Ethics, iBlastoids, and Brain Organoids: Time to Revise Antiquated Laws and Processes

Written by Julian Savulescu
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Wellcome Centre for Ethics, University of Oxford
Biomedical Ethics Research Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

Jose Polo and his team at Monash University have successfully reprogrammed human adult cells (fibroblasts – skin cells) to form “iBlastoids”. These are structures which are like early human embryos. Normally when a sperm enters an egg, it produces a new cell, which divides, and these cells divide until a blastocyst is formed in the first week, consisting of 200-300 cells. In normal embryonic development, this would implant in the uterus. However, iBlastoids can’t do this as they lack the normal membrane that surrounds the blastocyst. They cannot by themselves form a fetus or baby.

They will be useful to study early human development and why so many embryos die soon after formation. They can be used to study mutations or the effect of toxins, perhaps developing treatments for infertility. So far, they have only been allowed to develop to the equivalent of a Day 11 Blastocyst. It is not clear whether they can produce the precursors to brain development:

“the developmental potential of iBlastoids as a model for primitive streak formation and gastrulation remains to be determined, and will require an international conversation on the applicability of the 14-day rule to iBlastoids.” (Excerpt from the team’s Nature article)

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Cross-Post: Self-experimentation with vaccines

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu.

This is a crosspost from the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog.

This is an output of the UKRI Pandemic Ethics Accelerator project.


A group of citizen scientists has launched a non-profit, non-commercial organisation named ‘RaDVaC’, which aims to rapidly develop, produce, and self-administer an intranasally delivered COVID-19 vaccine. As an open source project, a white paper detailing RaDVaC’s vaccine rationale, design, materials, protocols, and testing is freely available online. This information can be used by others to manufacture and self-administer their own vaccines, using commercially available materials and equipment.

Self-experimentation in science is not new; indeed, the initial development of some vaccines depended on self-experimentation. Historically, self-experimentation has led to valuable discoveries. Barry Marshall famously shared the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his work on the role of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and its role in gastritis –this research involved a self-experiment in 1984 that involved Marshall drinking a prepared mixture containing the bacteria, causing him to develop acute gastritis. This research, which shocked his colleagues at the time, eventually led to a fundamental change in the understanding of gastric ulcers, and they are now routinely treated with antibiotics. Today, self-experimentation is having something of a renaissance in the so-called bio-hacking community. But is self-experimentation to develop and test vaccinations ethical in the present pandemic? In this post we outline two arguments that might be invoked to defend such self-experimentation, and suggest that they are each subject to significant limitations. Continue reading

Who You Really Are And Why It Matters

By Charles Foster

 [This is a review of The Flip: Who you really are, and why it matters, by  Jeffrey J. Kripal. Penguin, 2020]

A few years ago I dislocated my shoulder. I went off to hospital, and breathed nitrous oxide while they tried to put it back. Something very strange yet very common happened. ‘I’ rose out of ‘my’ body, and looked down at it. I could see the nurse’s centre parting and the top of my own bald head. ‘I’ was aware of the pain in the shoulder, and regretted it, but it wasn’t really my business.

My mind was hovering over the skull that encased my brain, and so it seemed ludicrous to say that mind and brain were identical. The experience ousted my residual materialism. Out went Aristotle: in came Plato. This change was a ‘flip’, as Kripal describes such events in this exhilarating, bold, timely, and profoundly important book.

Personal experience of this kind often produces tectonic philosophical conversions in professional philosophers and scientists. Mere reflection rarely does. This observation itself is likely to elicit howls of derision from the materialists. For them, to intrude oneself into an inquiry is necessarily to invalidate it. And of course the humanities are supremely to be mocked, for they are all to do with subjectivity. Continue reading

This Machine Kills Viruses

Written by Stephen Rainey

If we had a machine that could eradicate coronavirus at the press of a button, there would likely be a queue to do the honours. Rather than having such a device, we have a science-policy interface, and a general context of democratic legitimacy. This isn’t a push-button, but a complex of socio-political liberties and privations. We can’t push the button, but we can learn how to use the technology we do have – by collectively following policies like staying inside, wearing masks outside, and keeping distance from others.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic a novel form of this scientific research, technological application, and influence or control of nature (including humans) is emerging. In this case, the application is public policy, as based on multitudes of scientific advice. That over which control is sought is twofold: the virus, and people. Control of the virus is not really possible without some control over the people. Likewise, control of the people becomes harder where the virus is not controlled. Public trust in tough policies wanes if there is no end in sight, or no clear rationale in place. Continue reading

Even Though Mass Testing For COVID Isn’t Always Accurate, It Could Still Be Useful – Here’s Why

By Jonathan Pugh

This article was originally published here by the Conversation, on 22nd Dec 2020


The mass testing of asymptomatic people for COVID-19 in the UK was thrown into question by a recent study. In a pilot in Liverpool, over half the cases weren’t picked up, leading some to question whether using tests that perform poorly is the best use of resources.

The tests involved in this study were antigen tests. These see whether someone is infected with SARS-CoV-2 by identifying structures on the outside of the virus, known as antigens, using antibodies. If the coronavirus is present in a sample, the antibodies in the test bind with the virus’s antigens and highlight an infection.

Antigen tests are cheap and provide results quickly. However, they are not always accurate. But what do we mean when we say that a test is inaccurate? And is it really the case that “an unreliable test is worse than no test”? Continue reading

Invertebrate Ethics

by Roger Crisp

In a recent and very interesting paper, Irina Mikhalevich and Russell Powell (MP) argue that the same standards of evidence and risk management that justify policy protections for vertebrates also support extending moral consideration to certain invertebrates. In this blog, I’ll offer two lines of argument broadly supportive of MP’s conclusions. First, even if invertebrates are non-sentient, their lives may contain elements of welfare sufficient for moral standing. Second, justice speaks in favour of giving priority to the interests of most invertebrates, since their lives are so much less valuable for them, in terms of welfare, than the lives of most vertebrates. Continue reading

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

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Why Epistemologists Should Sniff

By Charles Foster

There are lots of big and clever books about epistemology. It’s a complex business. Although one can do some epistemology (some icy thinkers say all) without making any empirical claims about what the senses show (and hence how the senses work), such empirical claims are essential for the discipline to get any real traction on the world.

Whenever this is acknowledged (and it often is not), the emphasis is very much on sight. There is the same bias in lay speech and thought – so much so that sight and some sort of cognitive process or conclusion are commonly conflated. ‘Seeing is believing’, we say. ‘I see’, we say, when we really mean that we understand.

This is not surprising. Language and cognition are intimately entangled, and so are vision and cognition. Vision and ‘higher order’ cognition (important inverted commas, those) are spatially close to one another in the brain: that spatial closeness is reflected in functional closeness. Evolutionarily older centres – notably olfaction – are buried deep in the brain. Since they don’t have an office near to ‘higher order’ cognition, their contribution tends to be overlooked in the cognitive league tables. The insights of the nose tend to be denigrated. Continue reading

Climate Ought to Change Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

In the midst of global climate change set to devastate entire ways of life, and ultimately on track to render the biosphere uninhabitable for all but the most adaptable organisms, it seems timely to question how political legitimacy relates to matters of scientific fact. While it seems mostly desirable that groups of people ought to be self-determining in terms of how they get along with the business of living, there appears to be a limit wherein this principle renders mutual self-determination among groups impossible.

Self-determination among different groups in some sense generates contradictory demands. Especially where limited resources are a factor, not everyone can successfully pursue their own ends, which generates tensions between groups. Among the limits that prompt such mutually challenging ways of life are the kinds of facts discovered in scientific research. We know from trends observable by climate scientists that patterns of living currently enjoyed by many are unsustainable and are causing damage to the possibility of continued living on Earth. Yet this is known in a rather strange way. Continue reading