hand with a pencil drawing on DNA results

Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Designing Inequality?

A recent web series sparked controversy with the headline that “Designer babies aren’t futuristic. They’re already here.” The online articles make the case that disparate access to frozen embryo screening for debilitating diseases—sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, or cystic fibrosis—is “designing inequality into our genes.”

The authors are right that reproductive technology isn’t open to everyone. A single cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF)—the tool that combines sperm and egg in a lab—costs 57% of the average American’s annual income in 2018. The multiple cycles it usually takes to get a baby costs upwards of $100,000. Just fifteen states make insurers cover reproductive technology. Even these often limit coverage mandates to married couples unable to conceive, thereby denying equal benefits to non-traditional families.

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Can a national conscience be gene edited?

Gene editing is at once promising and perilous. Or, as John Oliver said in a recent episode of his news show, it is ”either going to kill all disease or kill every last one of us.”

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is not as amusing as John Oliver, and unlike the summer film “Rampage,” its new gene editing report features neither The Rock nor a genetically modified, 30-foot wolf.

But if you want to understand what we may actually be getting ourselves into, England’s de facto national bioethics commission has produced a useful roadmap for educating the public and addressing concerns. It may the summer read you’ve been looking for.

And if there’s a gene splicer for envy, I’m ready to be CRISPR’d.

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Illness, Disability, and Dignity

By Yusuf Lenfest

Medicine is meant to heal our ailments and treat our illnesses. Our deep knowledge of the body and the numerous mechanisms that contribute or correlate to good health is considered a triumph of the medical sciences. We can now perform transplants with relative ease, offer prosthetics to those who require them, and even cure some forms of blindness. But so much of modern medicine today is built around quantitative data—family histories, success and morbidity rates, pathologization, statistical analyses—without much conscious consideration of how one understands, copes, or derives meaning from their experience. True, such data is gathered for the purposes of more accurate diagnoses and as the first defense against an illness or medical condition; but physicians are taught to concentrate on the cure, and while few would dispute that that is certainly a good thing, we also ought to keep in mind that excessive focus on a default measure of “normal” does not necessarily allow us to express the diverse ways of being in the world nor adequately account for the ways in which people embrace their conditions.

Some autistic individuals, for example, believe that autism should be accepted as a difference and not as a disorder. That the autism spectrum is precisely that—a spectrum—is important: on the one hand, statistical analysis may reveal that these individuals are in the minority versus the average population, only 1%; but on the other hand, to take a different perspective, it means merely that the characteristics of these individuals manifest in a way that is atypical with how the institution and culture of medicine classifies them. Lest we forget, medicine is part of the dynamic structure of society and social norms—in the background and the foreground—of knowledge-making, and it is imbedded in place and society, as part of the structures existing in institutions. It is not possible to consider theoretical or epistemological claims apart from practical knowledge and applied sciences. Read More

Two Views About the Gene Editing ‘Breakthrough’ that Are Not Getting Enough Attention (IMHO)

As has now been well-covered in the news, Nature just published a paper from Mitalipov’s lab at the Oregon Health and Science University that used CRISPR/Cas 9 gene editing to correct the MYBPC3 mutation associated with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a heart muscle disease that affects 1 in 500 people. The more impressive element of the story is that by doing the alteration simultaneous with the sperm fertilizing the egg (not after fertilization) they were able to avoid the mosaicism that problematized early attempts in China — in mosaicism not all cells are repaired due to failure in the editing. The media coverage thus far, sadly but predictably, has focused on the soundbite of “designer babies” and “hope and hype” (indeed as my friend Hank Greely has suggested perhaps “overhype”.) These are worthy narratives to tell, to be sure, but here are two other narratives that I think are not getting the air time they deserve:

(1) The Importance of Genetic Ties: This use of CRISPR/Cas 9, as with most reproductive technologies, are attempts to allow those with disease-causing genes or other obstacles to reproduce genetically to do so. Investment and development of these technologies reifies the importance of genetic ties, as opposed to the kinds of ties associated with adoption, step-parenting, etc. It confuses a right to be a genetic parent, with a right to be a parent. We might have one right or both, but we should be clear they are different rights claims. Françoise Baylis has written eloquently about this issue in the context of In Vitro Gemetogenesis, and others (myself included) have mused on what claims the infertile have on society to have the state pay for these kinds of technologies instead of adopting. The National Academies report on gene editing suggested that clinical use of gene editing to eliminate disease be restricted to cases where there is an “absence of reasonable alternatives,” but does not take a position on when adoption is a reasonable alternative. Of course, in the U.S. at least, adoption is not easy and not available for everyone and there are a ton of interesting normative questions I have gestured at (including whether it matters for “reasonability” whether the child is of a certain age, race, or lacks developmental delay).

(2) The Importance of Embryo Sparing: A different alternative to gene editing in some cases is to fertilize large numbers of embryos and engage in preimplantation genetic diagnosis to eliminate those embryos that carry the disease-causing genes. There is a lot of obstacles to doing this: the fact that women may not retrieve enough eggs to do this, the cost (physical and financial) of repeated egg retrievals and PGD, the fact that this may not work for all genetic problems, etc. But one problem that vexes some is that this results in the destruction of large numbers of embryos (“discard” is sometimes used as the euphemism). Gene editing may be a solve for this problem. The Mitalipov group in their Nature paper have a line to this effect, “When only one parent carries a heterozygous mutation, 50% of the embryos should be mutation-free and available for transfer, while the remaining carrier embryos are discarded. Gene correction would rescue mutant embryos, increase the number of embryos available for transfer and ultimately improve pregnancy rate” (emphasis mine). This raises to me a very interesting question: some religious conservatives have tended to oppose both attempts to transform the human genome & embryo destruction (especially in the stem cell debate context). Could gene editing offer an olive branch to them as an alternative to the “greater evil” of routine PGD plus discard? Does it matter that to get to a place where we could achieve this we would have to actually destroy numerous embryos to perfect the research? (The Mitalipov embryos were not implanted, it seems under current U.S.  law that they could not be/) Is the right way to think about this consequentialist — destroy some embryos today to develop embryo sparing technologies to save many more tomorrow — or is this a case of complicity where the wrongfulness of the basic research taints what comes later?

Copenhagen Conference: Legal Perspectives on Synthetic Biology and Gene Editing

Join us at the Centre for Information and Innovation Law (CIIR) Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen on 20 November, 2017 to discuss Legal Perspectives on Synthetic Biology and Gene Editing.


Emerging technologies in Synthetic Biology and Gene Editing offer incredible opportunities and promising solutions to some of the most urgent challenges faced by humanity, such as climate change, environmental protection, growing population, renewable energy and improved health care. But the emerging applications also raise exceptional ethical, legal and social questions.

This conference marks the final phase of the participation of the Copenhagen Biotech and Pharma Forum (CBPF) Research Group at the Centre for Information and Innovation Law (CIIR) in the cross-faculty research project BioSYNergy. In accordance with the goals of this large cross-faculty project on Synthetic Biology, the event explores legal perspectives on synthetic biology, systems biology and gene editing. Dealing with the legal responses to ethical and scientific challenges raised by emerging life science technology. Read More

Patenting Bioprinting Technologies in the US and Europe – The Fifth Element in the Third Dimension

By Timo Minssen

I am happy to announce the publication of our new working paper on  “Patenting Bioprinting Technologies in the US and Europe – The 5th element in the 3rd dimension.” The paper, which has  been co-authored by Marc Mimler, starts out by describing the state of the art and by examining what sorts of bioprinting inventions are currently being patented. Based on our findings we then discuss what types of future innovations we can expect from the technological development and how far these would and/or should be protectable under European and US patent laws.

The paper is forthcoming in: RM Ballardini, M Norrgård & J Partanen (red), 3D printing, Intellectual Property and Innovation – Insights from Law and Technology. Wolters Kluwer, but the working paper is already available on SSRN. Read More

Chimeras with benefits? Transplants from bioengineered human/pig donors

By Brad Segal

In January of this year, Cell published a study modestly titled, Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. It reports success bioengineering a mostly-pig partly-human embryo. One day before, Nature published a report that scientists had grown (for lack of a better word) a functioning genetically-mouse pancreas within the body of a genetically-modified rat. The latest study raises the likelihood that before long, it will also be scientifically possible to grow human organs within bioengineered pigs.

The implications for transplantation are tremendous. But hold the applause for now. Imagine a chimera with a brain made up of human neurons which expressed human genes. Would organ procurement without consent be okay? That troubling possibility raises  questions about whether manufacturing chimeras with human-like properties for organs is even appropriate in the first place. Here’s what University of Montreal bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky told the Washington Post:

“I think the point of these papers is sort of a proof of principle, showing that what researchers intend to achieve with human-non-human chimeras might be possible … The more you can show that it stands to produce something that will actually save lives … the more we can demonstrate that the benefit is real, tangible and probable — overall it shifts the scale of risk-benefit assessment, potentially in favor of pursuing research and away from those concerns that are more philosophical and conceptual.”

I respectfully disagree. Saving more lives, of course, is good. Basic science is also valuable – even more so if it might translate to the bedside. This line of research, though, is positioned to upend our entire system of transplantation, and so its implications go beyond organ supply. In this post I will argue that to assess this technology’s implications for organ procurement in particular, there is good reason to focus on harms, not benefits. Read More

Westworld and Bioethics

By I. Glenn Cohen

[WARNING: Spoilers below]

On Sunday, HBO’s Westworld finished its run. Though I thought some of the early episodes were arguably a bit of a failure as television (and my partner almost jumped off the bandwagon of making this one of “our shows”) IMHO the show finished very strong.

But whatever you thought of it as television, the show is wildly successful at raising a series of bioethics issues. There have been a bunch of other very good treatments of some of these issues in the last couple of decades – A.I., Ex Machina, Humans, Battlestar Galactica all come to mind – that touch on some of these issues. But, what I loved about Westworld is its lack of direct moralizing on these subjects, and how it leaves the viewer puzzling through them in a much more naturalistic way: I have been thrust in this unfamiliar world, and now I am trying to use my ethical compass to get my bearings.

Once upon a time I discussed Bioethics and the Martian, and my aim is to do the same here. I thought one way to share why I think the show is so successful as a text for bioethics exploration was to develop a “mock exam question” on the subject. This is really written more like an oral exam, with follow-up questions. The goal is not entirely fanciful since I do teach a course that uses films as texts to explore bioethics and the law.

Here goes: Read More

The Competing Identities of Neuroethics

By Brad Segal

This past week week I attended the International Neuroethics Society’s (INS) annual conference in San Diego, California. Neuroethics is multidisciplinary field that grapples with the implications of neuroscience for—and from—medicine, law, philosophy, and the social sciences. One of the many excellent panels brought together scholars from each of these four disciplines to discuss the diverse approaches to the field. The panel featured; Paul Appelbaum, a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University; Tom Buller, Chair of philosophy at Illinois State University; Jennifer Chandler, Professor of law at the University of Ottawa, and; Ilina Singh, Professor of Neuroscience & Society at the University of Oxford.

The panel started by considering the importance of the “competing identities” present in the field of neuroethics. As moderator Eric Racine explained, right from the start, even the term ‘neuroethics’ suggests a tension. Consider the variety of research methodologies employed in the field. For instance, a scholar trained in philosophy might approach neuroscience from a conceptual and purely analytical basis, and yet a social scientist might research the same question by collecting empirical interview data. The interplay between empirical and theoretical work was a theme that defined the discussion.

A psychiatrist by training, Dr. Applebaum spoke on the medical approach to the field. He argued that a focus on ethical issues in clinical psychiatry and neurology should be viewed as a part (but only a part) of neuroethics. Furthermore, medicine’s empirical approach to neuroethics is one (but not the only) way to advance thinking on neuroethical issues. Read More

Kidneys and Livers, Made to Order?

By Seán Finan

Last week, Organovo might just have revolutionised the pharmaceutical industry. The San Diego-based company specialises in producing structures that mimic the behaviours and functions of human tissue, using 3D bioprinting. They announced last week that they were beginning the commercial manufacture and sale of their ExVive Kidney. The product models the proximal tubule of the human kidney and holds significant promise for clinical trials of new drugs. The commercialization of the ExVive Kidney follows the release of ExVive Human Liver Tissue in 2014.

In essence, Organovo is using 3D printing technology to produce samples of “human” tissue that can be used to test the toxicity of new drugs. The printing process, known as 3D bioprinting, involves extracting human cells, culturing them and suspending them in a solution. The resulting “bioink” is fed through a modified 3D printer. Layer by layer, the printer deposits cells, producing a mass with a similar structure and density to a sample of, for example, human liver. Just like “organ on a chip” technology, these synthetic liver and kidney samples present significant advantages over traditional clinical testing.

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