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September 19, 2014 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

In recent weeks, there’s been talk of three types of genetic testing transitioning from targeted populations to the general public: carrier screens for recessive diseases, tests for BRCA mutations, and non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) to spot extra chromosomes in fetuses from DNA in the maternal bloodstream.

Are these efforts the leading edge of a new eugenics movement? It might appear that way, but I think not.

When I began providing genetic counseling 30 years ago at CareNet, a large ob/gyn practice in Schenectady, NY, few patients were candidates for testing: pregnant women of “advanced maternal age” (35+), someone with a family history of a single-gene disorder or whose ethnic background was associated with higher prevalence of a specific inherited disease. Their risks justified the cost and potential dangers of the tests.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

September 16, 2014 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

Ok, I realize I am being somewhat provocative. But there is a real and very serious issue, which I am groping to address in a more precise manner.

In my last blog I described the contemporary moral setting from a philosophical perspective as one in which no single substantive normative moral perspective can resolve moral questions, such as the boundaries of human life and the scope of individual rights, with final moral authority. This is just to say, more simply and obviously when we reflect upon it, that in democratic, secular America, ethics, both philosophically and practically, becomes inextricably linked to public discourse in politics and public policy.

When bioethicists ask questions and make arguments about abortion, physician assisted suicide, stem cell research and cloning, and many other similar issues that pertain to questions about the value of human life in relation to both individual rights and societal goals, we have no privileged moral authority from which to draw. As bioethicists we engage in procedural, persuasive discourse, based on conventional moral principles that most often conflict, which is why there is moral dilemma or problem requiring analysis and prioritization. Our purpose in defending a particular moral position is to win assent from others. In short, for a bioethicist to promote a moral position, it is implicitly an attempt to build a consensus among readers and listeners that will hopefully impact public opinion about a particular moral problem or question. Moreover, to the extent these questions have public policy ramifications, and practically all do, it means that moral discourse is also oriented to effect change and function as a medium in which bioethicists often speak as advocates about how moral options should be framed as public policy positions in a democratic society. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

September 11, 2014 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

The answer, it seems, is quite a number of people. The question that we really need to address is why. Are these concerns rational, are they science based, should they provide the basis for public policy? People have been using selective breeding and hybridization techniques for thousands of years to alter the genetic makeup of both plant and animal agricultural products. Neil Tyson Degrasse made the point very clearly and effectively that almost nothing we grow agriculturally has been unchanged from the plants and animals living naturally. They have all been altered by the intentional action of human beings. Selective breeding, of course, has significant differences from what is currently characterized by the term genetic modification which is done using the techniques of molecular biology to insert genetic material. But they do establish the principle that most people are happy to eat food products which have been genetically altered by people. That sweet red apple you had for lunch or the fattened cattle which produced your juicy hamburger do not exist in nature.

The techniques of genetic engineering which can be used to insert genetic material into the genome of a cell permitted the alteration of crops that resist pests requiring less use of pesticides. They allow selective herbicide resistance allowing the use of minimally toxic or nontoxic  herbicides as well as no till farming which diminishes erosion and reduces use of fossil fuels. They have also been able to use these techniques to add essential nutrients to address widespread dietary deficiencies. An example of this is the development of golden rice, the genetic modification of rice to produce vitamin A. These are good things.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

September 9, 2014 | Posted By Bruce D. White, DO, JD

On August 30, 2014, cardiovascular drug researchers managing the PARADIGM-HF Study and its Committees announced that they were terminating their Phase III trial of LCZ696 because of observed “overwhelming benefit.” As reported in The Daily Mail: “Thousands of lives could be saved by a new drug for heart failure that researchers claim outperforms the current best treatments. … Research on more than 8,000 patients found that it saved 20 per cent more lives than the current ‘gold standard’ treatment – the ACE inhibitor enalapril.” The findings were announced at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology and published the same day in the The New England Journal of Medicine. In a news release, the Switzerland-based Novartis International AG – the drug manufacturer sponsor – said that it would submit an FDA application to market the drug in the US by the end of 2014. Novartis anticipates submitting a similar application to the European Union by early 2015.

Analysts say “that [the new drug] might cost $7 a day in the United States, or about $2,500 a year. Existing [standard] drugs are generic, costing as little as [$48 a year] … .”

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

September 4, 2014 | Posted By Luke Gelinas, PhD

There has been a good bit of debate lately in bioethics circles over the concept and proper definition of death.   The disagreement is between those who think that the cessation of brain activity or ‘brain-death’ is sufficient for death, on the one hand, and those who think that brain-dead patients whose circulatory systems continue to function are still alive, on the other.  Consider, for example, the recent tragic case of Jahi McMath.  McMath suffered complications from a surgery to correct sleep apnea which resulted in cardiac arrest and her being placed on a ventilator.  Shortly after physicians at Oakland Children’s Hospital pronounced her brain-dead and so legally dead.  Her family, however, disagreed, and appealed to the courts for Jahi to be maintained via mechanical ventilation and PEG tube.

Although Jahi’s family disagrees with the claim that she is brain-dead (insisting that she is merely ‘brain-damaged’), suppose the Oakland physicians are correct in their diagnosis of brain death.  Nonetheless, even after the pronouncement of brain-death Jahi’s body continued to exhibit the sort of homeodynamic equilibrium—at least for the time being, and with assistance from mechanical ventilation and other life-sustaining interventions—characteristic of living organisms.  It was warm to the touch; her heart continued to pump blood through her veins; and so on.  Indeed the bodies of brain dead patients have in some cases remained functional for weeks and even months, performing such surprising feats as undergoing puberty and even gestating fetuses. This has led certain physicians and philosophers to question whether brain death is really sufficient for death.  Patients who are truly dead, after all, could not be warm to the touch or gestate fetuses.  Could they?  

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

September 2, 2014 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Scientist Yoshiki Sasai, age 52, committed suicide and was found dead on August 5, 2014. Sasai was deputy director of the Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) at RIKEN in Kobe, Japan, and coauthor on two recently retracted Nature papers about an easier way to make induced pluripotent stem cells. The papers were retracted due to duplication and manipulation of images done by the main researcher and lead author on the two papers – Haruko Obokata. Although cleared of any direct involvement, Sasai was under immense pressure and heavily scrutinized by the media, public and peers. This involved speculation about Sasai’s intentions to orchestrate a media frenzy, and for being overly ambitious and motivated to win future grants overlooking the integrity of the science.

According to colleagues at RIKEN, Sasai was receiving counseling since the scandal broke headlines and he was also hospitalized for about a month in March (1). He was found hanging in a stairwell of a neighboring building and beside him were three letters addressed to CDB management, his laboratory, and Obokata. On August 12, Kazuhiro Nakamura, the family lawyer explained the contents of Sasai’s suicide note left for the family. Sasai was “worn out by the unjust bashing in the mass media and the responsibility he felt towards RIKEN and his laboratory” (2). But unsubstantiated claims in the media were not the only source of stress for Sasai. The speculation in tabloids might have also influenced how RIKEN and other colleagues behaved towards Sasai. In June, a report released by an independent RIKEN reform committee criticized CDB leaders for hyping the science and did not interview Sasai about such accusations. Their final recommendation was to dismantle CDB. According to the family lawyer, this was a tremendous shock for Sasai (2).

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

August 27, 2014 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

Eman’s emails arrive hours ahead of the news here. He wrote on Sunday, August 17:

“An Ebola quarantine site was attacked and looted. News is that most of the patients have escaped. This is going to put more fear into the population. All this because people are denying the virus.  More people might get exposed.  I’m so weak I can’t wake up this morning. Its 6:00 pm and I am still in bed listening to the news.  All this happened in a very populated area called West Point. Got pain all over my body. Keep me in your meditations.”

Emmanuel is a medical student in Liberia whom my husband and I have been supporting since he contacted me after reading my human genetics textbook in 2007. Until the fever hit him last weekend, he dedicated himself to “sensitization,” educating the public about how to stay safe. But now he’s too sick and weak to venture out.

His email from Monday, August 18, said only “Need help!”

Ricki Lewis is the author of "The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It," St. Martin's Press, March 2012.  To read more blogs from the author, please visit her site at http://www.rickilewis.com.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

August 19, 2014 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

Given the continuing controversy surrounding insurance coverage for female contraceptives, I want to point out another drug that also targets sexuality and reproduction yet does not generate the nearly same degree of controversy. In fact, insurance companies began covering it immediately upon approval by the FDA with no fanfare. I’m referring to erectile dysfunction drugs. The public’s different responses to female contraceptives and male sexuality medications have been discussed in academic circles as well as in the media. Here I want to present some feminist perspectives on this topic. 

Some feminists argue that part of the reason we understand and treat pregnancy and impotence differently is because we have different standards for women's and men's health, which result from the traditional gender norms at play in our society. We (as a society) expect women to adhere to norms of chastity (e.g. fall on the “virgin” side of the virgin/whore dichotomy by not having sex until marriage) and one way we do this is by limiting their access to sexual and reproductive health care. In contrast, because our notions of masculinity are tied into sexual prowess, we are more receptive to providing health care for men who are not able to maintain an erection. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

Previous Posts

August 14, 2014 | Posted By Jane Jankowski, DPS, LMSW
August 11, 2014 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD
August 8, 2014 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD
August 4, 2014 | Posted By Bruce D. White, DO, JD
July 29, 2014 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD
July 22, 2014 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD
July 16, 2014 | Posted By Jane Jankowski, DPS, LMSW
July 14, 2014 | Posted By Bruce D. White, DO, JD
July 7, 2014 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD
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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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