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Month: May 2010

Synthetic Cell Brings Up Old Ethical Questions

This week the scientific community excited and intrigued by Craig’s Venter’s Mycoplasma mycoides, which is being called the first synthetic cell. Venter (and his lab by the same name) created this organism out of extracted DNA from an existing bacterium, manipulated and restrung it, then inserted into an empty bacterium shell. The DNA survived and the result was a living organism that has been created, according to Venter, by a computer. However, that leads to questions; questions about the significance and consequences of such a creation. Newsweek’s article, Let There Be Life, provides five different points of views in response to “what now?” inquiries. First there are two obviously opposing camps: proponents and skeptics; second there are the propositions of what this means for the future. Notably, regardless of your feelings about the creation itself, this revelation brings up ethical issues that genetic engineering has been struggling for years. According to Newsweek, the creation of a synthetic cell yet again prompts questions about regulations on research, the uses of the new processes and even if it should be patented. According to Politico 44 , President Obama is putting together an ethics committee to spend six months discussing the various issues to help understand the ethical consequences of this new research. The committee will include scientists, religious leaders, and businesses to consider many different angles on issues like those mentioned in Newsweek and others.

“Immortal” on TV’s Law & Order

On Wednesday, May 19th, “Law and Order” had an episode called “Immortal,” that had a storyline about “stolen” immortal cells, an African-American family, a medical research firm and the question of remuneration for cells taken and not paid for …
Here is the basic script.

Its portrayal of the main themes speaks to the compelling nature of the subject of Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and affirms the fact that there are numerous bioethical and social concerns inherent in the book. A reading of the book and viewing of the episode will surely provoke numerous lines of discussion from students, staff and faculty.

Consent and Organ Donation

One of the most well-known types of informed consent is organ donation. When issued a driver’s license for the first time, we are all given the option to sign a form and then the back of license indicating we will donate our organs upon death if possible. Recently, New York State there has been a proposal to change this type of consent from given to presumed. This means that if you do not sign to be a donor and your organs are healthy enough to be used, they will be transplanted. This would create a system where you would sign a document to opt out of being donor. This New York Times round table debate article poses the question about what this means for donating and informed consent and solicits answers from five different authorities, all with different points of view. The authorities include Arthur Caplan (professor of bioethics), Kieran Healy (sociologist), Sally Satel from the American Enterprise Institute, Elaine Berg from the New York Organ Donor Network and Mary Ann Baily from the Hastings Center (see the article for more detailed qualifications).

A reoccurring issue the new measure’s dissolution of the “veto power” of the next of kin. Currently, as more than one respondent points out, next of kin veto power is a large deterrent in the current system. However, as Kieran Healy explains, “veto power” is an important component of European systems that use “presumed consent,” like in Spain which has an efficient and successful transplant system. Healy says that the European countries that have dissolved the next of kin veto power and have a presumed consent system (he cites Austria) do not have a much higher transplant number than the US. Most of the respondents refer to Europe in their examples because many of the countries in the EU already have presumed consent systems and it works well.

However, Healy points out that many EU countries have success because of the investment into their system in general, just not the change to a presumed consent system. Mary Ann Baily backs up this argument, independently, by explaining that the government needs to build trust with the public on issues of informed consent, whether for organs, blood or DNA. Consequently, the relationship between doctor and patient and doctor and patient’s family is complex, but a doctor is more likely to get support from the family if the family feels involved in the consent and/or the decision. Informed consent is quickly moving out the realm of signing a legal document into a new frontier of trust and comfort.