bloody zombie hands grasping air

Considerations for a Zombie Apocalypse: The Definition of Death Among the “Walking Dead”

While there has been a great deal in the literature that discusses the ethics of neurologic, cardiopulmonary and biologic death in the context of organ donation, there has been very little attention to this application with regard to zombies. Zombies are often referred to as “living-dead” which creates both a scientific, operational, and ethical conundrum with regard to classification. To date, there is no definitive answer as to whether zombies are truly “dead” or whether they are “living” or that they exist along the spectrum of conscious to coma, from living to dead. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, it is currently unclear whether or not zombies could be considered suitable organ donors.

Zombies: A Definition and Brief History

Zombies are a class of “living dead” that also includes vampires, ghouls, mummies, and wights. The term “zombi” was reportedly first used by the poet Robert Southey in his description of Brazilian history. One of the earliest references to zombies dates back to Mesopotamia in the Descent of Ishtar when the goddess Ishtar threatens to “raise up the dead, and they shall eat the living.”

Since then, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of descriptions of undead, zombies, and reanimated humans in comics, books, television programs, and movies. Some cultures have an extensive history of zombies, the most well-described and studied being the Haitian Zombies of Voodoo.

Zombies are further divided into subcategories: zombies reanimated by black magic (Voodoo), those created by sorcery (necromantic), viral- induced (Solanum) and those created by mutation from radiation (atomic). There have been case reports of drug-induced zombies, but these were later re-classified as this state was reversible without intervention. There is a movement to utilize the more descriptive terminology Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Disorder (ANSDS).

Culturally, the term differently-animated has been used as a more politically correct term for identifying zombies. The varied terms, means by which zombification can occur and the newer, more descriptive and politically correct terminology however, has done little in the way to describe the actual physiologic state of zombies. This requires a more in-depth analysis of what we do and do not know about zombie biologic and specifically neurologic function.

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State-Level Solutions to Discrimination in Organ Transplants 

By Emily Largent

organ transplant
Doctors in North Dakota perform a kidney transplant. (Photo by ndguard/Flickr)

In recent years, alleged instances of discrimination against people with disabilities in organ transplantation have captured public attention.

In 2012, for example, the parents of Amelia Rivera, a child with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, alleged that they were told their daughter was not a candidate for a kidney transplant because of her “mental retardation.” The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia denied “disqualify[ing] transplant patients on the basis of intellectual ability.” Nevertheless, more than 51,000 individuals signed a change.org petition demanding that the hospital “allow the life saving [sic] transplant four-year-old Amelia Rivera needs to survive.”  Ultimately, Rivera received a living donor kidney transplant from her mother.

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Bioethicist Art Caplan: A New Mind-Body Problem

A new piece by Bill of Health contributor Arthur Caplan, with Lisa Kearns, in The Hastings Center Bioethics Forum:

Not since Rene Descartes gazed from his garret window in early 17th-century Paris and wondered whether those were men or hats and coats covering “automatic machines” he saw roaming the streets has the issue of personal identity and your cranium been of such import. Descartes feared a world that he alone occupied due to deception by the devil. Today we face a different mind-body challenge in the form of a devil we know: Italian neuroscientist Sergio Canavero. He recently announced that the first human head transplant is imminent.

For bioethicists, the moral critiques of this surgery practically write themselves: Are we merely our bodies? How can a person so ill as to wish to trade in his lifelong corporeal companion be considered competent to consent to such a drastic procedure? How can family members consent to donate a body that they could very well run into — and recognize — at the beach or gym? What if a left-handed person received a right-handed body? What if a lifelong Chicago Bears fan woke to find himself attached to the green-and-gold-tattooed torso of a former Packers fan? Would transplant recipients need to buy whole new wardrobes? Who will pay? […]

Read the full article here!

The First Human Body Transplant – Ethical and Legal Considerations

By Ana S. Iltis, PhD

brain_glowingprofileTo what lengths should we go to preserve human life? This is a question many are asking after hearing that three men plan to make medical history by conducting the first human head transplant. Or, rather, whole body transplant. Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero and Chinese surgeon Dr. Xiaoping Ren plan to provide a Russian volunteer, Valery Spiridonov, a new body. During the procedure, Spiridonov’s body and head would be detached and, with the help of a crane, surgeons would move the head and attach it to the donor body.  But is this ethical? What role might law and regulation play in monitoring them or in assessing their conduct after the fact?

Critics call the plan crazy, unethical, and sure to fail. The likelihood of success is very low and the risk of Spiridinov dying is high. Spiridonov says that as soon as animal studies confirm the possibility of survival, the risks will be worth taking. He has Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, a genetic disorder that destroys muscle and nerve cells. He is confined to a wheelchair and has lived longer than expected. Body transplantation offers him the best chance at a life worth living. 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

Undocumented Organ Transplants

By Brad Segal

Manuel—not his real name—was admitted to the hospital with decompensated heart failure. As a child he had scarlet fever which, left untreated, had caused the valves of his heart to calcify and stiffen. Over time, pumping against increased resistance, his heart’s contractions began to weaken until finally, they lost all synchrony and the normal function of his heart spiraled out of control. At this stage, his fate was tied to whether or not he would receive a new heart in time.

He was in his 30’s and had no other illnesses. From a medical perspective, Manuel was the ideal candidate for a cardiac transplant. But a decade ago Manuel crossed the United States border in pursuit of a better life. As an undocumented immigrant, he was ineligible for the insurance coverage necessary to pay for a heart transplant. After being thoroughly evaluated by the hospital’s transplant center, given his modest financial resources and inability to obtain new insurance coverage, Manuel was not placed on the waiting list for a new heart.

The average heart transplant costs about a million dollars to perform. Subsequent follow-up care adds another $30,000 annually. Health insurance will usually cover most, if not all, of these costs. But uninsured patients are kept off transplant lists on the grounds that the inability to pay for care allegedly jeopardizes an organ’s long-term success. 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

Organs and Overdoses (Part II): ‘Higher risk’ donors

By Brad Segal

In my last post I characterized how overdoses from the surging opioid epidemic have become the fastest-growing cause of mortality among organ donors. In this update, I raise one potential consequence with ethical and policy implications: so-called donor-derived infections. To be clear, I focus primarily on organ recipients as deaths from drug overdose, and drug addiction more broadly, should be prevented regardless of any implications for transplantation. With this in mind, consider how the population of injection drug users shoulders a heavy burden of HIV, hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) (Table 1). First I will focus on screening guidelines, and then will move on to transplantation of organs known to carry an infection. table-1

Screening guidelines can help reduce the incidence of donor-derived infections, but the lab tests recommended in any policy must balance two potential concerns. First, lab tests have a rate of false negative results. Transplants of these organs will accidentally increase donor-derived infections. The policy question, then, is whether or not transplanting organs donated by individuals with higher risk of recent disease exposure will expose an unacceptable proportion of recipients to infection. This unintentional harm could undermine a duty of non-maleficence to organ recipients. Further complicating a potential screening policy is that the basic lab tests for HIV, HBV, and HCV detect the presence of human antibodies, which work well among a low-risk population, but antibodies might not appear in the blood until weeks after infection (Table 2).Recent infections are better detected by nucleic acid amplification (NAT) testing.To mitigate risk of infection,then, transplant screening policies should require a heightened level of surveillance among donors with a history of illicit drug use. Read More

Organs and Overdoses: The Numbers (Part I)

By Brad Segal

The surging opioid epidemic is a threat to the nation’s public health. This year the CDC reported that mortality from drug overdose reached an all-time high, with the annual death toll more than doubling since 2000. Yet in the backdrop of this epidemic, the country also faces ongoing shortages of a different sort–too few organs for transplantation. Every day, approximately 22 people die while waiting for an organ to become available. To some it is not a surprise–or at least not inconceivable–that the fastest-growing source of organ donors is being fueled by the national spike in drug overdoses. This first post will help delineate the scope and scale of the situation. My follow-up will discuss the ethical considerations and ramifications for public policy.

To start: the numbers. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) makes domestic transplant data publicly available online, which currently extends from 1994 to September 30th, 2016. Two decades ago, 29 organ donors died from a drug overdose.* In just the first nine months of this year, that number has climbed to 888 donors. Even with a quarter of the calendar year left to be counted, 2016 has already surpassed previous record set in 2015 (Figure 1).

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Figure 1

One might question whether this trend is an illusion–perhaps a rise in the incidence of donors who had overdosed reflects an increasing number of transplants. But the data suggest the opposite. Also plotted in Figure 1, the percentage of total organ donors who died from overdose (maroon diamonds, right-sided Y axis) has not remained constant–instead, the percentage has steadily increased. Two decades ago, overdose caused the deaths of 0.6% of all organ donors; this year, it is the cause of death among 12.0% of organ donors nationwide. The rising percentage means that not only are more victims of drug overdose donating organs, but that the pool of organ donors is increasingly composed of such individuals. Read More

Is Gaming the Transplant List an Ethical Dilemma?

By Shailin Thomas

NPR recently published a thought-provoking piece discussing an ethical dilemma doctors face when treating patients in need of organ transplants. Transplant list priority is designed to depend upon the relative sickness of patients, allocating organs to those who need them most. However, instead of lab results or other direct measures, the list uses the treatment a patient is receiving as a proxy for her condition. As a result, doctors have the ability to move their patients up the list by prescribing — or over-prescribing — more extreme and invasive treatments.

It’s understandable why this temptation exists — doctors go into medicine to heal, and I imagine it’s difficult to refrain from taking an action which could very well save a patient’s life. But should this be an ethical dilemma?

Bumping a patient up the transplant list could certainly save a life, but that life could come at the expense of another’s. The problem is that organ transplants are inherently zero-sum — if one patient goes up on the list, another must come down. If one person gets an organ, that means another doesn’t. Furthermore, over-treating to influence transplant priority has consequences that reach beyond any individual patient, potentially furthering inequality in the transplant system and contributing to unsustainable health care spending. Read More