Tiny human brain organoids implanted into rodents, triggering ethical concerns

Stat

Sharon Begley

Minuscule blobs of human brain tissue have come a long way in the four years since scientists in Vienna discovered1how to create them from stem cells.

The most advanced of these human brain organoids — no bigger than a lentil and, until now, existing only in test tubes — pulse with the kind of electrical activity that animates actual brains. They give birth to new neurons2, much like full-blown brains. And they develop the six layers3 of the human cortex, the region responsible for thought, speech, judgment, and other advanced cognitive functions.

These micro quasi-brains are revolutionizing research on human brain development and diseases from Alzheimer’s to Zika4, but the headlong rush to grow the most realistic, most highly developed brain organoids has thrown researchers into uncharted ethical waters. Like virtually all experts in the field, neuroscientist Hongjun Song of the University of Pennsylvania doesn’t “believe an organoid in a dish can think,” he said, “but it’s an issue we need to discuss.” . . [Full text]

 

Womb with a view: surgeons remove uterus from mother in groundbreaking operation on spina bifida foetus

The Telegraph

Sarah Knapton

It might look like a glowing egg from an alien world, but this red ovoid is actually human womb containing a baby, removed from its mother before birth, in a groundbreaking operation.

Doctors in the US have been pioneering an astonishing new treatment for spina bifida in which the baby is operated on before birth. . . [Full text]

 

Vaccine refusal endangers everyone, not just the unvaccinated

Science Blogs: Respectful Insolence

Dr. David M. Gorski*

One of the more frequent claims of antivaccine activists often comes in the form of a  question, usually something like, “If your child is vaccinated, why are you worried about my children? They don’t pose any danger to you.” Of course, the premise behind that question is, ironically, one that conflicts with the belief that vaccines are ineffective: that vaccines are so effective that there’s no reason for the parents of a vaccinated child to be concerned if that child comes in contact with another child with a vaccine-preventable disease. . . [Full text]

Doctors find patient brain activity continued for 10 minutes after death

Medical Xpress

Bob Yirka

A team of doctors affiliated with the University of Western Ontario in Canada has documented a case in which a terminal patient removed from life support continued to experience brain wave activity for approximately 10 minutes after they had been pronounced clinically dead. In their paper published in The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, the team describes the circumstances of the unusual event and acknowledge that they have no explanation for what they observed.

For many years, doctors have used a handful of tools to determine if someone has died—a lack of pupil dilation, heart stoppage, lack of breathing, etc. But one test has stood above all others—an EEG reading. Even if the heart is beating and a person is breathing, if the brain stops processing electrical signals, that person is considered clinically dead—though in some cases they may be labeled as brain dead. But what if a person’s heart stops beating, meaning there is no blood flow to the brain, and the brain continues to show delta wave bursts for up to ten minutes? Prior to this event occurring in Canada, it was thought to be an impossibility. . . [Full text]

 

Embryo Experiments Reveal Earliest Human Development, But Stir Ethical Debate

Shots.  Health News from NPR

Rob Stein

Ali Brivanlou slides open a glass door at the Rockefeller University in New York to show off his latest experiments probing the mysteries of the human embryo.

“As you can see, all my lab is glass — just to make sure there is nothing that happens in some dark rooms that gives people some weird ideas,” says Brivanlou, perhaps only half joking.

Brivanlou knows that some of his research makes some people uncomfortable. That’s one reason he has agreed to give me a look at what’s going on.

His lab and one other discovered how to keep human embryos alive in lab dishes longer than ever before — at least 14 days. That has triggered an international debate about a long-standing convention (one that’s legally binding in some countries, though not in the U.S.) that prohibits studying human embryos that have developed beyond the two-week stage. . . . [Full text]

 

Science, religion, public funding and force feeding in modern medicine

Responding to Bronca, T. “A conflict of conscience: What place do physicians’ religious beliefs have in modern medicine.” Canadian Health Care Network, 26 May, 2015.

Sean Murphy*

Tristan Bronca writes, “Belief without evidence is becoming incompatible with scientific sensibilities.”1

This notion might be exemplified by Dr. James Downar. Advocating for physician assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canadian Family Practice, he described himself as “a secular North American who supports individual autonomy, subject only to limitations that are justifiable on the basis of empirically provable facts.”2

Dr. Downar’s “Yes” was opposed by Dr. Edward St. Godard’s “No.”3 Since both are palliative care specialists, their differences on the acceptability of physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are not explained by differences in their clinical experience, but by their different moral or ethical beliefs.

However, neither Dr. Downar’s beliefs nor Dr. St. Godard’s can be justified “on the basis of empirically provable facts.” Nor can Dr. Downar’s support for individual autonomy, since empirical evidence demonstrates the primacy of human dependence and interdependence – not autonomy. Empirical evidence can provide raw material needed for adequate answers to moral or ethical questions, but it cannot answer them. As Dr. McCabe told Tristan Bronca, science is necessary – but not sufficient. Moral decision-making requires more than facts.

And the practice of medicine is an inescapably moral enterprise. Every time they provide a treatment, physicians implicitly concede its goodness; they would not otherwise offer it. This is usually unnoticed because physicians habitually conform to standards of medical practice without adverting to the beliefs underpinning them. Hence, the demand that physicians must not be allowed to act upon beliefs is unacceptable because it is impossible; one cannot act morally without reference to beliefs.

But Tristan Bronca asks specifically about whether or not religious beliefs belong in medical practice in a secular society. On this point, the Supreme Court of Canada is unanimous: “Yes.”

“Everyone has ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in something, be it atheistic, agnostic or religious,” Mr. Justice Gonthier wrote in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36. “To construe the ‘secular’ as the realm of the ‘unbelief’ is therefore erroneous.”

“Why,” he asked, “should the religiously informed conscience be placed at a public disadvantage or disqualification? To do so would be to distort liberal principles in an illiberal fashion and would provide only a feeble notion of pluralism.”4

Thus, to argue that a “secular” society excludes religious belief perpetuates an error that contributes significantly to climate of anti-religious intolerance.

Guantanamo Restrain Chair Wikipedia Commons

Public funding of services is beneficial for patients, but quite distinct from physician obligations. After all, physicians provide many kinds of elective surgery and health services that are not publicly funded, and physicians are not paid for publicly funded services that they do not provide. Besides, our secular society taxes both religious and non-religious believers, so both have equal claims on “public dollars.”

Most important, public funding does not prove that a procedure is morally or ethically acceptable, any more than public funding proves that force-feeding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is acceptable. Perhaps that point will come up in military proceedings against a navy nurse who refused orders to do so.5


The Canadian Healthcare Network posted this response in the on-line edition, which is accessible only to health care professionals and managers.


Notes

1.  Bronca, T. “A conflict of conscience: What place do physicians’ religious beliefs have in modern medicine.” Canadian Health Care Network, 26 May, 2015

2. Downar J. “Is physician-assisted death in anyone’s best interest? – Yes.” Canadian Family Physician, Vol. 61: April, 2015, p. 314-316 (Accessed 2015-06-04).

3. St. Godard E. “Is physician-assisted death in anyone’s best interest? – No.” Canadian Family Physician, Vol. 61: April, 2015, p. 316-318 (Accessed 2015-06-04).

4. Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 [2002] 4 S.C.R. 710 (SCC), para. 137 (Accessed 2014-08-03). “Madam Justice McLachlin, who wrote the decision of the majority, accepted the reasoning of Mr. Justice Gonthier on this point thus making his the reasoning of all nine judges in relation to the interpretation of ‘secular.’” Benson I.T., “Seeing Through the Secular Illusion” (July 29, 2013). NGTT Deel 54 Supplementum 4, 2013  (Accessed 2014-02-18).

5. Rosenberg C. “Top nursing group backs Navy nurse who wouldn’t force-feed at Guantánamo.” Miami Herald, 19 November, 2014 (Accessed 2015-06-04)

 

Science: the religion that must not be questioned

 It’s time for the priesthood to be taken to task – and journalists aren’t up to the job

The Guardian

Henry Gee

You’d think from the way that science tends to be reported in the popular prints, as they used to be called, that Professor Helsing von Frankenstein goes into the dungeon laboratory of his castle one morning, dons his white coat and – by elevenses, and working completely alone – discovers a way to kill all known germs, tautologically. He gets his assistant, Igor, to set up a press conference at lunchtime, at which the professor emphasises that the research raises more questions than it answers. By teatime he has won the Nobel prize and his magic nostrum will be available on the NHS next morning. It’s always a “he”, by the way – received wisdom finds no place for female scientists, unless they also happen to be young, photogenic and, preferably, present television programmes.

Well, as we all know, science doesn’t work like that. Scientific research gets trapped in more box canyons than the Lone Ranger; does more U-turns than the average government; falls to certain death more often than Wile E Coyote; has more women in it than you might at first imagine (though probably not nearly enough); and generally gets the wrong answer.

As my learned colleague Dr Sylvia McLain, who is both a scientist and a person of the opposite sex, explained here just the other day, this is business as usual. All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong. . . [Read more]