Stories tagged bioethics


This Wednesday evening kicks off a super-exciting four-part NOVA series about nanotechnology called Making Stuff. Each episode focuses on one general concept: stronger, smaller, cleaner, smarter. We could just squeal.

Spider Web +
Spider Web +Courtesy National Science Foundation

I was honored to get a sneak-preview of the first episode, Making Stuff: Stronger in San Francisco in October, and found myself in some crazy conversations afterward about bioengineering and media ethics. You see, scientists have, uh, installed spider silk-making genes into goats, thereby making the goat milk spinnable into spider silk. The Making Stuff episode covers this, then ends by showing the host happily drinking a glass of milk, and we’re left wondering if it's actually the spider-silk-milk that he’s downing without a care in the world.

Baby Goat =
Baby Goat =Courtesy National Science Foundation

2020 Science, the blog of Andrew Maynard, scientist, science policy guru, and Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, kindly takes the conversation beyond “ew!” to “responsible?” Andrew was also in the room for the special preview, and raised far more eloquent concerns than I (I’m sorry – I’m still stuck on the spiders…ew), and then blogged about them. And then got substantive responses, including one from Making Stuff’s producer, Chris Schmidt. All a fascinating read.

Andrew, being the smart, informed fellow that he is, pointed out that this whole spidergoat concept is old news. Bioengineered Spider Silk
Bioengineered Spider SilkCourtesy National Science Foundation
No less icky and/or creepy I would add, but still old news. Can’t wait until the Making Stuff episode that delves into the topic on Wednesday? Take a peek at the short video put together by the National Science Foundation.

A British woman is expecting the birth of a baby next week. Not so unusual, except that doctors screened the baby, through preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), to be sure that he or she is free of a gene that causes breast cancer.

According to the article,

"The husband's grandmother, mother, sister and a cousin have been diagnosed with the disease [in their 20s].

While a daughter could have been affected by breast cancer herself if she carried the gene, a son could have been a carrier and passed it on to his daughters.

Mr Serhal said: 'The whole objective of this exercise is not just to make sure the child doesn't have the gene, but to stop the transmission from generation to generation.'"

Of course, the PGD doesn't guarantee that if the baby is a girl, she'll never develop breast cancer. There are other genetic and environmental causes for the disease. But at least she won't have the mutant gene that makes breast cancer a 50-80% certainty.

There's more on Buzz about PGD...

Popular Mechanics has put together a list of 10 movies that made some accurate predictions about the future – including Gattaca, which foresaw some of the bioethics questions we grapple with in the exhibit Deadly Medicine.


Protecting human dignity from materialism: Technological advances require a moral response.
Protecting human dignity from materialism: Technological advances require a moral response.Courtesy irene.

Speaking to an Italian newspaper, Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, one of the Vatican's leading experts on sin, noted that modern technology has created new moral pitfalls:

"(Within bioethics) there are areas where we absolutely must denounce some violations of the fundamental rights of human nature through experiments and genetic manipulation whose outcome is difficult to predict and control," he said.

Some of the practices the Archbishop listed human cloning, experimenting on human subjects, and stem cell research that involves destruction of embryos.
While these statements do not rise to the level of official Church teaching, they do illustrate how people in every age must respond to the moral challenges of their times.

The Science Museum is hosting an exhibit entitled Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race which touches on similar themes of medicine, science and morality.


Mouse embryonic stem cells stained with a fluorescent green marker.: Image courtesy: Niels Geijsen, Massachusetts General Hospital/National Science Foundation
Mouse embryonic stem cells stained with a fluorescent green marker.: Image courtesy: Niels Geijsen, Massachusetts General Hospital/National Science Foundation
Meri Firpo, a former featured Scientist on the Spot, has been accused by a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives of breaking the law. According to Representative Dan Severson (R-Sauk Rapids) a 1973 state statue on human research appears to make the embryonic research that Dr. Fripo conducts illegal. The accusations came as state lawmakers debated in committee funding for embryonic stem cell research.

According to a recent Star Tribune article, “At the Stem Cell Institute, much of Firpo's work takes place within a locked, windowless 250-square-foot lab where every pen, every vial -- even the lab's share of ventilation -- must be carefully documented to ensure that it isn't paid for with federal dollars. The university is scrupulous about not using any of its state funding as well. With a budget of $250,000 scrounged from private donations, Firpo and others hunt for the information that will eventually, they believe, lead to cures for diabetes and other illnesses.”

Many other states, like Wisconsin, support stem cell research with state funding. Minnesota does not. Governor Tim Pawlenty campaigned for reelection as a supporter of stem cell research, but since the election has slid on the issue, and now says he would only support public funding if it did not include destroying embryos. The alternatives he supports, such as research that uses stem cells which are found in adults and in umbilical cords is not generally considered controversial.

As for the stem cells that come from embryos, the embryo is always destroyed in the process of harvesting the stem cells – a method of harvesting stem cells without destroying the embryo has not been developed. Dr. Firpo stated in her Scientist on the Spot feature, “The embryos we used to make human embryonic stem cell lines were from donors undergoing fertility treatments in a clinic. There were two types of embryos donated to my research program. The first (and most common) were those embryos that were discarded because they were determined to be too poor quality to make a woman pregnant. The second source was embryos that were frozen for the donor's use that were good quality, but were not needed for the donor's fertility treatment. The donors choose whether to keep the embryos, donate them or discard them. If they are discarded, they can choose to destroy them or to donate them for research.”

The University of Minnesota’s own Center for Bioethics has some great questions about embryonic stem cells and their use in medical research:

• When does a human embryo become a person?
• Should we use research methods that destroy human embryos to search for new therapies that could help people in the future?
• How far are we as a society willing to go to improve our health and lives?
• Where should the embryos for stem cell research come from?
• Will stem cell research lead to future genetic manipulation of cells? Will we cease to be human if that happens?
• What are we willing to spend on medical research and who should decide what is morally appropriate?

As for the accusations that Firpo’s research is illegal, Firpo states that she has been assured by the University that her research is legal, and that the statue Representative Severson referred to does not apply in this case.


Professional Guinea Pigs
Tuesday, December 19, 6:30p.m. (Doors at 5:30 p.m.)
Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, Minneapolis
Admission $5

Dr. Carl Elliott, author and professor at the U of MN's Center for
Bioethics, discusses the use of healthy humans in medical research. As drug companies offer higher payments to test subjects, will people be tempted to undergo frequent and dangerous trials? For those who make most or all of their living as paid research subjects, what protections are in place to safeguard against their exploitation?

Some suggested pre-Cafe reading:
Guinea Pig Zero: A Journal for Human Research Subjects

Cafe Scientifique is a happy hour forum for science and culture presented by the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History. Each month, experts from a variety of fields present cutting-edge research on diverse scientific topics-- from the politics of genetic testing, to the possibility of a new flu pandemic. Host John Erik Troyer, Ph.D., keeps the discussion moving in unexpected directions and audiences are encouraged to join in. The Bell Museum's Cafe Scientifique puts current science and popular culture on the table and up for debate!

For more information or a list of scheduled Cafe Scientifique programs, visit the Bell Museum's website or call (612) 624-7083.

For directions or to purchase tickets online, visit the Bryant-Lake Bowl's website.