Thursday, August 26, 2004

US animal rights activist barred from Britain

The Guardian reports that Jerry Vlasak, an animal rights activists who has apparently condoned the killing of scientists involved in animal research, has been refused entry to Britain by the Home Secretary, on the grounds that his exclusion would be "conducive to the public good". Vlasak was due to speak at a conference organised by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, a group which advocates intimidating firms who work with, supply, or fund animal researchers.

There are several separate questions to consider here. First, is animal experimentation wrong; secondly, are the methods of SHAC wrong; and thirdly, is it wrong to ban Dr Vlasak because of it?

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Where do bioethicists get their funding?

Bioethic$ Inc. is a very interesting essay pointing out that, increasingly, bioethicists are being paid by the corporations they are meant to be criticising. The trouble is that it's all very well being trained to work out what is right and what is wrong, and telling the companies all about it, but people have to eat and someone's got to pay for it. If not the companies you're talking to, then whom?

Friday, July 30, 2004

New laws proposed to deal with animal rights protestors

The BBC reports that the Government is considering either developing new laws, or extending existing ones, to enable prosecution of animal rights activists who, for example, protest outside researchers' homes to intimidate them. The full details are to be announced on Friday.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Public consultation on gene testing

The Human Genetics Commission, the Government advisory body on developments in human genetics, has produced a discussion document on the social implications of some of the recent advancements in genetic technology. In particular, they want to know what people think about embryo screening and selection. Where should we draw the line between avoiding a genetic disorder and creating a designer baby -- and is there anything wrong with designer babies anyway? And given the new technologies, is there anything we should change about the structure or culture of our medical services?

The answers they receive from the general public will be used to produce a report to Ministers next year. The questions then are: Will the government pay any attention to what people have said? And, ultimately, should they?

Slug protection?

Apparently, new animal protection legislation proposed by the Government would offer the same protection to slugs and snails as to dogs and cats. According to the Telegraph, gardeners are up in arms about this, and deservedly so, if the report is true. Personally I suspect it's a matter of overzealous interpretation by a journalist looking for a story.

It does, however, raise the issue of how far we should go in the defence or protection of other animals. If we made it illegal to kill anything that might possibly suffer, then we'd surely starve. It is surely not wrong to count human lives above animal lives. Human pleasure, though, is a matter of debate. It is obviously wrong to torture a chimpanzee to death because you are a sadist and find it enjoyable. It is fairly obviously (to most people) right to subject mice to a small amount of pain to find a drug that cures cancer. Killing a cow (in a humane manner) because you prefer beef to lentils is accepted by most people, as is poisoning slugs because you want to see pretty flowers. But how about subjecting a chicken or a pig to a painful and miserable existence because you don't like the idea of paying a couple of quid extra on your roast? Any legislation that protects the slugs while leaving the chickens to their hell is seriously mixed-up.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Clinical trials of Drug Companies

Last week, the American Medical Association urged the US government to establish a national registry of clinical trials. This is to counter the growing problem of drug companies failing to publish the results of trials that don't show their drugs in a good light, either through demonstrating that they don't actually work very well or through uncovering side effects. Journals would refuse to publish the results of trials that were not registered, and it would be very obvious if results were not being reported.

The New Scientist reports this week that although the big companies are making noises of agreement, in practice what they are prepared to do falls far short of this. Merck, for example, supports the proposal in theory, but according to the New Scientist is only prepared to register smaller trials, but only "large, pivotal trials". And while GlaxoSmithKline (currently contesting legal action with regard to its failure to disclose information on the effectiveness of an antidepressant) planning to set up a website showing the results of their clinical trials, this would only apply to drugs that have already been released. Information on drugs which have yet to be approved would still be hidden. Which rather misses the point of it.

In the same issue, and on the same page, the New Scientist also reports that drug companies want to ban people who respond to placebos from clinical trials of antidepressants. This would make their results look better, for sure. But surely the whole point of a trial is to see how well the drug compares to the placebo? If we rule out the placebo-responders from the start, then how can we possibly tell how the drug will perform in a real-life situation? The drug companies have apparently forgotten what the purpose of a medicine is.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

A cure for autism?

Nature reports that promiscuous voles can be made faithful by the addition of more hormone receptors in the brain. The hormone in question, vasopressin, appears to be produced in large quantities during sex, and seems to encourage bonding. And though they caution that pair bonding in humans is vastly more complicated than in voles, the idea of transferring this to human relationships is definitely there.

The BBC report gives a slightly different take on it. Autists have difficulty bonding, so maybe through vasopressin we could find a possible cure for autism.

Both are tempting ideas. We could cure infidelity, or autism, through hormone treatments. But first we have to decide what is a disorder, and what is natural. It would be far too easy, once we have a cure, to define anything other than some theoretical ideal as the disease. What's the difference between an autist and someone who just doesn't like chatting much? How many partners do you have to have before you need treatment for promiscuity?

Some people say we're already in this situation with antidepressants such as Prozac (given, according to some, to anyone who might be a little unhappy), or Ritalin to treat attention deficit disorder (or, perhaps, any child that doesn't sit still). On the other hand, some people say that both these drugs are underprescribed, and many depressed people and hyperactive children are going untreated. (Both sides of the argument can be seen here.) Here already we see the problems of a fuzzy boundary. Where diagnosis is based mainly on personal judgement, health professionals need a lot of time spent with the patient to work out what's going on -- time which they rarely get. More importantly, we need alternatives to the drugs, for those people who need something other than a chemical fix. And this will also be true if we develop a drug to treat autism.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

First UK Human Cloning?

The BBC reports that a research group headed by Dr Miodrag Stojkovic of Newcastle University have requested permission from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to clone human embryos. This is the first such request in the UK. The idea is to isolate stem cells from the cloned embryos which are genetically identical to the donor. These could be used to replace lost cells without any fear of tissue rejection.

Naturally, this raises the issue of "spare parts". Is it right to create a twin of yourself, even a fourteen-day-old ball of cells of one, to pull to bits to plug gaps in yourself? That may be a rather crude and emotive way of putting it, but perhaps that is what we would be doing. Of course, a permanent cure for conditions such as diabetes or Alzheimer's disease would be wonderful, but are we creating people in order to kill them to do so? Or are we just creating a specialised (and rather useful) cell structure from someone's donated cells?

Ideally, of course, we could find a way of creating stem cells without creating embryos. But only embryonic cells are pluripotent -- able to develop into all cell types of the body. If we did find some way that didn't involve cloning, to produce what would, in effect, be embryonic cells, perhaps this could still be called an embryo, even if it's not organised into an embryo shape. After all, it has the potential to become a whole human.

Actually, this ideal process, of creating pluripotent stem cells direct from adult cells, has already been done. By a commercial company, which has patented the technique, and plans to sell the stem cells thus produced. They claim that it is simple and quick. Well, they would. And nobody else can use it without paying the company. Hence, presumably, the continued exploration of therapeutic cloning. But even if they have patented their own method, it opens the possibility of other methods of doing the same thing. And surely then we should be concentrating on this avenue. Not only does it avoid the needless creation and destruction of embryos, it's also likely to be more reliable. Cloning has so far been only fitfully successful at best. Better than finding a cure for diabetes is finding a cure for diabetes that works well.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Fight over sunlight

On Radio 4's Today programme this morning there was a debate between a pair of scientists about the amount of sunlight we should be exposed to (audio clip here). Everyone knows that UV light can cause skin cancer, but apparently people are now avoiding sunlight so much that we are in danger of becoming Vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is apparently good not only for fixing calcium in our bones, but also for helping our bodies' own defences against cancer.

The trouble was that neither of the scientists on the programme really got to grips with the other's argument. So instead of a constructive and instructive discussion, we had a situation where two people simply repeated, over and over, a single point. Both of them were exaggerating the other person's position in order to make theirs look like the only reasonable choice. This is not good argument, and it is certainly not good science.

The worst of it is that the two weren't actually all that far apart. One was saying that we need three to five minutes a day of direct exposure to sunlight to make enough Vitamin D. (He didn't make clear whether this was supposed to be whole body exposure or whether face and hands alone would do.) The other was saying that we need to be careful to avoid overexposure for fear of getting skin cancer. I don't really see how these two are at all contradictory. Assuming all you need to show is your face and hands, you'll get more than enough exposure just walking to the shops. I am so fair-skinned that I have been known to get sunburn on a cloudy day. So I tend to avoid the sun. Nevertheless I'm sure that on average I get more than three to five minutes a day. At least in the summer, anyway. I really don't think there's many people so scared of cancer that they run out to the car on a sunny day with a newspaper over their heads, nor so desperate for Vitamin D that they lie out in the sun all day long, risking sunburn and skin cancer, to make sure they get it.

But one scientist accused the other of wanting people to throw away their suncream, and the other accused him of expecting them to lock themselves away in the cellar. The problem is really the irresponsibility of this unwillingness to acknowledge the other. The enire basis of scientific enquiry surely falls down if we cannot bear to take account of the criticism of others. (Can anyone spell "peer review"?) Science is supposed to be a discipline of reason. Scientists must therefore behave in a reasonable manner, or how can we believe what they say?

Thursday, May 20, 2004

New rules for animal experiments?

The Government has announced that a new body will be set up to oversee the use of animals in scientific experiments. How can we further reduce the number of animals used in experiments, and make sure that when animals are used, they suffer as little as possible?

Rules should take into account all the circumstances. I know of a scientist who used to use rabbits to produce antibodies to proteins he was working on. We haven't yet been able to work out how to get a wide selection of different antibodies from cells cultured in the lab. He would inject the (harmless) protein into the rabbit, whose immune system would react to this foreign body to produce a varied selection of antibodies. He would then draw out a couple of millilitres of blood and purify the antibodies for use in his experiments. The only thing the rabbit suffered was a couple of injections. Its job done, the rabbit would be retired. He would take them home and keep them as pets in his back garden, with a hutch and grass -- a pretty good life in return for a couple of injections.

He can't do that any more. The rules were changed a few years ago. Now, once the experiment is finished, the animal must be destroyed. So now he uses mice instead. They are so small that taking out enough blood to use in the experiments kills them. And as they'd have to be killed anyway...

Now, I think I understand what they were trying to do: make sure that animals whose usefulness is over don't languish in lab cages forever. But surely in this case, the rules have missed the point? We have here a problem of over-generalisation. We always need to be careful to ensure that rules meant to safeguard the welfare of animals don't end up acting against the very thing they are trying to protect.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Stem cell bank -- comment from a position of ignorance

Stem cell research could save the lives of people with genetic or degenerative disorders. Harvesting stem cells from embryos could destroy the lives of the embryos. The ultimate ethical dilemma here is: is it right to kill one person so that another can live?

First of all, we need to decide whether we should consider an embryo a person. Pro-life groups would have no doubt at all. A person's a person, no matter how small -- even if they're only one cell big. Of course, this doesn't mean that the millions of dead skin cells we shed every day are people. It is the potential the embryo has to develop into a person that makes it human.

But it is precisely this potential that makes a stem cell so useful in research. For an embryo to develop into, eventually, an adult human, its cells must be capable of turning into every sort of cell in the body. Hence the possibility of their use in the sort of disease that involves irreparable damage to irreplaceable cells.

The researchers will say that an embryo is not a person. How can it be? It's a clump of undifferentiated cells. It can't think, it can't feel, it bears no resemblance to a human being. At some point during development it becomes a person, but just because the line is broad or fuzzy doesn't mean it isn't there.

Moreover, some of the cells most useful to research will be those that carry a genetic disorder -- taken from embryos discarded during IVF by parents who were looking for a healthy child. These would normally have been destroyed anyway. And of course this raises the question of whether this is morally right, too. Should we pick and choose our children in this way? Do we have the right to kill off people that we think wouldn't have much of a life? Does it count if we do it before they become people, or is future personhood important too -- should we take account of "what would have happened"?

It's worth investigating the possibility that embryonic stem cells can be harvested without killing the embryo. One cell can be removed from a group of eight or sixteen, leaving the others behind to continue to develop. The trouble is that embryos are so small and fragile that a lot of the time even this kills them. And how can we further develop a technology for live harvesting without doing some tests that are going to kill some embryos along the way? And is this a price worth paying?

So no, I don't have any answers, only questions. But in a way I'd be frightened of anyone who did know the answers. If it were a matter of people voluntarily giving their lives, it would be easy. They would be heroes, sacrificing themselves that others might live. We would admire them, and then pass laws against it, just in case anyone felt under pressure. Because to hold that power over someone, something, else, is an awesome responsibility.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Genetically modified what?

This report on the Greenpeace website tells how Greenpeace supporters have been protesting against Sainsbury's selling of milk produced by cows fed on genetically modified feed imported from the States. We are told "The supermarket chain produces milk from cows fed on GM".

The pedant in me asks "GM what?" GM is, of course, an adjective, not a noun. These cows are being fed on a diet of genetically modified (or, at best, genetic modification). This makes no sense. And yes, I'm a grammatical pedant. But it occurs to me that this is important. It is important to make sure that we make sense, so that we can remember what we're talking about. These cows are being fed on American maize which has been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate herbicide. By buying the milk from these cows, we are supporting the growing of this maize, and its possible hybridisation with other varieties.

We do need to have our attention drawn to this. But banners such as "There's something scary in the dairy" give the impression that there is some kind of taint that passes from the maize, through the cow, and into its milk. The milk is already two stages removed from the original genetic modification. How far removed must something be to no longer carry the taint? Talk of "shipments of GM" as if there is a single, evil, crop called "GM" makes it easy to forget that we need to investigate each modification we make, because each one is different. If we ban one genetic modification on one species, do we, should we, ban them all?

The UN is recommending more use of GM crops in developing countries, to overcome food shortages and nutrition problems. Greenpeace decries this as a "technical fix". Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a good technofix. Spectacles are a technofix for people with poor sight. But "good" is the operative word here. Greenpeace is right to draw attention to what is often the real problem in developing countries: the trade imbalance between them and the developed world, which leaves farmers producing cash crops, which are no use to them, at a loss, in order to sell them at a cheap price to us first-world consumers. Like the air conditioner that cools the house by turning on the chiller while leaving the heating switched on, a technofix that fails to take account of the underlying problem is wasteful and, ultimately, unhelpful.

But simple hunger isn't the only thing being addressed here. The protato, for example, isn't primarily designed to increase yield. It is designed to correct dietary imbalances. What is the alternative to a new high-protein potato? Make them eat more meat? That's not particulary affordable for a poor Indian family, even if they aren't vegetarian for religious reasons. Nor is the creation of large amounts of grazing land where no grazing land has been before particulary environmentally friendly. And importing the high-protein South American amaranth (from which the genes are taken) and planting it in a new environment might be at least as bad for biodiversity as a GM variety of a crop already in use. It's not just the GM varieties which hybridise with the native plants.

We have it easy in the developed world. We can import whatever we like, from wherever we like, and if it's not in season we can force it, or preserve it in carbon dioxide. We can eat kiwi fruit, for heaven's sake. We can eat strawberries and green beans all year round. And mangoes. All this stuff about a varied, balanced diet is for the rich, for those who can afford not only to eat peaches and cucumbers, but to turn them into skin cream instead of eating them. Our poor family in India eat what they can grow on their farm, plus a few things they can buy in their local market -- which is generally whatever the other farmers are growing on their farms. If it doesn't grow "round here", they won't be able to get hold of it.

Currently, most biotechnology research is concentrated on a few crops in the developed world. That's where the money is. We can afford to pay biotech companies for that little bit of extra convenience in spraying our crops with something that is guaranteed to kill everything else but the thing we're trying to grow. There's less money in making "what grows round here" better in quality. But it could give people a better life.

The survey the UN cites indicates that the farmers are willing to give it a try. If we run our technofix alongside other fixes, such as trade reform, then we might be able to save lives. But there is such a thing as hubris. We developed-world people have waded in before thinking we know all the answers. We should proceed with caution -- not the caution that makes us too frightened to do anything, but the caution that makes us step back and look at what we're doing, and consider carefully what could go wrong, and how we are going to deal with it if it does.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Monsanto pulls out of GM wheat

Monsanto have decided to stop marketing their RoundUp Ready wheat. This is apparently a delay to their plans rather than a change. Monsanto claim there a lack of demand, while opponents of GM food point to the growing consumer resistance to GM in any form. But surely these are the same thing? If people don't like stuff, for whatever reason, they won't buy it. And if the end purchasers, the people in the supermarkets, don't want it, then the farmers aren't going to be able to sell it, so they won't want to grow it. It all fits together.

The question is, of course, why this consumer opposition has arisen. Certainly a crop designed to withstand use of a herbicide which is normally highly toxic to plants is controversial, but most people have no more than a vague idea that "it's bad". Environmental pressure groups press for freedom of choice: GM food should be labelled so that we can choose whether or not to eat it. But this only matters if the fact that something is genetically modified is important.

To me there are two reasons it might be important that a food product has had artificial changes made to its genes. The first is a possible risk to human health. Unless the genetic changes were to introduce a new poison (not the case with a glyphosate resistance), this is not very likely. The second is a possible risk to the environment. This is more of an issue.

But there are so many other things about our food that don't get labelled. I have no idea what chemicals are sprayed on my food, GM or otherwise, or what conditions the labourers work under. The only way to be sure is to buy organic and fair trade -- and when I look at the prices and the lack of choice (and the fact that a lot of it has been jetted halfway across the world, and loses in fuel pollution what it gains in non-chemical production), I usually end up buying the ordinary, pesticide-soaked variety. Surely then I would be a hypocrite to insist on it being GM free?

Welcome to Sciethics

Many stories on the news these days speak about some ethical dilemma or decision relating to scientific discoveries. How do we use the techniques that we invent? What do we do with the knowledge we gain? Who should make these decisions?

This site is intended to encourage debate, particularly between scientists and lay people, on these questions. It will present issues related to the ethics of science as they are raised. When new research is published or new regulations proposed, it will be reported here. When issues hit the news, this site gives an opportunity for anybody who is interested to contribute to the debate. You will be able to respond with your own comments and raise your own concerns and ideas.

I have started this website because of my own particular interest in science ethics. Given the amount of news space given to this topic, I assume that lots of other people are interested in it as well. But I have found it very difficult to find a discussion forum specifically based around science ethics that is neither aimed at a very specialist scientific community nor designed solely to "tell you what we think". I wanted a site that would enable scientists, environmentalists, legislators, and people who just happen to be interested, to swap viewpoints and help each other come to a better understanding. So I had to start my own.

Like everyone else in the entire world, I have my biases. And like everyone else in the entire world, I call my particular set of biases "common sense". I have a degree in Biochemistry and some practical research experience, which biases me in one direction. I am a committed Christian, which biases me in another direction. This background is also what has given me my interest in the ethics of scientific research. But I will attempt, to the best of my ability, to keep this website balanced and open to all viewpoints.