Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman and Steven Kotler sketches in an article in The Atlantic a not-too-far future when the combination of cheap bioengineering, synthetic biology and crowdsourcing of problem solving allows not just personalised medicine, but also personalised biowarfare. They dramatize it by showing how this could be used to attack the US president, but that is mostly for effect: this kind of technology could in principle be targeted at anyone or any group as long as there existed someone who had a reason to use it and the resources to pay for it. The Secret Service looks like it is aware of the problem and does its best to swipe away traces of the President, but it is hard to imagine this to be perfect, doable for old DNA left behind years ago, or applied by all potential targets. In fact, it looks like the US government is keen on collecting not just biometric data, but DNA from foreign potentates. They might be friends right now, but who knows in ten years…
Tonight at 8.30 p.m. Australian Time, SBS will be airing a show on Deisgner Babies. I’ll be live tweeting during the show, and in the meantime, here are a few links to some opinion pieces, media and papers I’ve written on the topic. To join the live tweeting, use the hashtag #insightSBS
Recent Opinion Pieces
A full collection of resources from the Uehiro Centre on Enhancement and related topics is available at our Hot Topics page.
October 2, 6.00 – 7.30 p.m.
BMW Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne
Public debate between Julian Savulescu (Oxford University) and Rob Sparrow (Monash University).
New York Times writes about “In Choosing a Sperm Donor, a Roll of the Genetic Dice”: recipients of sperm donation have found out the hard way that there is a risk of genetic disease affecting their children. In at least one case a donor with a clean bill of health and who had, according to the laboratory, been tested for genetic conditions. Unfortunately he turned out to be a carrier for cystic fibrosis like the mother, and the child suffered. Other cases of transmission of genetic conditions to multiple children from a single donor have appeared, suggesting a need to do something. Is there an ethical need for ensuring genetic testing in the case of sperm donation – or is the problem that some donors father many children?
By Charles Foster
There’s a significant association of PTSD symptoms with a particular allele, according to a recently published study from UCLA and Duke. Some of the ethical consequences are already being discussed. One consequence might be military. One might be able to detect and filter out PTSD-vulnerable recruits. Perhaps that’s a kindness. It would certainly seem militarily prudent. There might be legitimate qualms about creating a biologically callous warrior-class, but you’re not creating its components – you’re just collecting them together. You might not want to go to their parties, and you might wonder about the mutually brutalizing effect of corralling them in a barracks, but the exercise is really only a scientifically more informed version of the selection that goes on in any event. It’s not very interesting ethically.
But what if a gene for PTSD-resistance could be inserted or artificially switched on? It doesn’t seem fanciful. Should the military be permitted (or perhaps even required) to PTSD-proof their personnel? Continue reading
Today, if a gay couple wants to have a child, they have two main options: Either (1) they adopt a child or (2) they get an egg from a donor, have it fertilized in a laboratory, and have a surrogate mother carry and give birth to their child.
These are both good options. Imagine, however, that a certain gay couple – let us call them Albert and Mark – wants a child that genetically belongs to both of them. If they want this, then option (1) will not do the trick. Option (2) will be somewhat better, but the child will then carry genetic material from only one of the two.
This does not satisfy Albert and Mark.
Is their problem solvable? Can Albert and Mark have a child that, genetically, is truly theirs? The answer that first strikes one is no, since this seemingly requires technology beyond reach.
It is easily solvable, however, if we just think outside the box. The solution is that the egg fertilized by Albert’s sperm should come from Mark’s sister, or if still fertile, form Mark’s mother. This would not give a perfect genetic match, but a decent one – and it would be safe, affordable, and fully possible. Even legal, I assume, since it does not imply inbreeding.
Why should not gay couples do this? Or, for that matter: Why should not straight couples where one party is infertile?
In an interesting article, “Why we’re the best”, Oliver Poole writing in the Evening Standard yesterday claims:
Culture, environment and genes are all cited as reasons for sporting success. But it is practice that really makes perfect.
He cites evidence that it not some genetic advantage that makes Kenyan runners so great but the fact that they run barefoot from an early age. Usain Bolt? It is not that he is biologically very different – his brilliant performances are apparently due to eating yams.
It is a mistake to draw the conclusion that genetic factors are not important in sporting performance from the fact that science has not so far identified genetic contributors to sporting performance. Our understanding of our own biology is exponentially increasing but still limited. We don’t know what most genes do or even really why humans age. How much of a sporting performance is the result of innate talent, mental determination or training is difficult to say.
It’s certainly true to be a good high jumper you have to train a lot at high jump. But you also have to be tall. And how tall you can be is limited by your personal biology. It may be that elite athletes could come from any country in the world, if only they had the specialized training to bring out the potential of their gifted citizens. But one of the myths of elite sport that many of us cherish is that anyone could be the best, if only he or she tried hard enough. That, I believe, is sadly not true.
Sporting performance is likely to be mixture of innate biological capacity, training and mental application. The opportunity to be the best, or even self-supporting professional, is likely to be open to a small minority. This drives some to take dangerous performance enhancing drugs or give up or be a spectator.
If we were concerned about human well-being, we would shift our concern from elite sport to making sport a part of culture and everyday life, like tai chi. We have become a culture of elite sportspeople, investors in sport, and unhealthy spectators. Sport should be fun, good for you, the opportunity to develop talents and social. And most of all, something which is really open to all. Elite sport is not.
A great sporting performance is a beautiful and admirable thing. But it is better to be a player than a spectator, in sport and in life.
A new test, soon to become available to the general public in the UK, can tell people how fast they are aging, thereby allowing them to estimate their life expectancy. The test, which should be available for €500 (£435), is based on an analysis of the telomeres, small protective caps at the extremities of a person’s chromosomes. Short telomeres are associated with a shorter lifespan and indicate a more advanced biological age (by contrast with the person’s chronological age). The test has been described as opening an “ethical Pandora’s box”. Concerns have been raised regarding people’s possible reaction to information about how long they still have to live. Some are also worried that the test might be used by organizations selling dubious “anti-aging” remedies to attract potential customers, and that insurance companies might demand to have access to such information before providing cover, requiring people with shorter telomeres to pay higher premiums. Should the prospect of the public availability of such a test concern us, and should we try and restrict it?
In a recently released report the UK Human Genetics Commission said there are “no specific social, ethical or legal principles” against preconception screening. If a couple may benefit from it, testing should be available so they can make informed choices. Information about this kind of testing should also be made widely available in the health system (and in school). The responses in the news have been along predictable lines, with critics warning that this is a modern version of eugenics or that it would lead to some people being stigmatized.
Last month, doctors in France announced the arrival of the country’s first so-called ‘saviour sibling’. Born to parents of Turkish origin, Umut Talha (Turkish for ‘our hope’) was conceived through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This technique, in conjunction with Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing, commonly known as ‘tissue-typing’, has enabled families to have a child – a ‘saviour sibling’ – that is capable of donating life-saving tissue (usually umbilical cord material) to an existing sick sibling. Umut’s parents approached the hospital in Clamart a year ago requesting tissue-typing PGD. Their two existing children had beta thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder that requires monthly blood transfusions.
An embryo was screened and genetically selected from an original group of twelve embryos to ensure that it was both free of the disorder and a tissue match for one of the existing siblings. The resulting saviour sibling, Umut, did not have thalassaemia, and cells from his discarded umbilical cord will be used to cure his older sister, now aged two, and her monthly blood transfusions will be discontinued. Umut’s parents plan to return to Clamart to undergo the same procedure to cure their other child, Umut’s four-year-old brother.
Saviour sibling selection is nothing new. Continue reading