yolk sac. Others developed into organs and other tissues without intervention. While most of the stem cells failed, about 0.5% were very similar to a natural eight-day-old embryo with a beating heart, basic nervous system and a yolk-sac.

These new technologies raise several ethical and legal concerns.

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Cross Post: Tech firms are making computer chips with human cells – is it ethical?

Written by Julian Savulescu, Chris Gyngell, Tsutomu Sawai
Cross-posted with The Conversation

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Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford; Christopher Gyngell, The University of Melbourne, and Tsutomu Sawai, Hiroshima University

The year is 2030 and we are at the world’s largest tech conference, CES in Las Vegas. A crowd is gathered to watch a big tech company unveil its new smartphone. The CEO comes to the stage and announces the Nyooro, containing the most powerful processor ever seen in a phone. The Nyooro can perform an astonishing quintillion operations per second, which is a thousand times faster than smartphone models in 2020. It is also ten times more energy-efficient with a battery that lasts for ten days.

A journalist asks: “What technological advance allowed such huge performance gains?” The chief executive replies: “We created a new biological chip using lab-grown human neurons. These biological chips are better than silicon chips because they can change their internal structure, adapting to a user’s usage pattern and leading to huge gains in efficiency.”

Another journalist asks: “Aren’t there ethical concerns about computers that use human brain matter?”

Although the name and scenario are fictional, this is a question we have to confront now. In December 2021, Melbourne-based Cortical Labs grew groups of neurons (brain cells) that were incorporated into a computer chip. The resulting hybrid chip works because both brains and neurons share a common language: electricity.

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Cross Post: Western Pharma Companies Should Supply Only Essential Medicines to Russia

Written by Alex Polyakov, The University of Melbourne and Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and overwhelming destruction of property and loss of innocent lives, a number of western companies – from McDonalds to Apple – stopped or severely limited their activities in the Russian Federation.

One glaring exception appears to be the majority of western pharmaceutical companies that continue to supply medicines and equipment.

There is growing political and consumer pressure on these companies to take steps to join the concerted efforts designed to pressure the
Russian government to stop the war in Ukraine. Continue reading

Cross Post: Is This the End of the Road for Vaccine Mandates in Healthcare?

Written by Dominic Wilkinson, Alberto Giubilini, and Julian Savulescu

The UK government recently announced a dramatic U-turn on the COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, originally scheduled to take effect on April 1 2022. Health or social care staff will no longer need to provide proof of vaccination to stay employed. The reason, as health secretary Sajid Javid made clear, is that “it is no longer proportionate”.

There are several reasons why it was the right decision at this point to scrap the mandate. Most notably, omicron causes less severe disease than other coronavirus variants; many healthcare workers have already had the virus (potentially giving them immunity equivalent to the vaccine); vaccines are not as effective at preventing re-infection and transmission of omicron; and less restrictive alternatives are available (such as personal protective equipment and lateral flow testing of staff). Continue reading

Cross Post: Vaccine Mandates For Healthcare Workers Should Be Scrapped – Omicron Has Changed The Game

Written by Dominic Wilkinson, Jonathan Pugh and Julian Savulescu

Time is running out for National Health Service staff in England who have not had a COVID vaccine. Doctors and nurses have until Thursday, February 3, to have their first jab. If they don’t, they will not be fully immunised by the beginning of April and could be dismissed.

But there are reports this week that the UK government is debating whether to postpone the COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare staff. Would that be the right thing to do?

Vaccine requirements are controversial and have led to worldwide protests. Those in favour have argued that it is necessary and proportionate to protect vulnerable patients by making vaccination a condition of employment for healthcare staff. But critics have argued that vaccine mandates amount to a violation of human rights. Continue reading

Cross Post: Pig’s Heart Transplant: Was David Bennett the Right Person to Receive Groundbreaking Surgery?

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

The recent world-first heart transplant from a genetically modified pig to a human generated both headlines and ethical questions.

Many of those questions related to the ethics of xenotransplantation. This is the technical term for organ transplants between species. There has been research into this for more than a century, but recent scientific developments involving genetic modifications of animals to stop the organ being rejected appear to make this much more feasible.

Typical questions about xenotransplantation relate to the risks (for example, of transmitting infection), treatment of the animals, and the ethics of genetic modification of animals for this purpose. Continue reading

Cross Post: Why the UK Shouldn’t Introduce Mandatory COVID Vaccination

Written by Julian Savulescu, Dominic Wilkinson, and Jonathan Pugh

As coronavirus infections surge across Europe, and with the threat of the omicron variant looming, countries are imposing increasingly stringent pandemic controls.

In Austria, citizens will be subject to a vaccine mandate in February. In Greece, meanwhile, a vaccine mandate will apply to those 60 and over, starting in mid-January.

Both mandates allow medical exemptions, and the Greek mandate allows exemptions for those who have recently recovered from COVID.

Other countries, including Germany, may soon follow suit, and the European Commission has raised the need to discuss an EU vaccine mandate. In contrast, the UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, has been clear that the UK will not consider a general mandatory vaccination policy. Continue reading

Cross Post: Omicron: Better To Be Safe (And Quick) Than Sorry

Written by: Dominic Wilkinson, and Jonathan Pugh

On discovering the omicron variant, many countries moved quickly to impose travel restrictions and other public health measures, such as compulsory mask wearing. But, given the lack of data, is this the best course of action?

These measures have tangible costs, and some have argued that they are an over-reaction. Critics of the travel ban claim that new measures will not significantly prevent the spread of the variant. Indeed, World Health Organization (WHO) officials have urged countries not to hastily impose travel curbs, instead advocating a risk analysis and science-based approach. Continue reading

Cross Post: Selective lockdowns can be ethically justifiable – here’s why

Written by: Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson, and Julian Savulescu

 

COVID is surging in some European countries. In response, Austria and Russia are planning to reimpose lockdowns, but only for the unvaccinated. Is this ethical?

Some countries already have vaccine passport schemes to travel or enter certain public spaces. The passports treat those who have had vaccines – or have evidence of recent infection – differently from those who have not had a vaccine. But the proposed selective lockdowns would radically increase the scope of restrictions for the unvaccinated.

Lockdowns can be ethically justified where they are necessary and proportionate to achieve an important public health benefit, even though they restrict individual freedoms. Whether selective lockdowns are justified, though, depends on what they are intended to achieve. Continue reading

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