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The Future of Conception

Posted by Jessica Cussins on January 8th, 2015

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Numerous writers took advantage of the ending year to look broadly at just how drastically we are changing the process of baby-making, and what it all means for society.

Mirah Riben recalls the dystopian visions of Brave New World, Handmaid's Tale, and The Giver in a piece in The Huffington Post. She points out that while all of these novels portray government control over reproduction, none envision the actual situation we now have in the US: “a free-for-all marketplace where regulation is unable to keep pace with reproductive science and the multi-billion dollar fertility-industry.”

She notes that it is this environment that has led to such developments as genetic selection for health and traits, the splitting of “motherhood” into increasingly disparate outsourced processes, and the creation and selling of desirable frozen embryos by private companies.

Riben concludes with the questions:

Will baby-making simply continue in this wild-west fashion? Is having a baby a "right" for everyone and anyone who can afford it, no matter how it is accomplished, with the means determined only by what is possible?

Looking at the particular ethical, legal, and human rights challenges of the international commercial surrogacy industry, human rights lawyer Claire Achmad asks similar questions in a piece in The Conversation.

Increasingly sci-fi technological developments complicate these issues further. News about womb transplants and bioengineered wombs or “uterine patches” using a patient’s own stem cells is discussed in The Atlantic, while developments in using skin cells to create artificial sperm and eggs are reported in The Guardian.

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass considers a wealthy couple flouting Australian law to come to the US to ensure their next child is a girl. He raises concern about a future in which children are merely the product of our whims, arguing that such societal transformation will not be sudden and Kafka-esque (waking up to find oneself having turned into a gigantic insect) but that “our transformation will likely be gradual, perhaps imperceptible. It won’t merely be a matter of style or different languages or dialects. We will have forgotten the questions.”

Decidedly more Kafka-esque is biotech start-up CEO Austen Heinz’ vision of the future, which would enable anyone to tinker with the genetic material of pretty much anything. For more on this, see Pete Shanks’ new Biopolitical Times post, “Bad Boy Scientism.”

Additional human bioengineering scenarios were laid out in MIT Technology Review’s overview of 2014, which was called “a big year for rewriting biology” thanks to improved developments in whole genome sequencing, precision gene-editing, and a range of neurotechnologies.

In our free-for-all society, questions about whether – and if so, how much – to exert biological control over the future of humanity have moved well beyond the pages of dystopian novels. The answers lie increasingly only with us.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Bad Boy Scientism

Posted by Pete Shanks on January 8th, 2015

Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics has been trolling hard lately, as blogger Josh Cunningham notes. That is, he's been spouting provocative opinions to get attention. And it seems to be working, from his point of view.

Not only was Heinz involved in the vagina bio-hack nonsense, but he told the Wall Street Journal last June, "I can't believe that after 10 or 20 years, people will not design their children digitally." And he doubled down in the San Francisco Chronicle last week:

"Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game. And that creates a whole new world. … It is the most powerful technology humans have ever created. Hydrogen bombs can destroy whole planets, but this is a technology that can create planets. This is the greatest human achievement of all time - the ability to read and write life, because that's who we are."

He also told CNN last April:

"I think it'll get very hot within the next few years in editing genomes for babies. … We could potentially see like an arms race among families … We will eventually be able to write the code, not only to fix our current mistakes but also to fix mistakes as we age, and that's going to be critical to living forever."

Cambrian is not actually intending to design creatures, it's facilitating their production by "printing" DNA, and Heinz freely admits that safety is someone else's job. But he sees that kind of quality control being delegated to an independent facility, not heaven forfend the government. He told Stephanie Lee of the Chronicle:

"It's pretty obvious why we wouldn't want to do something bad. We wouldn't want the industry to be regulated. So, 'How do we democratize creation without killing everyone?' is basically the question."

Now, that is some quality trolling.

Synthetic biology, as a field, has some skilled practitioners of the art. Until Heinz came along, perhaps the most accomplished was George Church, recently seen in the crowd on stage at the last Colbert Report [15:21 in this clip].

But Church (who was once an adviser to Cambrian), and Drew Endy, and other pioneers of synthetic biology, have never rejected regulation; indeed, they call for it — one may disagree with the limits they would choose, but at least there is some possibility of dialog. Heinz, however, as Marcy Darnovsky told the Chronicle, is espousing a kind of "techno-libertarianism."

The more common approach, as described by Claire Marris in a new paper in Science as Culture, is somewhat gentler. In the minds of many scientists, the goal is to educate the public, but the title Marris chose suggests that the reality is better described with a different emphasis:

The Construction of Imaginaries of the Public as a Threat to Synthetic Biology

(There is something delightfully Brechtian about the concept: the people have forfeited the confidence of the scientific establishment and must therefore be replaced.)

The imaginary public that Heinz is appealing to, however, is rather different than the one most serious analysts, whether academic, commercial or governmental, visualize when considering the "problem" of creating acceptability for synthetic biology. His consists of cool techies. Some of whom, such as Peter Thiel, have the cash to invest in Cambrian. That's his core audience.

Heinz is clearly reveling in being a "bad boy." There are those who think he is naive about publicity; to the contrary, he seems to know exactly what he is doing. The Chronicle piece provoked several posts of varying quality (1, 2, 3, 4), and a variety of comments. Some were supportive, but there were many sarcastic variants on "What could possibly go wrong?"

Criticism is unlikely to faze Heinz, who is probably operating on the tried-and-true premise that any publicity is good publicity. But if Heinz and his ilk are allowed to run free, it's the rest of us that will live in the world they make. Said Darnovsky:

"We have to take seriously people like Austen Heinz who say they want to modify future generations of human beings and upgrade the human species. I think that technical project is far more complicated than they acknowledge. Nonetheless, their story about what we should be striving for as human beings, as a society, I think is very troubling."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

CIRM 2.0

Posted by Pete Shanks on January 7th, 2015

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been in business for a decade now, and has not come close to fulfilling the promises made during the 2004 election campaign. As yet, the "cures for California" have not materialized.

Arguably, developing clinical applications in ten years was always over-optimistic, to be polite (the term "hype" seems appropriate). A new President and CEO, C. Randal Mills, took charge last year and is responding to the situation by launching what he calls CIRM 2.0, in an effort to "accelerate the development of stem cell treatments for patients with unmet medical needs." (His video presentation is here.)

About two-thirds of the 3 billion dollars of public funds that voters allocated has been spent, and there are rumblings about returning to the ballot process for more money. We may expect those speculations to become more prominent, though Mills insists that his reforms are not tied to electoral expectations.

This is only the latest attempt at structural reform. The Little Hoover Commission examined CIRM's workings in 2008–9. The Institute of Medicine produced a report in 2012, as well a controversial assessment about egg procurement in 2007. There have also been several state audits, as well as newspaper criticism and rumblings in Sacramento. CGS testified before both investigations (Hoover; IoM), as well as directly to the CIRM Board and Standards and Practices Working Group [pdf], and produced a critical Progress Report [pdf] nine years ago.

Perhaps the new effort will work to improve the efficiency of the operation. But there are reasons to be doubtful. Michael Hiltzik wrote an excellent overview of the "reboot" of the agency in the Los Angeles Times last weekend, summarized here by David Jensen of California Stem Cell Report. (Hiltzik and Jensen have been following CIRM closely for its entire existence, and Jensen's blog is an invaluable resource.) Hiltzik concluded:

Proposition 71 was so poorly drafted and sold to the public so deceptively that CIRM has struggled from its inception to function as a pure research program. It's always looking for a blockbuster success that may never come.

Despite the program's unquestionably positive impact on stem cell science, especially in California, it still lacks a coherent sense of its proper role. CIRM 2.0 is the latest effort to find that role, but it may not be the last.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Two Neuroscientists Who Get It Right

Posted by Jessica Cussins on January 7th, 2015

Elan Ohayon and his wife, Ann Lam, who is holding their daughter, at the Green Neuroscience Laboratory. (Emily Berl for The New York Times)

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Knowledge of the enormous power that is coming with advances in neuroscience is presumably common among those working in the field. But embracing the responsibility that comes with that power is much more unusual.

Dr. Ann Lam and her husband Dr. Elan Ohayon, co-founders of the San Diego-based Green Neuroscience Laboratory, are leading the charge.

The couple worries that excitement about the field is allowing problematic practices to go unchallenged and important questions to never even enter the conversation. They are deeply concerned that much of the funding comes from the military and that scientists’ research will be used for unintended purposes.

Many brain (and other) researchers are willing to accept such realities and downstream consequences as beyond their control, but Lam and Ohayon tackle them head-on.

Their “Roadmap to a New Neuroscience” is pretty amazing. It includes these principles:

  • Seek to identify and understand brain activity, perception, cognition, sentience, and liberty in other forms of life. No Captive Animal Experimentation.
  • Challenge, rethink and deconstruct definitions of “disorders”, “normal” and “deviance”. Be aware of racism, sexism, ableism, mentalism, sanism, ageism, speciesism, anthropocentrism and other forms of bias and discrimination in neuroscience research.
  • Research must aim at increasing individual agency, not control.
  • Neuroscience must be directed exclusively toward health, peaceful and non-violent purposes.
  • Move away from genetic determinism and other forms of fatalism.
  • The brain cannot be accurately studied and understood as a disembodied organ. Aim to understand the brain in its embodied social and environmental context.
  • Pursue fundamental inquiry for the sake of pure curiosity so long as it is not harmful. Fixation on applicability can obscure the road to discovery.
  • We will take no corporate, pharmaceutical or military funding.

In The New York Times on Monday, Dr. Lam expanded: “Our dream is to create an educational training program in green neuroscience where people can really study ethics, philosophy and experimentation all at the same time.”

Reporter John Markoff wrote of how the duo has been speaking at events around the country about the moral dilemmas facing researchers:

They start by reviewing dystopian futures as described in science fiction. “You know all of that stuff?” they ask. “It’s much worse.”

But they’ll also tell you the good news: “greener science often leads directly to better science!”

Lam and Ohayon’s lab, principles, and education efforts offer a real opportunity to shift the neuroscience status-quo, and to provide inspiring mentorship for a burgeoning field.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:



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