Tuesday, 30 November 2004 · Issue 144
IN THIS WEEK'S BioEDGE
Scientists grappling with chimera ethics
How far can mixing the species go?
Koreans claim that adult stem cells cured paralysed woman
Cord blood cells superior to embryonic cells
Asian stem cell centres "mind-boggling"
Impressive levels of funding and commitment, says UK scientist
Evidence for health of IVF babies "relatively weak" -- UK report
Calls for long-term study
Animal rights extremists undermine democracy, says Oxford head
Could become pattern for other groups
Dutch euthanasia cases settled
One conviction, one acquittal
"Desperate" couples offered unproven IVF treatment
Clinics exploiting poorly understood natural killer cells
Switzerland gives green light to embryonic stem cell research
Referendum wins by comfortable margin
Doctors and lawyers duel over malpractice in Florida
Three strikes and you're out becomes law
IN BRIEF: oversight, transhumanism, Denmark, fertility
However, there are concerns about how far mixing species should go. As Stanford University ethicist Henry Greely told the Academy last month, "there is a non-trivial risk of conferring some significant aspects of humanity" on animals. At one end of the ethical scale is adding human genes to animals so that they produce human proteins, such as insulin. At the other end is injecting human stem cells into an animal embryo and transferring the chimeric embryo into an animal's womb. But what if the human stem cells developed into sperm and eggs? It could happen that a human embryo would form in the uterus of a mouse.
Perhaps the most daring experiment is being proposed by Irving Weissman, of Stanford, an expert in chimeras who has created mice with a nearly complete human immune system, a development which has been invaluable in AIDS research. Now he is toying with the idea of making chimeric mice whose brains are 100% human. If they appeared to have a "human architecture", they could be killed.
According to the Washington Post, some prominent scientists and bioethicists have no ethical objections even to radical proposals such as placing human embryos in the uterus of animals or making mice with human brains. A bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, Robert Streiffer, for instance, told the Post that creating a human-chimpanzee hybrid might not be a bad idea. "There's a knee-jerk reaction that enhancing the moral status of an animal is bad," he said. "but if you did it, and you gave it the protections it deserves, how could the animal complain?" ~ Rick Weiss, Nov 20
Another researcher, Professor Kang Kyung-sun, told the Korea Times that cord blood stem cells were superior in this case because they did not carry ethical baggage and did not create cancerous teratomas, as embryonic stem cells sometimes do. "Embryonic stem cells are omni-potent in that they can divide into anything, even including a tumour cell. But cord blood stem cells are developed enough not to cause such troubles while retaining as powerful a differentiation capacity at the same time."
And in the US, researchers at the University of California Reeve- Irvine Research Center have used mouse embryonic stem cells to create myelin, the insulating tissue for nerve cells. This raises hopes, they say, that people with spinal cord injury can recover some movement and sensation. ~ Korean Times, Nov 26; Medical News Today, Nov 23
In terms of ideas and concepts, they're not out ahead; they're in the pack with the rest of us. But you do get the sense that it is moving more quickly toward the clinic, and in the right way, without cutting corners on ethics, either," said Dr Minger. (This does not quite square with reports that some Western researchers are moving to China precisely because it has looser ethical standards.) ~ The Scientist, Nov 22
The UK's fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, asked the MRC to review the potential health effects of artificial reproduction technology. Like most other studies, the MRC's survey highlighted the risk of implanting several embryos to increase the chance of having a single baby. It also pointed out that even single IVF pregnancies are "more likely than naturally conceived ones to have complications and poorer outcomes for mother and child."
The report, "Assisted reproduction: a safe, sound future", was the result of a two-year review of IVF, but it was barely covered by the media. In it the MRC called for more information on the on-going health of IVF children and a new system for evaluating new IVF techniques or refinements of old ones. Gathering the information, however, may be difficult, because of privacy considerations and the need for informed consent. ~ Scotsman, Nov 23; MRC website
Last week Oxford was granted an injunction banning animal rights protesters from a 50-yard exclusion zone around a half-built primate research centre, and from 100 yards around the homes of all university staff, students and alumni, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and shareholders. ~ London Times, Nov 19
In the other case, a junior hospital doctor was acquitted after he increased the dose of morphine administered to a dying patient with breathing difficulties. As the patient's condition worsened, the doctor gave him midazolam and shortly thereafter he died. The doctor was arrested. The Supreme Court found that the drugs he used could shorten a patient's life, but in this case the doctor did not intend to do so. ~ BMJ.com, Nov 20
Dr Mark Hamilton, of the British Fertility Society, agreed with the thrust of the article. "The reproductive medicine community is acutely aware of how desperate couples either with a history of infertility or recurrent miscarriage are to have a baby... Great care has to be taken not to take advantage of couples merely because they are desperate and offer treatment which is sometimes expensive and often intrusive without adequate justification." ~ BBC, Nov 26
Unsurprisingly, Florida doctors are unhappy. "It has branded the state as probably the most unfriendly state for physicians," says Dr Robert Yelverton, a gynaecologist and obstetrician from Tampa. Observers think that lawyers now have the upper hand, because doctors will settle rather than risk scoring a "strike". "In the next 10 years," says Lester Brickman, of Yeshiva University, in New York, "virtually every doctor in the state of Florida will have been sued." AP, Nov 26
Transhumanism: philosopher Nick Bostrom, of Oxford University, and bioethicist James Hughes, of Trinity College in the US, have formed a new transhumanist think-tank to promote research into immortality and the improvement of the human species through genetic engineering and cyborg technology. It is called the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. ~ IEET website
Great Danes: Sperm-banking has become "a power-house industry" in Denmark, according to the New York Times. Cryos International is now the world's leader and exports sperm to 40 countries around the world. Its fastest-growing market is single women and lesbians, who now make up 20% of Cryos's client list. One Cryos client has sired 101 children -- and he doesn't know about any of them. ~ New York Times, Nov 26
Fertility: The latest American lifestyle magazine is "Conceive", whose target demographic is couples who are struggling to have their own children. Two American entrepreneurs raised US$500,000 in seven weeks to create the magazine. Critics accuse them of pressuring women into thinking that motherhood should be the centre of their lives. ~ Boston Herald, Nov 21
Schiavo inverted: In a mirror image of the Terri Schiavo case, a 73- year-old Florida man in a coma who did make a living will is being kept alive by a spouse who has power of attorney and insists that he is conscious. Last week a judge upheld the living will and Alice Pinette is considering an appeal. She says that her husband Hanford is a cognisant mind trapped in a weak body. Mr Pinette's doctors have testified that he is incapacitated, cannot make his own decisions and is unlikely to recover. ~ AP, Nov 26
How to support BioEdge
Just access the Paymate website and follow the instructions. You will need to fill in our email address, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. You will also have to give your credit card details and an amount in Australian or US dollars. Thanks!
Australasian Bioethics Information
Director: Dr Amin Abboud
BioEdge editor: Michael Cook
New Zealand Contributing Editor: Carolyn Moynihan
Your subscription information will be kept private and is not publicly accessible.
Your email address and other information will never be sold to a third party or given out
without your consent. You may cancel your subscription at any time.