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Genetic jiggerypokery

This could get Personal

5 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

And so 23andMe has launched in the UK.

For those not familiar with it, 23andMe allows individuals to swab themselves and have their genome analysed, at a cost of £125. The company is offering to generate a report covering about a hundred traits, giving information on a range of potentially important to fun things: the list includes tests for the presence or absence of inherited conditions such as Tay-Sachs and Beta Thalassemia; risk factors relating to things like Alzheimer’s; how much DNA you have in common with Neanderthals; and earwax type.

To be honest, I’d’ve thought that by the time you’ve got £125 to spend on a test like this, you’d probably know all you’d ever want to know about your earwax, but… well, apparently there’s more.  Joy.

Anyway: BBC Breakfast invited me to witter on about it the other day.  I only got a couple of minutes, and so didn’t get to say much; shamelessly, I’m going to think aloud a little bit here.  My basic starting point is that it’s hard to see why the test per se is too big a problem: all else being equal, who would begrudge a person information about himself?  All the same, I think that there are questions that are probably worth asking.  (NB: in what follows, whenever I mention 23andMe, the point should be taken to cover any company offering a similar service.)  So, in no particular order… more…

Growing a Kidney Inside a Pig Using your own DNA: The Ethics of ‘Chimera Organs’

6 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by David Shaw

Imagine that you’re in dire need of a new kidney. You’re near the top of the waiting list, but time is running out and you might not be lucky enough to receive a new organ from a deceased or living donor. But another option is now available: scientists could take some of your skin cells, and from them derive stem cells that can then be added to a pig embryo. Once that embryo is implanted and carried to term, the resulting pig will have a kidney that is a perfect genetic match to you, and the organ can be transplanted into your body within a few months without fear of immune rejection. Would you prefer to take the risk of waiting for an organ donated by a human, which would require you to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of your life? Or would you rather receive a “chimera organ”?

This scenario might seem far-fetched, but it is quite likely to be a clinical reality within a decade or so. Scientists have already used the same technique to grow rat organs inside mice, and it has also been shown to work in different types of pig. Although clinical trials in humans have not yet taken place, using these techniques to create human organs inside animals could solve the current organ scarcity problem by increasing supply of organs, saving thousands of lives each year in Europe alone. As illustrated in the example, organs created in this way could be tailored to the individual patient’s DNA, allowing transplantation without the risk of immune rejection. However, the prospect of growing organs of human origin within (non-human) animals raises several ethical issues, which we explore in our paper.

Although chimera organs are ‘personalised’ and unlikely to be rejected, one of the major concerns about using organs transplanted from animals is the risk of ‘zoonosis’ – the possibility that an animal virus might be transmitted along with the organ, resulting in a new disease that could cause a pandemic. more…

Multiplex Parenting: in vitro Gametogenesis and the Generations to Come

24 Mar, 14 | by BMJ

Guest Post by César Palacios-González, John Harris and Giuseppe Testa; for the full paper, click here.

Recent biotechnology breakthroughs suggest that functional human gametes could soon be created in vitro.  While the ethical debate on the uses of in vitro generated gametes (IVG) was originally constrained by the fact that they could be derived only from embryonic stem cell lines, the advent of induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (hiPSC) creates the possibility that somatic cells may be used to generate gametes.  This means that in the future it might be possible to generate human sperm and oocytes from male cells, and oocytes from female cells.  (So far it has not been possible to derive sperm from female cells.)

Among the different applications that have been explored in the academic literature, like the creation of embryos for genetic research and what has been called “in vitro eugenics”, we think that the most dramatic application of IVG will be in the field of human reproduction.  In a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Robert Sparrow rightly notices that IVG could allow post-puberty males who are unable to produce viable sperm, women who have undergone premature menopause, and those who have lost their gonads due to injury or had them removed in the course of cancer treatment to have genetically related kin.  To this list we add (and explore in our paper) a fourth use that has been overlooked until now: that IVG would allow the reparation of some of the harms done to people by means of biological involuntary sterilization. more…

Genes and Confidentiality: Tricky!*

22 Nov, 13 | by Iain Brassington

A couple of weeks ago, the D–ly M–l** asked me to comment on the Personal Genome Project‘s call for 100 000 volunteers who’d be willing to have their DNA sequenced so that it could be correlated with their health records and used as a tool for research.  As it happens, my peals of wisdom never made it into print, but here’s an expanded version of the things I said.

First up, this project is superficially similar to that undertaken by the UK Biobank.  The idea behind both is that, since many illnesses have a genetic component to them, understanding those illnesses fully will require doing genetic research.  Sometimes that will be on cells in a lab; sometimes it’ll be population surveys.  Often, the idea will be to learn as much as we can about individuals’ genomes, and then to keep track of their health over a prolonged period.  If, across the population, we notice a correlation between a given gene and a given illness, the hope would be that we could work out more effective treatments.  Insofar as participating in this project might help with research into things like cancer, it’s tempting to think that it’s admirable – some even argue that participation in medical research is a moral duty (though others disagree: to and fro and to and fro***; cf this and this and this).

However, there are also moral problems to consider. more…

Not in any Way Topical.

22 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington

I know, I know.  I keep banging on about the irrelevance of genetics when it comes to families – about why parenthood isn’t a genetic thing.  But, actually, now I think about it – Duchess of Cambridge blah blah baby blah… I wonder what, if any, constitutional implications there’d be if the heir to the throne were infertile and adopted?

Yeah, I know that it’s doubtless happened before without anyone knowing – but just suppose that the new third in line to the throne were, say, an adopted Cambodian orphan instead of a (close) genetic relation to William and Kate.  I can’t think of any moral objection to that being a barrier to succession.  A child raised in those circumstances would, I think, have just as much right to ascend as would a child related by blood; there’s no reason to suppose that he or she wouldn’t be a part of the family in the fullest sense.

Unless, of course, we think that the word “family” in “Royal family” doesn’t mean quite the same as the word “family” in other contexts.  But then, what would it mean?  Why would genes be important in this circumstance?

And just suppose that the people of late mediaeval and early modern England had had the same obsessions about genes.  That’s something that’s been keeping the Abstruse Goose awake.


Readably big version here.

UPDATE: OK, that’s odd.  The site on which the cartoon appears is currently listed as a virus threat.  I have no idea why.

UPDATE 2: Hmmm.  Seems to work on my home computer.  It might just be the UoM servers being twitchy, then.  Oh, I don’t know.

Mouse Eggs: A Cool Solution to a First-World Problem?

8 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

The news that Japanese researchers have successfully induced skin cells to behave like viable eggs, which have then been fertilised to create a new generation of mice, may well come to be seen as a scientific milestone.  And if it’s not that, it’s definitely very, very cool.  (The original paper is here.)

Though the research does not necessarily translate into humans, it appears to demonstrate that the genetic material found in every cell in the body can be put to use in the creation of offspring. In principle, this offers infertile women the opportunity to have children that are genetically related, even if they do not have viable eggs of their own: cells from another part of the body could be used and “reprogrammed” to behave as eggs would.  (Putting the procedure to use in humans would be illegal under current UK law, since the synthesised eggs would not be what the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act calls “permitted”.  But the law is, after all, just the law.)

There will probably be concerns raised; but they aren’t obviously any more serious in relation to this technology than they would be in relation to others.

The most obvious concern – and, prima facie, the most powerful – would be about the safety of the procedure were it to be used in humans. more…

Mitochondrial Disease and the HFEA

20 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Readers are probably aware of the consultation that the HFEA launched this week on the use of mitochondrial replacement to prevent certain illnesses.  John Harris has a piece on it in The Guardian – and by gosh golly, he’s right*; the article is well worth a quick look.

My own ha’p’orth: some of the stuff in the consultation is a bit odd.  One of the sets of questions it asks has to do with what such a procedure would do to a child’s concept of identity.  But why is this a concern?  Suppose a child discovers that she’s been the recipient of a mitochondrial transplant: so what?  Why would that make the blindest bit of difference to her sense of identity?  Isn’t it wholly plausible that, if there is any impact, it’s not because of the source of the genes qua genes, but because of all the people around her telling her that it’s tremendously important and she should give a stuff?  But they might be wrong.  I’d stick my neck out and say that they probably are.  Genetic origins simply don’t matter.

(Ah – but if she’s brought up to think that they’re imporant, isn’t that enough to establish that they’re important to her – and so are important in some sense after all?  Well, no.  Imagine someone is brought up to think that the fortunes of West Ham United are important; they’ll be important to him.  But it doesn’t follow that they’re important; and it might be that, in treating them as important, our hapless Hammers fan ends up making himself much more miserable than he need be by worrying about things that don’t merit worry.  It could be that he ought not to think the football important.  The same applies to genes: if a person’s genetic origins are important to her, it doesn’t follow that they’re important, or that there’re no good reasons to think them less important.)

But lots of people seem to think that genes do matter, and so we get questions like this; and asking questions like this perpetuates the idea that it’s a question worth asking… and so it goes on.

*I’ve found myself saying that increasingly often of late.  Scary stuff.

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