New…not New

QAA4I discovered relatively recently that a fourth edition of the QAA’s Subject Benchmark Statement for Biosciences was released in October 2019. Professionally I owe a lot to the existence of the QAA Benchmark statements. It was the first version, published in 2002, that placed strong emphasis on all graduates from Bioscience programmes having an awareness of the societal and ethical implications of developments within their discipline. This led the Subject Centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (as it then was; halcyon days) to set up the Special Interest Group in Teaching Ethics to Bioscience Students. Three of us applied for the advertised role to head up the SIG. The folks at the Subject Centre had the prescience to suggest we shared the role, and so was born  fruitful collaborations that have outlived the LTSN and even the HEA into which it was subsequently folded.

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Synthetic Biology: With great knowledge comes great responsibility

[This article was first written as an editorial for  the June 2019 issue of The Biochemist, magazine of The Biochemical Society. The issue focused on Synthetic Biology and appeared shortly after the death of recombinant DNA pioneer Sydney Brenner.]
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Since the publication of our previous issue of The Biochemist, we have been saddened to hear of the death of Sydney Brenner (see this link for a fuller obituary). Brenner was a giant of molecular biology in the second half of the 20th Century, conducting pivotal experiments and generating insights on many aspects of biochemistry which have become the cornerstone of our understanding of how life works. These include the existence of the triplet codon for ‘reading’ nucleic acids to make proteins, the existence of messenger RNA and, prior to that, fundamental work on the structure of bacteriophage. Brenner was a pioneer in establishing the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism, a decision that was to lead to his sharing the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 for “discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death”.

In the context of the current issue, which has a focus on synthetic biology, it is also relevant that Brenner was a key participant at the famous February 1975 conference at Asilomar, California. The meeting had been organized to discuss the safety and regulation of the emerging field of recombinant DNA technology. Over 100 leading molecular biologists were present, and the consultation was conducted in the presence of sixteen members of the press. Journalists included Michael Rogers from Rolling Stone who described Brenner as “the single most forceful presence at Asilomar” (Fredrickson, 1991). Amongst Brenner’s major contributions was promotion of the concept of ‘biological containment’ alongside physical interventions to safeguard against the accidental spread of genetically modified organisms.

The technology debated at Asilomar, combined with forty years of subsequent innovation are, of course, pivotal to synthetic biology. Concerns about ‘bioerror’ as well as bioterror persist, especially when some of the intended applications (e.g. bioremediation) would require the release of altered organisms into the environment. Much of the focus of this field remains the remodelling of microbes to carry out specified function, an emphasis which is reflected in several articles in this issue. As will also be evident, however, developments are occurring in a variety of other organisms. These include altering plants to be biofactories to manufacture a chosen product, or exploiting our knowledge of molecular biology to reduce unwanted effects of protein therapeutics whilst retaining the desirable characteristics.

The potential applications of synthetic biology are extraordinary, and we are certainly only at the beginning of this revolution. We need, however, to heed the spirit of Asilomar and proceed with due caution, in case our knowledge outstrips our wisdom.

Fredrickson D.S. (1991) Asilomar and Recombinant DNA: The End of the Beginning, in Biomedical Politics (ed: K.E. Hanna). Washington DC, USA: National Academy Press

A copy of the original version of the article can be found here.

What is neuroethics?

[The following text was originally written as an editorial for the October 2018 issue of The Biochemist, magazine of the Biochemical Society. The full issue can be found here].

For many readers of The Biochemist, it will have been curiosity about the inner workings of the body, and what goes wrong in states of disease, that triggered their journey into studying molecular biology. No organ of the body is more important than the epicentre of that very curiosity, the brain. Through a variety of approaches, we are building understanding of the functioning of both the healthy and the diseased brain.

These discoveries raise a plethora of ethical questions, and represent one dimension in the burgeoning field of Neuroethics. As far back as 2002, philosopher Adina Roskies noted that Neuroethics encompassed both the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics. Even sticking, in the present context, to ethical issues associated with biochemistry, there are plenty of examples where dilemmas are raised.

  • If someone’s aggression is linked to possessing the “wrong” Monoamine A oxidase gene and, in consequence, they are less efficient at breaking down neurotransmitters, can they be held less culpable for criminal behaviour than someone with the more “restrained” allele?
  • As we start to understand more about the molecular changes (e.g. epigenetics) underlying the influence of environmental factors on behaviour, can it be acceptable to artificially mimic those changes in order to achieve the same (or a different) outcome?
  • Is there an ethical difference between providing Ritalin to a boy with attention deficit, in order to move their concentration more into the “normal” range, and offering the same drug to a university student hoping to avoid distraction in the run-up to an exam?
  • Is it morally acceptable to conduct brain-based research on model organisms, when the relevance of that research become more applicable to human health as the animal studied get closer in mental capacity to humans?
  • If, as an alternative, we use human brain tissue organoids in research, is there a point in their development when they are “too human” to use in this way? And would transplanting human brain organoids into rodent models be an acceptable alternative to research on primates?

A PDF of the article can be found here.

Forty years of IVF

I mentioned in a recent blog post (here) that I was intending to re-post some of the Editorials I have written for The Biochemist over the previous two years. Here is the first, from June 2018, in which I reflected on forty years of IVF in the introduction to an issue on Fertility.
The Editorial can be found here.
The full issue on Fertility can be found here.
And the text is also reproduced below
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One of the unsettling aspects of growing older is the realization that events which occurred within your own lifetime are considered by others to be history. This experience struck me for the first time when one of my children was studying the fall of the Berlin Wall for their GCSE course.

2018 marks the 40th birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby produced by IVF (in vitro fertilization). For many readers of The Biochemist this pre-dates their own birth, and definitely falls into the category of history. In 1978, I was a schoolboy who hadn’t quite qualified for long trousers. I was sufficiently news-savvy to appreciate that a significant breakthrough had occurred but without being clear on the details. (In truth, I rather suspect this caveat could also have been applied to my understanding of the more traditional route to conception). In the intervening period, IVF has become the cornerstone of a broader array of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), some of which are discussed in more detail in articles in this issue.  Continue reading

“Are you my mummy?”*: Diverse notions of “motherhood” in the IVF era

Back in autumn 2017, I was asked to be a contributor at the Edinburgh Biomedical Ethics Film Festival on the Ethics of Surrogacy. As part of the weekend we watched the 2016 documentary Future Baby, and the 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

It was during my preparation for that event that I found myself ruminating on the diverse tasks that constitute being a mother. The anniversary of IVF brings this back into my thoughts.

There are, in essence, three contributions that a mother would naturally make:

  • producing the egg which provides half of the chromosomes for the resulting child (plus nutrients and some other genetic material via the mitochondria),
  • offering the womb in which the baby will develop (whilst receiving both nutrition and epigenetic influence on gene expression), and
  • caring for the infant after birth, and as they grow on to eventually attain their own independence.
motherhood too

Motherhood can now be subdivided into different roles (cartoon inspired by Morparia original)

These phases could be summarised as the genetic, the gestational and the nurturing dimensions of motherhood (the term “social” is sometimes used in the literature to cover this third category, but I prefer to the notion of nurture). Continue reading

Another great review for Where Science and Ethics Meet

CQcoverThe July 2017 edition of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics has recently gone live. It contains a lovely review of our book Where Science and Ethics Meet, written by Tom Cole of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics, University of Texas.

Cole generously calls this “the best introduction to the topic I have ever seen”.  Commenting on the fictional case studies that introduce each chapter, he notes “These scenarios are far more imaginative and narrated than most bioethics cases: they are so well written that readers will inevitably want to turn the pages”.

Interestingly, he also draws attention to the fact that both my co-author Salvador Macip and I have “dual training”; Sal is a qualified medical doctor and an author of both popular science and science fiction in Catalonia (as well as conducting research into ageing and cancer… busy man!) and I have an MA in Ethics alongside my PhD in Biochemistry. This, Cole suggests, may place us in an especially strong position to discuss the underlying science in an appropriate manner for a lay audience.

This link takes you (I believe) to a preview of the first page of the article which, since this is a one-page review, actually constitutes the full text.

More plaudits for Where Science and Ethics Meet

The February edition of The Biochemist (magazine of the Biochemical Society) included another very positive review of our book Where Science and Ethics Meet: Dilemmas at the frontiers of medicine and biology. The review notes that “Willmott and Macip fulfil their promise of providing epistemologically balanced tools to the reader” and concludes that the book “certainly represents a valuable tool for teaching ethics at the undergraduate level and for engaging a wider audience in the challenges arising from scientific and biotechnical developments” which is gratifying since this was exactly our ambition in writing the book.

review-of-where-science-and-ethics-meet-biochemist_feb2017

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