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Egenis · News

Debating the ethics of science



Egenis researchers lead public discussion event


Is it acceptable to take prescription medicines for social rather than medical reasons? Is the ‘Frankenbunny’ really a threat to human identity? Is personalised medicine affordable, or even desirable? These were some of the questions debated at a public discussion event held at The King’s School, Ottery St Mary on Wednesday, 2 May.

More than 50 people, including students from five schools across the region, headed into the school's main hall for ‘The ethics of science’, a ‘Big Question’ discussion evening. The event, which was organised by the school’s Head of Religion, Philosophy and Ethics, Ed Pawson, featured short introductory presentations by three researchers from Egenis, who were then invited to join with the audience in debate.

“Human enhancement refers to the idea that medicine and technologies can be used not only to treat illness and disease but also to make people ‘better than well’, explains Research Fellow Dr Michael Morrison. “Some existing examples of enhancement include Ritalin, a medication developed to improve the concentration and attention span of children with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) being used by college students to help them study for exams; actors and public speakers taking beta blockers, a drug that lowers blood pressure, to hide signs of blushing and nervousness while performing; and athletes and bodybuilders using hormone drugs to improve muscle strength and tone.

“Many ethicists have traditionally regarded human enhancement as ethically suspect – a sort of pharmaceutical form of cheating. Others, however, believe that it is not only acceptable but morally commendable for people to take advantage of the opportunity to improve themselves and achieve more in their lives. Some people even anticipate new forms of enhancement, moving beyond medicine to use computer technology, genetics and nanotechnology to allow people to become long-lived, self- repairing ‘cyborgs’, able to communicate directly with the internet of satellites and no longer needing laptops or mobile phones. Questions of enhancement are not just about what should and should not be allowed now, but also about what kinds of futures we want and what types of people we want to be.”

Chimeras, although often thought of as the stuff of mythology, are also prevalent in today’s scientific research, according to Associate Research Fellow Dr Jean Harrington. “Approximately five years ago one particular form of chimera, an animal-human cross that was developed to aid human stem cell research, appeared at the heart of a heated debate,” says Jean. “The contentious nature of this entity led not only to newspaper headlines, such as ‘Scientists to create ‘Frankenbunny’ in big research leap’ (Daily Mail), but also to a public consultation to assess people’s views and opinions and an examination of the merits of its existence and use in a Parliamentary debate.

“As a society how do we consider the notion of species identity and questions about the morality of crossing human and non-human animals in the context of scientific research? Should we forbid the blurring of the accepted species line in a quest to retain species integrity and human dignity? Is producing an ‘unnatural’ entity a moral taboo, to be avoided at all costs, even at the expense of possible medical benefits to mankind? The ethical issues of creating new life forms in the context of scientific research are complex and not to be underestimated.”

Egenis Co-director Professor Steve Hughes says: “I shall be asking questions within the context of what genetics brings to healthcare and of the contemporary promises it makes in terms of; the explanation of pathological states, the development of new cures, the provision of precise clinical diagnosis and the prediction of individual vulnerability to both rare and common diseases. Over the past two decades we have witnessed a growing investment of skills and resources in enlarging the scope of medical genetics, the foremost example probably being the human genome sequencing project for which elaborate claims were made in terms of overcoming once and for all the threats of disease.

“Ten years on from the announcement of the completion of the first draft of the decoded human genome it is recognised that progress against this target has been less than overwhelming. Nevertheless, the momentum of expectation has not diminished and has been relocated in the proposition that genomic medicine will power a revolution in personalised individual pre-emptive healthcare informed by the individual’s genome sequence. The logistics of such a proposition present a massive challenge to the finite resources of a National Health system and this could have significant consequences for other less speculative priorities for care. I shall be considering the feasibility of the proposition and asking whether it is a road which we should really want to go down.”

Join the debate at The Big Question: The ethics of science, at The King’s School, Ottery St Mary, at 7pm on Wednesday, 2 May.