Stories tagged ethics

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...


DNA model
DNA modelCourtesy Ynse
Britain’s current process of collection and storage of DNA and fingerprints faces a major upheaval. The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday that storing such information was a violation of people’s privacy rights. Britain now has until March to destroy almost 1 million of the DNA samples they have stored or make a case for keeping them.
Seven years ago, a man and a teenager were arrested for two unrelated crimes and both charges were later dropped. Both requested that their DNA samples be destroyed, but police refused, keeping the samples on file. Britain previously stored DNA samples of anyone arrested even if they were not convicted of a crime. They keep the samples until the person’s death or until they are 100 years old.
Britain has over 4.5 million samples of DNA, one of the largest databases in the world. Many officials are unhappy with the court ruling, noting that the information has been valuable in solving many recent cases. Human rights groups contend that the court’s decision respects the privacy rights of innocent citizens.
The United States currently allows collection of DNA from convicted felons. However, they have announced plans to collect DNA from people arrested by federal agencies as well as foreigners who have been detained.
Do you think that storing DNA samples is a violation of privacy rights or is it necessary to solving criminal cases? What do you think are fair standards for collection and storage?
You can read more about this at European court makes landmark ruling on DNA rights


Man vs. mammoth: Is a face-off like this in our future...again?
Man vs. mammoth: Is a face-off like this in our future...again?Courtesy redskunk
Scientists are another step closer to making Jurassic Park a reality. Well, not quite Jurassic Park, but certainly Pleistocene Park.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have decoded 80 percent of the DNA for the woolly mammoth, an elephant ancestor that went extinct about 10,000 years ago. The results of their study appear in the journal Nature.

The DNA was extracted from actual mammoth hair found preserved in the permafrost of Siberia. Hair encapsulates DNA, providing a purer source of the genetic material than that found in fossil bones that are vulnerable to contamination by bacteria and other creatures involved in decomposition. We covered this in a previous post.

About six million years of evolution separate the wooly mammoth from its modern descendents the Indian and African elephants. And so far they appear genetically to be very similar, although a complete assessment of differences won’t be available until the complete genomes of mammoths and modern elephants are mapped. The data sets for each is comprised of about 4 billion DNA bases.

But even then you don’t have to worry about rogue mammoths running amok on the interstates (have you ever hit a moose? Multiply that experience by about 15). Science is still decades away from cloning an actual specimen – or even a hybrid with a living elephant - from the genetic material. The technology just isn’t there yet. But that’s not the only thing in the way.

"It could be done,” said co-author Stephan Schuster, a biochemistry professor at Penn State. “The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?"

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The same question was posed by one of the characters in Michael Crichton's book Jurassic Park just before things got really hairy.


Penn State's mammoth research page
Live Science story
Previous Buzz story on mammoth cloning

The NYTimes has a great piece about the potential ramifications of science's latest breakthrough discoveries: nanotechnology, robotics, geo-engineering. I used to think that just about anything we could develop, would be developed. Articles like this have helped educate me that we do have a choice as a society about where and when we allow science to go. It's an interesting read.


Modern medicine provides many new treatments. But do those treatments always respect the rights of patients and their families? Do some treatments go too far, running against the desires of society at large?

Here at the Science Museum of Minnesota we are hosting the Deadly Medicine exhibit that looks at the history of science taken too far in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. The last day to see the Deadly Medicine exhibit is this Sunday, May 4th, 2008.

How are the lessons of history informing current day questions of medical ethics? Read the three case studies that follow. Tell us which action you would choose. Then, see if your decision changes as you learn more information. You can see how your answers relate to the answers of other visitors after you complete each survey.

Test-tube babies - Cochlear implants - Assisted suicide


Hetero, homo, and 3-way embryo creation

Embryo - 5 weeks
Embryo - 5 weeksCourtesy Ed Uthman
Lesbian couples could one day have children who share both their genes. Karim Nayernia, Professor of Stem Cell Biology at Newcastle University, has applied for ethical approval from the university to use bone marrow stem cells from women to start experiments to derive female sperm.

“I think, in principle, it will be scientifically possible,” Prof Nayernia told New Scientist.

Babies from two men

Other research is setting the stage for a gay man to donate skin cells that could be used to make eggs, which could then be fertilized by his partner’s sperm. A surrogate's uterus would be needed to bring the baby to term.

In Brazil, a team led by Dr Irina Kerkis of the Butantan Institute in Saõ Paulo claims to have made both sperm and eggs from cultures of male mouse embryonic stem cells in the journal Cloning and Stem Cells.

Babies from a man and two women

A whole class of hereditary diseases, including some forms of epilepsy, result from faulty DNA related to mitochondria. Starting with 10 severely abnormal embryos left over from traditional fertility treatment, researchers removed the nucleus, containing DNA from the mother and father, from the embryo, and implanted it into a donor egg whose DNA had been largely removed. The only genetic information remaining from the donor egg was the tiny bit that controls production of mitochondria. The embryos then began to develop normally, but were destroyed within six days.

"We believe that from this work, and work we have done on other animals that in principle we could develop this technique and offer treatment in the forseeable future that will give families some hope of avoiding passing these diseases to their children." said Patrick Chinnery, a member of the Newcastle team.

If you have an opinion on these types of research, feel free to comment.

Read more


Diorama of the first heart transplant surgery: Is this the future of prisoner executions?Courtesy Trygve Berge
Diorama of the first heart transplant surgery: Is this the future of prisoner executions?
Courtesy Trygve Berge
I read a rather fascinating story last night by Larry Niven called The Jigsaw Man. Without giving away the plot completely, it spells out the possible dystopian future we could face as organ transplants become more efficient and common. In the story, society is not able to resist the temptation to harvest organs from criminals who are executed for their crimes. However, as the demand for organs grows, the list of crimes that are punishable by execution grows as well (think traffic offenses). Where does it stop? Well, you can read the story.

This story, written in the late 60s, is a great example of science fiction predicting the future in a small way. We reported recently (Give a kidney, do less time: State deals with organ donation ethics) on California lawmakers considering a law that could give prisoners up to 180 days off their sentence for donating a kidney. If we start trading time of prison terms for organs, why shouldn't we require organ harvesting from executed prisoners? I personally think this would be ethically atrocious but I also know there are allot of people waiting on the list for organ transplants.

What do you think? Do you see any sort of future where prisoners are considered acceptable organ donors, with or without their permission?


The South Korean government is drawing up ethical guidelines for the use of robots. They want to avoid robots abusing humans, and vice-versa.

As The Science Museum's resident word guy, I have problems with this. I can certainly understand the need for laws governing robots. We want to make sure no one creates a robot that goes out and hurts people. Robots are machines, just like cars are machines, and of course we have laws requiring drivers to operate their cars in a safe manner. We ought to have the same for robots.

But there seems to be something else here. The article talks about robot "intelligence" and robot "rights," and dresses it all up in "ethics." Well, ethics is about morality. It's about values, about right and wrong. And I don't think those terms can apply to a machine. To have ethics, you must have consciousness. You must have empathy. In short, you must have a soul.

A couple of years ago, The Science Museum had an exhibit called Robots + Us, which explored many of these issues. I came away with the understanding that we can't even define consciousness and intelligence for humans, let alone for machines.

The problem seems to be that these are not scientific questions, but philosophical ones. Science deals only with natural phenomena, things that can be observed. Consciousness can't be observed. This has led some computer scientists to argue that it doesn't really exist, that it's just an artificial byproduct of our really complicated brains. And that once computers get that complicated, they will produce that artificial byproduct of consciousness, too.

It seems to me that this is where scientists often get themselves into trouble -- they start to believe that if something doesn't exist within the realm of science, then it doesn't exist at all. Which unfortunately ignores several thousand years of human experience.

What do you think? Can robots ever understand ethics? Should robots have rights? Will a machine ever achieve consciousness? Leave a message and tell us what you think.


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.

American universities (including University of California, San Francisco) are trying to create stem cell lines using cloned human embryos. (This is what South Korean researchers claimed to have done in 2004 and 2005; the lab later admitted that they'd fabricated their research.) Check the NPR story on who's in the business, how they're paying for it, and what the ethical issues are.