12 Apr, 12 | by David Hunter
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…
21 Dec, 11 | by Iain Brassington
A story that has had a little airtime on the news over the last 24 hours or so concerns requests by US officials that details of research into a bird flu variant be held back from publication on the grounds that it might be of use to terrorists:
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the “general conclusions” be published but that final manuscripts not include details that “could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.
The BBC’s health news blog reports that
Professor John Oxford from Barts and the London School of Medicine [says], “They should definitely publish. The biggest risk with bird flu is from the virus itself. We should forget about bio terrorism and concentrate on Mother Nature.” [He and Prof Wendy Barclay from Imperial College London] agree that the influenza virus would make a pretty poor bioterrorist weapon, unless your aim was to spread the infection across the world. Influenza has no respect for borders, so introducing a virus in one country would inevitably spread it globally.
But Michael Parker, Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Ethox Centre at the University of Oxford, disagrees. ”The position that everything should be published is not tenable. There must be some scientific information which contains an immediate threat to public safety if it fell into the wrong hands.”
Parker’s worries reflect those articulated by Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu in the JME a little while ago; they argued that synthetic biology raises significant new ethical problems, not least because of the potential for “dual use”.
I have to admit that I have yet to be convinced by the biosecurity worries. more…
16 Aug, 11 | by Iain Brassington
How much would I love to have been on the ethics committee that was faced with this?
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were interested in a method of treatment for leukaemia that made use of modified versions of white blood cells. Cells were taken from leukaemia patients and genetically modified in two ways: first, they were adapted to target the cancer cells; second, they were adapted to reproduce like crazy. This second modification is important, because attempts to make use of the first have hitherto fizzled out as the modified cells died off. Or, in slightly more scientific language, the New England Journal of Medicine explains that
[f]irst-generation chimeric antigen receptors had limited clinical activity, primarily because in vivo activation of the chimeric antigen receptor T cells induced only transient cell division and suboptimal cytokine production, which failed to produce prolonged T-cell expansion and sustained antitumor effects. These deficiencies were overcome by the addition of a costimulatory signaling domain in second-generation chimeric antigen receptors, which enhanced the proliferation, survival, and development of memory cells — features that appeared to be the hallmarks of successful therapy with EBV-specific T cells and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes.
But how do you get the modification into the cells to begin with? The team
used HIV-derived lentiviral vectors for cancer therapy, an approach that may have some advantages over the use of retroviral vectors.
And that, of course, is where things get interesting. more…
9 Jun, 11 | by David Hunter
Continuing my recent theme of the impact of language on ethics and decision making I’m presently writing a paper on the use of claims based on justice to object to new technologies such as human enhancement or synthetic biology. In the process of writing this paper I’ve encountered a rather odd gap in our language. It is the case when discussing future technologies that the harms involved are more properly thought of as risks (that is uncertain harms where the probability of the harm is predictable) and hazards (that is uncertain harms where the probability of the harm is not predictable). The same applies to the benefits of future technology but we don’t have the language to directly describe them thusly, ie there is no obvious counterparts to risk and hazard in regards to benefit. This seems odd given that benefits can be just as uncertain as harms.
And while we might think of this as just a linguistic oddity it may actually have an impact on decision making. For example in research ethics it is common to talk about the risks and benefits of research – but this creates
Any suggestions of appropriate terms would be gratefully received!
21 Jan, 11 | by Iain Brassington
Following on from the post ↓down there↓ about the publication of potentially dangerous results, and as if by magic, into my inbox comes a cfp from the journal Medicine Studies for a special edition about responsibility in biomedical practices.
Details are below the fold. more…
21 Jan, 11 | by Iain Brassington
There’s a short interview with David Nichols in last week’s New Scientist in which he talks about his place in the history of the production of “legal highs”.
The backstory is that he was doing work on MDMA (ecstasy) with half an eye on using it in the treatment of psychiatric and neurological conditions. more…
15 Jul, 10 | by David Hunter
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