S. Matthew Liao’s Posts

Should We Be Erasing Memories?

By S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu

Scientists from the Medical College of Georgia in the US recently claimed to be able selectively to wipe out traumatic memories. These scientists experimented with mice and found that a particular protein plays a crucial role in the formation of memories. When they made the mice produce an excess of this protein, memories of painful events were completely eliminated.  Such research raises hope for treating conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which painful memories become intrusive and damage an individual’s ability to live an ordinary life.  In theory, such memories could either have their emotional strength reduced or be blotted out altogether. In practice we are still some distance away from being able to achieve this, but it does not seem unreasonable to think that within the next decade we will be able to control the erasing of memory.

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The Transplant Case in Real Life

Philosophers have long debated about the moral permissibility of Transplant Cases such as the following one presented by Philippa Foot:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no-one would suspect the doctor.

Most people believe that it is not permissible for the doctor to murder this patient and harvest his organs, although a few consequentialists, e.g. Alastair Norcross, have argued that it might be acceptable under certain circumstances.

In a possible real-life version of the Transplant Case, the New York Times reported recently that Dr. Hootan C. Roozrokh, a transplant surgeon from Stanford, is being charged with ordering the removal of a life-supporting ventilator and prescribing excessive and improper doses of drugs, apparently in an attempt to hasten the death of a disabled and brain damaged man named Ruben Navarro in order to retrieve his organs sooner. 

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Wilmut Gives Up Cloning

Despite the therapeutic potential of human embryonic stem (HES) cells, many people believe that HES cell research should be banned, because the present method of extracting HES cells involves the destruction of the embryo, which for many is the beginning of a person.  Elsewhere, I have argued for a compromise solution, what I call the Blastocyst Transfer Method, which, I argue, meets the ethical requirements of those who believe that embryos are persons.  Today, BBC News reports that Professor Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the sheep, is giving up human therapeutic cloning in favor another compromise approach that does not destroy embryos, though, according to Professor Wilmut, he has made this decision not because this approach is “ethically better,” but because it is scientifically better. 

           According to the BBC, in a work that is due to be published in a scientific journal on Tuesday, Professor Shinya Yamanaka from Kyoto University, Japan, has developed a technique involving genetically modifying adult cells to make them almost as flexible as stem cells. The research has been conducted on mice, and Professor Wilmut’s research team has met and agreed that the Japanese method has more potential than the use of embryonic cells.  Professor Wilmut believes that within five years this technique could provide a better alternative to cloning embryos for medical research.

If this technique is indeed viable, it would certainly bypass the kinds of ethical objections that plague the present method of extracting HES cells.  In addition to the issue regarding the destruction of human embryos, there are also issues about therapeutic cloning, the creation of cybrids, and problems of egg donation, which would be obviated by this technique.  It remains to be seen whether Professor Wilmut is right that this method is scientifically better.  As someone who has advocated compromise solutions so that we can reap the therapeutic benefits of stem cells as soon as possible, I think this technique is worth an outing. 

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