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Archive for March 1st, 2012

Of Tusks and Tuskegee: A Problem in Research Ethics

1 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Xtaldave, by his own admission, has the horn.  Well, if you’re being accurate about it, he has the tusk.  But what’s important is that he has a whopping great piece of ivory to play with.

Dave works in the labs here in Manchester, doing clever things with chemicals and science and crystalography and that sort of thing.  The ivory has been confiscated by customs; it found its way into his lab because the dentine in a great big tooth is a useful medium on which to carry out research that may generate significant benefits.  In his words, the tusk is

an acceptable substitute for human bone in the sorts of assays that our lab does to test the effect of various substances on cells called Osteoclasts that are responsible for bone resorption (basically bone destruction).  During growth and development of the skeleton, bone is formed (by Osteoblasts) and broken down (by Osteoclasts) – it is thought that the bone disease Osteoporosis is caused by an imbalance of bone formation and destruction – i.e. too much Osteoclast activity.

If we can find a therapeutic agent that inhibits Osteoclast activity, we might be able to halt or slow the progression of Osteoporosis.  The upshot of all this is that our lab has obtained a section of Elephant horn that has been confiscated by the UKBA.  We will recycle this and use the dentine in our bone resorption assays.

Why’s this of interest here?  Well, the ivory trade is (a) illegal, and (b) deeply morally problematic.  The fact that it’s illegal means that the UK Border Agency confiscates ivory as it’s imported into the country in most cases.  (There are situations in which importation is legal, but they’re rare, and needn’t concern us here.)  And this confiscation means that the Agency ends up with a load of ivory on its hands.

One option might be to sell it; but that’s ruled out by the same considerations that make importation illegal to begin with.  Another is simply do destroy the lot.  A third is to allow labs like Dave’s to make use of it.  This is where the moral claims come in.  It would be, he says, immoral (as well as legally problematic) to sell the ivory, and

if someone has already killed the elephant and removed the Ivory, better that we use it to further medical research and perhaps save or improve some lives, than turn it into a bauble that sits on a shelf gathering dust.

Or, to put it another way: that the elephant has been killed is bad; but we can at least salvage something from the moral wreckage.

Is this correct?  Well, the structure of the argument seems to follow quite closely that which is sometimes presented in relation to the use of – for example – data derived from the morally repugnant experiments of the past.  If there is, in Stan Godlovich’s words, “demonstrably important and beneficial information gathered methodically through means completely unacceptable to us”, what should we do with it? more…

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