Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Quandary column

Genetic Privacy at Risk

By Michael Cook

US intelligence agencies may be analysing our communications on a massive scale, but genetic data is already proving just as vulnerable.

By now you must be used to the idea of the US National Security Agency siphoning up your Facebook account, your email account, your Skype calls, your phone records, your chats and your browsing history. What’s left for them to trawl through?

How about your genome?

As the public reels from revelations about how much American information intelligence agencies have been gathering about foreigners and their own citizens, few have yet twigged to the vulnerability of genetic data.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter.

A Retrospective of the Stem Cell Debate

By Michael Cook

Ten years ago embryonic stem cells were set to transform medicine. Ethics took a back seat to science, but the cures never came.

Let’s wind the clock back to 2003. In January, wheelchair-bound quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve visited Australia to promote the legalisation of “therapeutic cloning”. This was absolutely necessary, he said, or patients would die needlessly. Scepticism about the potential of embryonic stem cells was utterly unwarranted. “That’s a myth. That’s not true. Don’t let anyone tell you it is a pipedream.”

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Michael Cook

In vitro eugenics could soon make Huxley’s Brave New World a reality.

Where would bioethics have been without Shakespeare? If he had never written “O brave new world, That has such people in’t” in The Tempest, perhaps Aldous Huxley would never have written Brave New World, his 1932 dystopian novel about genetically engineered babies gestated in industrial hatcheries. And perhaps conservatives like Leon Kass, George W. Bush’s chief bioethics adviser, would have lacked a thought-terminating cliché with which to rail against embryo experimentation.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Genetic Ancestry

By Michael Cook

The thriving business of DNA ancestry testing is hawking dreams, not science., a California-based genetic testing company, spruiks ancestry testing on its website. For US$99 you can discover the composition of your ancestors, your genetic relatives, your maternal and paternal lineages, and even the percentage of your DNA that comes from Neanderthals.

“Trace Your Family Lineages Back 10,000 Years and Beyond,” it says. “Find out if you share an ancestor with famous figures such as Marie Antoinette and Thomas Jefferson.”

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Care in Ancient Societies

By Michael Cook

Archaeologists are documenting evidence that ancient humans cared for disabled members of their community.

End-of-life care is a phrase associated with gurgling tubes, beeping monitors and flashing lights. But a fledging sub­specialty of archaeology is examining how early humans cared for the disabled in their communities.

A recent paper in the International Journal of Paleopathology has documented the life of a young man who lived in northern Vietnam 3700–4500 years ago. “M9”, as archeologists have named him, was paralysed from the waist down and would have had very limited upper body mobility yet he apparently lived into his early thirties.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

No Joy for Addicts

By Michael Cook

Neurosurgeons in China are treating drug addicts by destroying a part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure.

Chinese neurosurgeons are treating heroin addicts by destroying a region of the brain which feels pleasure. Time magazine reports that this “risks permanently ending the entire spectrum of natural longings and emotions, including the ability to feel joy.”

Even in China, zapping bits of the brain is controversial. The Ministry of Health banned it in 2004 – but left a loophole for researchers. Apparently one surgeon drove a truck through this loophole and by 2007 he had done 1000 of these operations to treat severe depression, epilepsy and schizophrenia.

The New Eugenics

By Michael Cook

In the last century eugenics involved sterilisation or murder. This century it is more likely to involve genetic enhancement.

To understand the deep claims on our humanity that are central to bioethics, it can be helpful to turn to fiction. Two of the classic texts are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The first deals with the Promethean ambition of the scientist to reshape humanity. The second showcases the death of culture when sex is separated from reproduction.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.

Stem Cell Researchers Win Nobel Prize

By Michael Cook

The development of induced pluripotent stem cells overturned conventional thinking and removed the ethical issues associated with the destruction of embryos.

Two stem cell researchers shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2012, Britain’s John B. Gurdon and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka. By a serendipitous coincidence, Gurdon made his discovery in 1962 – the year of Yamanaka’s birth.

Fifty years of stem cell research have brought cures for intractable diseases within reach but they have also generated controversy. Between 2001 and 2008, stem cell research vied with climate change as the stormiest issue in science.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Boosting Performance at the Paralympics

By Michael Cook

Up to one-third of Paralympians in London may have harmed themselves to boost blood flow.

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. If this line from Lord Tennyson expresses the essence of the Olympic spirit, then the Paralympics are possibly even more “Olympic” than the big ticket events.

The former captain of Scotland’s Scottish wheelchair basketball team said that the London Paralympic Games “will only add to the perception that there aren’t Paralympic athletes and able-bodied athletes – there are just athletes”.One problematic consequence is that some Paralympians are going to cheat.

Michael Cook is editor of the on-line bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

The Canary in the Medical Coal Mine

By Michael Cook

A steroid is being used off-label early in pregnancy to “normalise” the gender of the foetus.

By and large, genetic engineering of human embryos is still science fiction. But there are other ways to alter the development of an unborn child.

Bioethicist Alice Dreger, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US, and colleagues recently documented in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry extensive off-label use of a synthetic steroid, dexamethasone, which is being used to engineer the development of foetuses for sex normalisation purposes.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.