Headline Bioethics: The balance of safety in publication of H5N1 research

September 3, 2013

[A printable version of this Headline Bioethics Commentary is available via this link]

Author: Nick McDonald

Clip: Experts delay call on releasing controversial H5N1 work

Date of story: 17th February 2012


Summary of story: In the period 2003–2011, 566 cases of people infected by bird flu worldwide were reported to WHO (2011), with 59% of the cases being fatal. The virus has been known to infect people since 1997 (Grady and Broad, 2011), but only through infected birds, and not via person-to-person transmission(Yong, 2012b). Herfst et al (2012) and Imai et al (2012) mutated H5N1 to see if it could acquire the mutations necessary for airborne transmission between ferrets (considered a good model for humans) in the wild. This research was due to be published in the journals Nature and Science, but the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) asked the journals to delay publication, and recommended that key methods should be omitted (Grady and Broad, 2011) due to fears of the virus being released “by error or by terror” (Keim, 2012) and the “potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude” (Berns, 2012). Eventually in March of 2012 the NSABB agreed that the two papers should be published in full (Yong, 2012a). The video from February 2012 reports on the decision to delay publication.

Discussion of ethical issues: The decision about whether or not to publish details of the process by which H5N1 could be render easier to transmit is a good example of a dual-use dilemma, defined by Atlas and Dando (2006: p276) as “the generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge that could be misapplied for biological weapons development and production”. Kuhlau et al (2011) argue that if a dual-use technology poses a legitimate threat, the science community is obliged to develop, implement and adhere to precautious measures to meet the concern. Read the rest of this entry »

Three-parent IVF and Mitochondrial Diseases

June 12, 2013
The report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics was produced in 2012

The report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics was produced in 2012

In the past year, two major reports have been published concerning the ethics of “three-parent IVF”, in which a donated egg would be used to overcome disease arising from the small amount of genetic material found within mitochondria, the energy factories of the cell.

The first report Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review was produced by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (June 2012) – see summary of key findings.

In March 2013 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority published their Advice to Government on Mitochondria replacement.

Both reports were largely in favour of the development. For examples of arguments against the technique see, for example, this post by the Christian Medical Fellowship.

A short animated video on the topic has been produced by second year students at the University of Leicester.

Headline Bioethics: Enviropig – significant advance or environmental ‘band-aid’?

January 9, 2013

[A printable version of this Headline Bioethics Commentary is available via this link]

EnviropigMediumAuthor: Rebecca Hyde

Clip: ‘Enviropigs’: genetically modified for food consumption

Date of Story: 4 January 2011

Summary of story: For the past decade, researchers at the University of Guelph, Canada, has been developing a line of Yorkshire pigs now known as Enviropig. In January 2011, a BBC reporter had the opportunity to see the pigs in a research facility while applications to approve the Enviropig for human consumption were being deliberated by the US Food and Drug Administration. The Enviropig has been genetically modified to contain genes from Escherichia coli and mice and bred over several generations to become more environmentally friendly by reducing the toxicity of their waste.

Discussion of ethical issues: Development of the Enviropig raises a number of ethical questions. Some of these relate to issues of animal rights, some relate to genetic modification of organism in general and foods in particular. Given the reasons behind the investment in the Enviropig research, there are also specific issues relating to environmental ethics, and this represents a good place to begin evaluation.

Intensive pig farming produces large amounts of manure which contains high levels of phosphate. Whilst some phosphate is vital to life, and is necessary for good plant growth, high concentrations can lead to disruption and poisoning of ecosystems. Runoff from pig farms can lead to eutrophication of nearby water ecosystems, which can potentially lead to the water becoming anoxic and unable to support life (University of Guelph, 2011). Enviropig has been genetically modified to produce phytase in its saliva. This enzyme is important for the breakdown of phytic acid, an indigestible form of phosphorus commonly found in cereal-based foodstuffs. Bacteria in the guts of cattle and other ruminants, but not pigs, normally provide this enzyme allowing this dietary phosphate to be released and used by the mammal. Read the rest of this entry »

Synthetic biology: “Playing God”?

December 31, 2012
playing god

My notes on the episode, divided into principal sections

On reflection, I think 2012 was a good year for the BBC’s flagship science programme Horizon. One of my favourite episodes came way back in January, when Dr Adam Rutherford fronted the one hour documentary Playing God on the emerging discipline of synthetic biology. From a bioethical standpoint, this was a particularly strong episode with good coverage of the science, the potential advantages and the potential pitfalls of synthetic biology clearly demonstrated. My notes on the episode are available here.

The full episode is no longer on iPlayer, but a series of clips are still on the official Horizon website and are mirrored on the BBC’s official YouTube channel (in the list below the title link goes to the BBC Horizon site, the end link to YouTube). In terms of potential clips for teaching it therefore makes sense to start with these sections although, as we will note below, the best section on ethics is not included among the official clips.

    • Title sequence (duration 1:47) Content: The opening sequence sets out the key themes for the programme – the contrast of billions of years of evolution versus the emerging potential to predetermine the development of new species; life as a programmable biological machine. This power has great potential for good but might be abused. Comments: Of the five available clips, I don’t think this would be my first choice for introducing the issues as there isn’t quite enough detail without subsequently seeing those themes expanded in the rest of the programme. (YouTube).
    • An animal that shouldn’t really exist (duration 3:14) Content: Rutherford visits a farm in Logan County, a research facility belonging to Utah State University. Prof Randy Lewis explains the attractive properties of spiders’ silk to him, and the fact that the spiders’ cannibalistic tendencies make them impossible to farm directly in order to produce adequate quantities of the material. The solution? Transferring the gene for the silk protein into another animal to produce an organism “part spider, part something else”, with the next clip revealing that to be a goat.  Comments: This clip and the next are actually from the same section of the programme and could usefully be shown back to back (total = 6 mins). (YouTube).
    • The goats with spider genes and silk in their milk (duration 2:43) Content: Continuing their discussion at the research farm in Utah, Rutherford is introduced to the “spider goats” by researcher Randy Lewis. The goats have been engineered to produce the protein for spider silk and extrude it in their milk. When challenged that this is “bizarre”, Lewis counters that he considers the goats to be  “absolutely normal”. The clip goes on to show the goats being milked but does not include extraction of the silk, which was shown elsewhere in the programme Comments: I don’t like the use of the term “spider goat” as it implies something much more of a hybrid or a chimera than the reality – which is a goat with one gene added. We have discussed some of the issues surrounding such transgenic animals in other posts on BioethicsBytes, especially in regard to the Animal Farm documentary series and associated extended commentaries. Nevertheless, this section does usefully highlight some of the attractive features of this kind of bioengineering – the capacity to produce a valuable protein in an easily harvestable form (YouTube).
    • Playing God, by recreating life (duration 4:38) Content: This section discusses the 2010 announcement of the production of Synthia by Craig Venter and colleagues. Synthia, or Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 the more formal name for the organism, is “the only lifeform on earth whose parent is a computer”. (this is a reference to the fact that the sequence of DNA in Synthia was decided in advance using online genome databases and then the DNA molecules themselves were produced chemically as a series of shorter sections assembled together to make the complete genome for the cell). The clip includes a section where Rutherford uses white and red candle wax to draw out cells of two different species (more of that in a moment). As he points out Venter’s team can’t truly be said to have “created” life since – aside from addition of a few DNA ‘watermarks’ to identify the species – the DNA code had essentially been purloined from another related bacterium. “Recreated” or “rebooted” might be nearer the mark, Rutherford suggests. Even putting the hype to one side, he emphasises that this is an unprecedented degree of control over a living thing. Comments: Overall this is a nice section, summarising the achievements of making Synthia, without getting too sucked in to the hype. On the downside, the demonstrations are a little confusing – the drawing of cells using candle wax inadvertently implies that the cells have a nucleus which, as bacteria, they don’t (YouTube). 
    • Mind control (duration 2:22) Content: Rutherford visits Ed Boyden in his lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to discuss his pioneering work in synthetic neurobiology, a step from controlling microbes to controlling the brain, the  “most precious part of our anatomy”. Comments: A slightly frustrating clip, it ends just as it’s getting to the interesting bit! (YouTube). 

Frustratingly, the producers have not made available the clips with the most overt bioethical content. If you have access to the full programme (TRILT code: 0243AA4F; available as an off-air recording to BUFVC members) then I would favour the following sections:

  • 16:16 to 20:55 where the “biobricks” approach is raised
  • 25:56 to 33:11 manufacture of “biodiesel”
  • 41:21 to 45:33 introduction to garage or DIY biology, aka “biohacking”

Ethical concerns include:
– safety and the risk of modified organisms escaping (though this is partly countered by reference to the inclusion of inbuilt metabolic “kill switches”, see section 34:18 to 36:02). This is a consequentialist argument.
– exploitation of the poor, with necessary agricultural land being given over instead to growing plants as feedstuff for the bioplastics industry (section 36:03 to 38:02). Again a consequentialist argument.
– risks of bioterrorism, especially as the necessary molecular biology moves out from the lab and into suburban garages (section 38:03 to 41:20).
– playing god, a deontological argument, raised in the clip of the same name.

Rutherford’s closing statement nicely encapsulates the situation we are in at the moment “Whatever you think of the uneasy bargain that surrounds synthetic biology, one thing is absolutely clear. We have created for ourselves unprecedented power over life itself” (58:22).

Ethics in the biosciences (Resource)

September 8, 2011
cover of briefing document

The Briefing contains recommendations about useful resources for teaching about various aspects of bioethics

Anyone involved in teaching ethics to bioscience students should get hold of a copy of Ethics in the biosciences: Resources, references and tools for ethics teaching in the biosciences. This is the second Briefing document produced by the UK Centre for Bioscience (the first was on Assessment).

The new booklet includes coverage of the following topics:

    • Teaching ethics
    • Assessing ethics
    • Ethical theory: How are ethical decisions made?
    • The ethics of being a scientist
    • Environmental ethics
    • Issues at the beginning of life
    • Issues at the end of life
    • Genetics and genomes
    • Animal experimentation
    • Transhumanism
    • Ethics and Risk

Each chapter includes a short introduction written by an expert on the topic and then a recommendations of other resources (websites, books, articles, slides, videos, etc) which have proven to be useful in teaching on the subject.

In addition to the online version of the booklet, a number of hard copies have been produced – if you would like one please contact the UK Centre for Bioscience before December 2011 when, unfortunately, their activities will be substantially scaled back.

Headline bioethics

June 3, 2011

The Headline Bioethics study guides are being hosted on the Virtual Genetics Education Centre at the University of Leicester

Headline bioethics is a new series of resources for teaching about bioethics. There will be two styles of Headline bioethics resources – study guides and commentaries. For both sets of material, each resource is focussed around a news story which raises interesting ethical question in the fields of biology and biomedicine. The selected stories must all be available as a video clip on the BBC news website.

Study guides include background information and structured worksheets which teachers can either use “of the shelf” or customise for their own purposes. Commentaries are authored by undergraduate students and offer reflections on some of the ethical issues raised by the news story.

The ethics of GM crops is one of the topics considered in Headline Bioethics

The first two study guides, on Genetically Modified crops and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, are now available.  These Headline bioethics resources was authored by Sarah Curtis, a TULIP intern at the University of Leicester. If you have thoughts about these materials, or suggestions for future topics that you’d like to see covered in this way, then please let us know.

Blood & Guts – A History of Surgery: Fixing Faces

February 16, 2009
Michael Mosley performing a facial surgery technique on a Mannequin/dummy

Michael Mosley performing facial surgery on a mannequin/dummy

In the fourth part of the BBC 4 Blood and Guts series, Fixing Faces looks at the evolution of plastic surgery. True to form, Michael Mosley presents a graphic account of how brutal attempts to reconstruct patients’ diseased or damaged faces have led to a modern medical speciality which is now believe to be on the eve of the first full face transplant. This episode describes and illustrates the history of this area of surgery: showing the work of the 16th century Italian doctor Gasparis Taliacotii (00:05:06 – 00:18:02); the beginning of the Botox era (00:18:02 – 00:30:00); and the work of Sir Harold Gillies and Sir Archibald Mclndoe, who developed both surgical techniques and the need for psychological support for patients undergoing reconstructive facial surgery (00:30:00 – 00:50:00) (Please see this Student BMJ article – ‘A brief histoy of plastic surgery’).

This episode highlights two main ethical topics for discussion: functional Magnetic Resonance Imageing (fMRI) and Neuroethics (00: 01:54 – 00:05:06); and face transplants or facial allograft transplantation (00:50:00 – End).

Read the rest of this entry »


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