The German Stem Cell Network Has Compiled a Sample Text for Informed Consent

By Sara Gerke

Sara Gerke speaking
GSCN Conference in Jena in September, 2017

At the General Meeting of the German Stem Cell Network (GSCN) in Jena in September 2017, Tobias Cantz and I proposed the establishment of a new GSCN strategic working group.

This new working group, known as ELSA, focuses on the ethical, legal and social aspects of the modern life sciences. ELSA aims to serve as a country-wide interdisciplinary platform for the exchange of information and for the analysis and discussion of challenges facing basic and applied stem cell research in Germany.

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NEW REPORT: Ethical Issues Related to the Creation of Synthetic Human Embryos

Report Summary Authored by Robert D. Truog, MD (Center for Bioethics, Harvard Medical School) and Melissa J. Lopes, JD (Harvard University Office of the Vice Provost for Research)

The Harvard Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight (the “ESCRO”) Committee, an ethics oversight committee charged with reviewing research protocols involving human embryos, human embryonic stem cells, and certain activities with non-embryonic human pluripotent stem cells, recently issued a report exploring the ethical issues related to the creation of synthetic human embryos.

Ethical committees such as the Harvard ESCRO occasionally receive inquiries to deliberate upon the ethical implications of emerging research technologies where there is no existing or established guidance to rely upon. Deliberating in these gray areas is not a simple task, but the Harvard ESCRO has developed a general framework for navigating this ethical terrain in real time. In these instances, the Harvard ESCRO generally consults with its peer oversight bodies, reviews data from the scientific and bioethical literature and from other scientists and ethicists in the field and, from time to time, convenes symposia to broaden the discussion around such emerging technologies.  Read More

Call for Papers: Wiet Life Sciences Scholars Conference

Loyola University Chicago’s nationally acclaimed Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy is pleased to invite original research submissions for the annual Wiet Life Science Law Scholars Conference to be held on Friday, September 7, 2018.

The conference is designed to provide an intellectual venue for life science professors, scholars, and practitioners to convene and discuss current research and scholarship.  The phrase “life science law” intends to capture diverse disciplines that involve significant issues of life science research and development, spanning food and drug law, health law, intellectual property (IP) law, biotechnology law, environmental law, administrative law, and antitrust law.  Our goal is to foster recognition of life science law as a cohesive, dynamic area of legal study and strengthen connections among national life science law scholars.

Loyola is currently soliciting 750-1,000 word abstracts reflecting early or mid-stage ideas for the purpose of workshopping with other conference scholars.  Modeled after successful events for law professors and scholars in other areas, we will organize scholars in topical panels of three to five authors with approximately 15 minutes allotted to each abstract presentation, followed by 15 minutes of intensive discussion with scholar attendees.  Author abstracts will be distributed one week prior to the conference to scholar participants; authors may also submit draft articles for distribution.  Scholars are expected to review materials of fellow panel members.

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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.

CALL FOR PAPERS

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

New Tech, New Rules: Organoids and Ethics at the CJEU

By Seán Finan

Introduction

Last week, while attending a conference, organized by the Petrie-Flom Center in conjunction with a number of other Harvard institutions, on the ethics of early embryo research and the future of the 14-day rule, I was struck by the presentations on recent developments in stem cell technology. The speakers outlined fascinating developments in human brain organoids. And, since my own cranial organoid is becoming increasingly single track, I started wondering about the potential patentability of such inventions.

An intestinal organoid grown from Lgr5+ stem cells
An intestinal organoid grown from Lgr5+ stem cells

By way of very brief explanation, a human brain organoid is a structure of cells created in vitro through the stimulation of human stem cells. A recent paper has concluded that, given the right conditions for their development, these cell cultures can grow to resemble a 20 week-old human brain in vivo in a number of important respects.

At the conference, Dr John Aach, of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School highlighted the potential of these technologies to form the basis of innovative research and treatments. However, he also highlighted new ethical questions posed by them. In particular, (and I fear I may be grossly oversimplifying his much more subtle presentation) he noted that a sufficiently developed human brain organoid might have the capacity to feel pain. Such technologies might fall to be regulated alongside human embryos created for research. In most jurisdictions, developing an embryo beyond 14 days of gestation is prohibited, whether by law or soft regulation. The rule originally struck a balance between the interests of research and the demands of ethics: day 14 usually marks the appearance of the primitive streak in an embryo and presents a convenient point to place an ethical limitation on research.  Dr Aach noted, however, that a brain organoid does not fall under the traditional definition of embryo. As such, its development is not necessarily subject to the 14-day rule. And yet, the creation of a clump of cells that feels pain is clearly a cause for ethical concern. He argued that the time has come to re-examine the rule in light of technological advancements like organoids. Its replacement, he argued, should not be based on canonical limits but on the underlying moral concerns. Read More

THIS AFTERNOON! (11/7): The Ethics of Early Embryo Research & the Future of the 14-Day Rule

egg cells flowing in a blue background

The Ethics of Early Embryo Research & the Future of the 14-Day Rule
November 7, 2016 3:00 – 6:30 PM
Austin Hall, North Classroom (100)
Harvard Law School, 1515 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA
 

Description

For over 35 years, the “14-Day Rule,” prohibiting in vitro experimentation on embryos beyond 14 days, has stood as an ethical line in the sand for embryo research around the world. Throughout the arc of the rule’s existence it has not been questioned, as scientists have been unable to grow embryos in vitro either up to, or beyond, 14 days; a practical limitation that served as a backstop to the ethical rule. However, in May of this year, labs in the U.S. and the U.K. were the first to report being able to sustain human embryos in vitro for up to 13 days. This development and other advances in in vitro research involving organized, embryo-like cellular structures have raised a number of questions about the rule, its genesis, application, and future scope. This conference will convene experts in bioethics, stem cell research, embryology, and law to discuss the ethical underpinnings and future scope of the rule. Questions to be discussed include:

  • What are the historical, ethical and scientific rationales for establishing the 14-Day Rule?
  • Should the 14-Day Rule be revisited in light of recent advances?
  • Should the 14-Day Rule even apply to research involving the in vitro culture of embryo-like cellular structures?

Agenda Read More

Initial Quick Thoughts on the Announcement of the Birth Through Mitochondrial Replacement in Mexico

The science media is abuzz about the birth of a child using mitochondrial replacement techniques in Mexico to Jordanian parents at the hands of NY Doctors. A few quick reactions (I am heading to this unrelated NAS/IOM Committee meeting tomorrow evening so may have some more thoughts when that settles down).

  • This is the first time this particular technique has been used to produce a live, but I am not sure from an ethical standpoint the arguments are all that different. That said, for those deeply interested in the more philosophical question of harm to children and the propriety of best interests argument in light of Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem (my take here and here) it may matter whether mitochondrial replacement is done through Pronuclear Transfer or Maternal Spindle Transfer as argued quite well here.
  • The fact that the doctors are from New York, the Patients are from Jordan, and the procedure took place in Mexico is not insignificant. This is a form of medical tourism, a topic I wrote a book on, most similar to cases of fertility and stem cell therapy tourism I cover in the latter half of the book. Absent making domestic prohibitions extraterritorial, something that I argue is permitted by international law and justified in some instances, there is very little that a home country can do about this. The going abroad is likely in part at least a function of some U.S. laws on the subject Eli Adashi and I wrote about for JAMA prohibiting FDA from considering approval of the technology.
  • As I wrote on this blog in February in relation to the IOM report “whatever the US policy in a world where medical tourism is possible and other countries adopt their own systems, so long as not everyone adopts the approach of the US some of these problems will manifest no matter what. So this is about harm reduction not harm avoidance.” This was a bit quicker than even I thought, but is not surprising. More generally if your concern about MRT is harm to offspring and transmission to future generations, people born elsewhere through the technology will inevitably enter the United States and/or marry, and procreate with U.S. citizens who themselves become U.S. citizens. To sound a bit X-Files about it “THEY WILL BE AMONG US!” This is a great example of the limits of unilateral regulation in a world of globalized health care.
  • Interesting that it was a male birth. This may be coincidence or in keeping with the IOM recommendation that only male embryos be transferred (to get rid of germ line transmission). Eli Adashi and I raised some ethical questions in Nature about whether that was an ethically problematic form of sex selection or not but in the reporting I have seen so far it has not been clear that they used only male embryos on purpose.
  • I wish we could stop calling it in the media “Three Parent IVF” or “Three Parent Reproduction.” That assumes the answer to what I think of as a subtle and interesting set of questions — is the mitochondrial donor a “parent” and what sense of the word do we mean.

More soon, I hope!