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Quandary

Quandary column

Stem Cell Battles Are Far From Over

By Michael Cook

Induced pluripotent stem cells are not the ethical breakthrough they were initially thought to be.

In November 2007 a Japanese team led by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University announced that ordinary human skin cells could be reprogrammed to make them pluripotent. He called them induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

The news transformed stem cell biology. Within weeks, leading scientists like James Thompson of the University of Wisconsin, who had first isolated human embryonic stem (hES) cells, and Ian Wilmut, who had created Dolly the cloned sheep, changed tack. They dropped hES cells and began working on the dazzling new cells.

I Swear by Apollo, the Healer

By Michael Cook

Doctors’ attitudes to the Hippocratic Oath reveal that codes of conduct are not enough to produce ethical doctors – and scientists.

Back in 2007, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, published an ethical code for scientists. “Our social licence to operate as scientists needs to be founded on a continually renewed relationship of trust between scientists and society,” he explained.

Medical Ethics in the Battlefield

By Michael Cook

War turns the ethics of doctors on its head.

Films are a rich source of hypotheticals for medical ethics classes. I recall a gut-wrenching scene in The Last of the Mohicans. From a great distance the hero, Hawkeye, shoots his best friend just as he is about to be burnt at the stake by vengeful Huron Indians.

Was this a “mercy killing”? Is it ethical to kill fellow soldiers in wartime to ward off worse suffering? If that’s not clear, how about wounded enemy soldiers?

Rehabilitating Eugenics

By Michael Cook

Kits that charge thousands of dollars to genetically test consumers for genes with supposed links to social characteristics are heralding a new era of eugenics.

Ten years ago, in February 2001, the draft human genome sequence was published to great fanfare. US President Bill Clinton had celebrated the completion of the project the year before as if man had just landed on Mars: “Genome science will have a real impact on all our lives – and even more, on the lives of our children. It will revolutionise the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.”

Bioethics 007

By Michael Cook

WikiLeaks has exposed US government directives for the collection of biometric information on foreign diplomats, raising important bioethical issues.

As improbable as it sounds, a bioethics angle to the activities of the US State Department has come to light in the WikiLeaks cables. The controversial website has published tens of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables, and some of them have revealed that US diplomats were instructed to collect biometric identification on foreign diplomats.

Most Medical Research is Wrong?

By Michael Cook

An analysis of significant medical research papers has concluded that “most research findings are false for most research designs and for most fields”.

Most of us have set pragmatism as our default position on bioethics. If it works, why not use it? If human embryonic stem cells are reported to be effective, for instance, what harm can there possibly be in using them? In fact, it may be immoral not to use them after the incredible progress reported in Nature!

Nobel Committee Brushes Ethics Aside

By Michael Cook

What did the Swedes have in mind when they awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine to the inventor of the test-tube baby?

The Nobel Prize for Medicine is given for a “discovery” that has “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. IVF, though, is more a clinical application than a theoretical advance. So when the 2010 prize was given to British biologist Robert G. Edwards, the father of French IVF, Jacques Testart, expressed his disdain for the Nobel committee’s choice in the journal Quotidien du Médecin: “That deserves a Nobel? I thought that the prize was meant for discoveries, not for inventions.”

The Science of Morality

By Michael Cook

A leading researcher into the biological basis of morality has been found guility of academic misconduct.

Morality is a tricky business. If you are an expert, people tend to hold you to a higher standard of probity. That’s why sex abuse scandals and the double lives of some televangelists have done such damage to the cause of religious morality. Perhaps, too, this is why academic misconduct by one of the leading exponents of the “new science of morality” has rattled scientists and bioethicists.

The Whole Truth

Down's syndrome

For every 660 Down’s syndrome foetuses that are detected and terminated in the UK each year, 400 normal children perish as well.

By Michael Cook

A blood test for Down’s syndrome claims to be the “Holy Grail” of prenatal testing.

If you are ever searching for bioethics case studies, it’s hard to go past the Daily Mail, Britain’s number-two tabloid. It’s not all saucy tittle-tattle about the glam set and the royals: human interest is what drives the Daily Mail, and there are no more poignant stories than birth and death, the great themes of bioethics.

Synthetic Life or Cellular Machine?

By Michael Cook

The creation of synthetic bacteria will increase the speed with which new organisms can be generated, and reduce the value of animal life to mere chemical devices.

It was described as a scientific earthquake, but Craig Venter was just a fraction more modest in summing up his team’s biotechnology feat in May. His synthetic bacterium was, he said, “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer”.

It certainly was an impressive technology. As they reported in Science, researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute painstakingly assembled the genome of one species of bacterium and inserted it into another cell. The constructed cell began to function, dividing and growing like a natural cell.