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.