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 »
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 Godon 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).
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’).
The edition of The Daily Politics Show broadcast on BBC2 on February 3rd 2009 contained an item on the use of embryo screening during IVF (see 00:15:42 to 00:22:25). The section begins with a short explanatory VT, which covers the technique of prenatal genetic diagnosis – PGD – and its uses in IVF, and some of the main ethical positions. The programme’s hosts – Andew Neil and Sangita Myska – then discuss the ethical implications of genetic screening and embryo selection with Professor Robert Winston. This short post summaries the main bioethical arguments put forward in this 7 minute clip, and suggests how it may be used in teaching.
Narrator Bill Paterson: "A child born in 1953, the structure of DNA has just been discovered. 1989 and this baby's genetic fingerprint can be identified. The first single gene for Huntington's disease has been discovered. 2003 this child's entire genetic code can now be read and faulty genes in his DNA can be adjusted. Another birth, but this time no ordinary miracle. The baby's sex and eye colour were decided before she was conceived; also her hair, the shape of her nose and her intelligence. The date of her birth? Perhaps only a few years from now. She's born from a revolution in genetics. A revolution where each new step brings new questions of ethics and responsibility. And as the promises of the science gets greater, so do the questions for all of us get bigger."
DNA – The Promise & The Price provides an excellent resource for discussing the ethical implications of advancing genetic research, focusing on; gene therapy, stem cells and cloning. The documentary examines the frontiers of genetic science, revealing how researchers attempt to fulfil DNA’s potential to help cure and prevent disease. It also questions how some aspects of these novel technologies may have significant consequences for individuals and society. Bill Paterson: “Much is promised by genetic science, the manipulation of our genes. But can it deliver? And if it does are we ready to take responsibility for meddling with the very fabric of life itself: our DNA”.
Professor Steve Jones: "When it comes to medical research, any medical technology that works, it is very quickly accepted by the public. Ethicists may not like it, scientists may not like it, but the public, if they believe it works they will accept it, and the legislation will always follow. Ethics has always followed science, it's never led it and I don't see any reason why genetics is going to be any different. Ethicists would love to tell geneticists what to do, but I'm afraid the geneticists are not going to listen."
The topics found in DNA – The Promise & The Price include: genetics; genetic diseases; gene therapy; transplantation; stem cells; and cloning can all be found in the UK National Curriculum. Please note all timings mentioned include advertisement breaks – (00:04:51 – 00:08:00, 00:25:31 – 00:28:40 and 00:46:50 – 00:50:00)
Jimmy Doherty "I love the way that I farm, but I am, I am a realist and I realise that the way that I produce food will not feed the world. A lot of people think that the only way to do that is to use biotechnology, GM crops and I'm not sure about that. I don't know if it is safe or not? I don't know what the consequences are? But what if the answer to feeding the hungry is using biotechnology?"
The fictitious "Godsend Institute", from which the film takes its name
(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) The film Godsend stars Robert De Niro as a maverick fertility expert who has perfected a technique for human reproductive cloning. Following the death of their son Adam, on the day after his eighth birthday, Dr Richard Wells (De Niro) offers his services to the Duncan family telling them “you can have him back” (00:11:27). Although Godsend’s convoluted plot is entertaining, it must be noted that the science is both inaccurate and misleading. Nevertheless, there are a number of clips that highlight some of the bioethical issues, not only around human reproductive cloning, but also in terms of the links between what is legal, what is moral, and what science can do.
Organ donation is one of the miracles of modern medicine; the ability to transplant tissue from one person to another without rejection has brought dramatic improvements in the day to day lives of thousands of people, in many cases it is literally life-saving.
At present, however, the sad reality remains that demand outstrips supply. According to the Transplant Activity in the UK report for the financial year 2007/2008: 3235 transplant operations took place, but 7655 people were waiting for a transplant (up more than 6% from previous year), and 506 patients died while waiting for an organ transplant, (it is thought that this number could actually be as high as 1000 per year).
The debate that surrounds organ donation is fuelled by society’s moral obligation not to allow these people to die needlessly. When a person dies and they are not on the Organ Donation Register (ODR) and/or their family do not grant permission for their organs to be donated, then none can be used to help those suffering on the waiting lists.
The UK Government is desperate to improve the number of organs available for transplantation. In 2006 this led to the establishment of the Organ Transplant Taskforce, chaired by Elizabeth Buggins, in order to ‘identify barriers to organ donation and recommend actions needed to increase organ donation’. Their most recent report The potential impact of an opt out system for organ donation in the UK, published 17th November 2008, has received widespread media coverage. With the aim to increase the number of people on the organ donation register, they examined potential benefits and the viability of a move from the current ‘opt in’ organ donation system, to a ‘opt out’ system where by every citizen in the UK is automatically registered to donate their organs when they die unless they actively decide not to.
This post highlights relevant and useful online clips whilst briefly discussing the central ethical arguments presented by the report. It also complements this with suggested questions to use while discussing the topic.
The Biotech Revolution, the second episode of the BBC4 Visions of the Futureseries, continues to describe ways in which humanity is making a “historic transition from the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery”. Presenter Michio Kaku suggests that unlocking the basic code of life will allow us to “predetermine the destiny of life itself” and to manipulate it at the most fundamental level (Start-00:02:00).
The programme begins with Kaku having his “medical future rather than history” diagnosed via a series of genetic tests for complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. He describes this as an “owner’s manual” which will enable him to have greater control of his health, and to allow others to perhaps prolong their life by decades (00:02:20-00:06:20 and 00:20:05-00:23: 20). As a scientist, he is eager to discover what secrets his genome may contain however, as a person, he says “wait a minute, this could be a Pandora’s Box… I’m looking at a side of me I have never seen before, a side that has potential medical problems lurking there”.
Some of the issues raised here mirror those found in the ITV1 broadcast The Killer in Me, which illustrated particularly well the anguish associated with having such tests and the way actions could be taken in light of the results. In this programme, in contrast, there is greater emphasis placed on the potential impact on relatives and wider society that may result from taking the tests. “We really want to respect your privacy and the privacy of your relatives” the physician emphasises to Kaku. Much of the future of this testing, if not the present, relies upon “the last great discovery of the 21st century, the Human Genome Project”. Kaku believes that this event holds such significance that we will look at the history of medicine in two eras, “before genome and after genome”. “Having unravelled the fundamental code of our biology the stage is set for us to manipulate it” he adds (00:06:25-00:09:20). Read the rest of this entry »