In a disturbing documentary, Dr Sean Columb from Liverpool University goes to Egypt to investigate the illegal trade in human organs. We hear tales of people tricked into selling organs for less than they expected, of others being drugged and waking up having had a kidney removed, even bodies of murdered individuals found in the desert with multiple organs missing.
In recent years transplantation has become a feasible way to treat some facial disfigurement. The process is not without its challenges – both scientific and ethical. This video on face transplantation was made by second year students as an assessed piece of coursework at the University of Leicester, UK.
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’).
Blood & Guts – A History of Surgery: Spare Parts is the third part of the BBC Four documentary series about the “brutal, bloody and dangerous history of surgery” focusing on the development of transplant surgery. The documentary primarily gives a graphic account of the history of transplant surgery, in particular focusing on the work of Alexis Carrel (00:04:24 – 00:22:47), Joseph E. Murray (00:22:47 – 00:45:32) and Sir Roy Calne (00:36:40 – 00:45:32). However both at the beginning (Start – 00:04:24) and the end of the programme (00:45:32 – End) Michael Mosley (Also seen in BBC’s documentary series Medical Mavericks) discusses some of the ethical concerns that may arise from transplant surgery. Mosley meets with two patients who have both had a hand transplant, however only one of the patients is able to keep his new hand as it illustrates the success and failure of the radical surgery.
Michael Mosley (00:02:00 - 00:04:24): "I'm really intrigued by David (patient because to me this is something more than just incredible surgery. The whole idea of living with a dead man's hand is one I find fascinating but also disturbing. A lot of people I've talked to are really freaked by the idea of having something like an arm transplant, its also true frankly of all the buts of the body that show like; noses, eyes, and faces probably the freakiest of them all. No other form of surgery impacts on our sense of self in quite the way transplants do. There is something profoundly strange about swoping body parts, melding your flesh with others. And these days there seems to be no limits."
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)
Watch this episode via the BBC iPlayer (available until January 27th 2009)
The issue of resource allocation in the NHS has cropped up several times in recent programmes (see, for example, Dom’s on the Case regarding the “postcode lottery”. The present post examines the ethical issues implicit in a different aspect of resource allocation in healthcare: the potential for conflict between traditional medical ethics and core NHS values and increasingly prominent views of the individual as both responsible and accountable for their own health status. This tension came to the fore in Just, a recent episode of the BBC drama Holby City (first broadcast on BBC1 at 8.00pm on 20th January 2009), and is captured nicely in one particular quote from the programme in which surgeon Ric Griffin challenges his patient, an obese smoker, “if you can’t be bothered to look after yourself, then why should we?” (00:38:07)
Michael Mosley: “The heart possesses a mystique, a romance that sets it a part from any other organs. This difference helped make heart surgery an extremely dangerous procedure. Not just for the patient but also for any surgeon prepared to operate on it.”
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.
At a military hospital in China, Professor Guo Shuzhong is striving to advance the necessary medical techniques to complete a full face transplant for one of his patients. Celebrated as one of China’s best plastic surgeons, Professor Guo is anxious to improve the lives of people with severe facial disfigurements.
Professor Guo: "We Chinese pay a lot of attention to the face, if you have a problem with the face and go outside, a lot of people stare at you, look at you, you feel very uncomfortable... Some people are that disfigured that they do not look like human beings anymore. Some people in China call then ghosts. These patients are discriminated against in society; I deal with them every day and understand their suffering. They are in a great deal of pain. They do not expect to be beautiful after surgery, they just want a normal life again" (00:02:27 - 00:04:52).
Professor Guo believes that the only way to improve the life of his patients is to build on the well established techniques of plastic surgery and move towards partial and full face transplants. In November 2005 Isabelle Dinoire underwent the world’s first partial face transplant in France (00:12:34 – 00:13:32) (See Face transplant – Horizon). Professor Guo is encouraged by this and hopes that his research can build on the medical breakthrough.