Could Biologically Enhancing Our Morality Save Our Species?
As a species, we are prone to weaponizing. There is a famous anecdote from Wulf Schievenhovel, a German anthropologist who was working in the highlands of New Guinea studying a local tribe. One day, he offered two tribesmen a flight in an airplane. They duly accepted but showed up with two large stones. When he asked why, they told him that they wanted to drop them on a neighboring village. Ethologist Frans de Waal later remarked on this story that Schievenhovel had effectively "witnessed the invention of the bomb."
Today you don't have to be Putin or Kim Jong Un to pose an existential threat.
Modern technology has given us access to more than just rocks. In 2011, a Swedish man was arrested after attempting a nuclear fission in his kitchen. And in the inaugural issue of this magazine, my colleague Hank Greely raised a terrifying prospect:
"do-it-yourself hobbyists can use CRISPR [gene editing]… to change the genomes of whole species of living things – domestic or wild; animal, vegetable, or microbial – cheaply, easily, and before we even know it is happening."
In science fiction, it is typically governments that take over technologies and use them for evil. That risk is of course no fiction. It is an ongoing problem that we have addressed through institutions: democracies, constitutions, legal systems and international treaties, and groups working together as checks and balances. It isn't perfect, but it has worked (so far).
Today you don't have to be Putin or Kim Jong Un to pose an existential threat. We are rapidly acquiring the technological ability for individuals and groups not just to cause major harm, but to do so exactly as Hank said: "cheaply, easily, and before we even know it is happening."
How should we address this problem? Together with Ingmar Persson, a fellow philosophy professor at Gothenburg, Sweden, I have argued that while education, institutions and good policing are important, we may need to think more radically.
We could adapt our biology so that we can appreciate the suffering of foreign or future people in the same instinctive way we do our friends and neighbors.
We evolved, along with the New Guinea tribesmen, to care about our small group and to be suspicious of outsiders. We evolved to cooperate well within our group, at a size where we could keep an eye on free riders. And we evolved to have the ability, and occasionally the desire to harm others, but with a natural limit on the amount of harm we could do—at least before others could step in to prevent, punish or kill us.
Our limitations have also become apparent in another form of existential threat: resource depletion. Despite our best efforts at educating, nudging, and legislating on climate change, carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 are expected to come in at the highest ever following a predicted rise of 2 percent. Why? We aren't good at cooperating in larger groups where freeriding is not easily spotted. We also deal with problems in order of urgency. A problem close by is much more significant to us than a problem in the future. That's why even if we accept there is a choice between economic recession now or natural disasters and potential famine in the future, we choose to carry on drilling for oil. And if the disasters and famine are present day, but geographically distant, we still choose to carry on drilling.
So what is our radical solution? We propose that there is a need for what we call moral bioenhancement. That is, for seeking a biological intervention that can help us overcome our evolved moral limitations. For example, adapting our biology so that we can appreciate the suffering of foreign or future people in the same instinctive way we do our friends and neighbors. Or, in the case of individuals, in addressing the problem of psychopathy from a biological perspective.
There is no reason in principle why humans could not be genetically modified...to make them kinder, happier, more conscientious, altruistic and just.
We have been dramatically successful at modifying various moral characteristics of non-human animals. Over ten thousand years or so, we have turned wolves into dogs by selective breeding, and those dogs into breeds with behavioural as well as physical characteristics: certain breeds can be faithful, hard working, good tempered and intelligent (or the opposite). Scientists have manipulated the expression of genes in prairie voles to cause them to form a mate bond more quickly, and in monkeys to make them work harder. There is no reason in principle why humans could not be genetically modified using gene editing, or their brains modified in other ways, to make them kinder, happier, more conscientious, altruistic and just.
One objection is that this is a pipe dream: even if it is acceptable to do this, it is so unlikely to be achievable, it is not worth pursuing. However, research has shown that we are already morally modified. This is widely accepted when it comes to negative effects. For example, we all know that alcohol can lead people to aggressive or other destructive behaviours that they would not have countenanced sober. In a 2008 case, a retired UK teacher was cleared of child pornography charges after he successfully argued his behaviour was caused by a drug prescribed for his Parkinson's disease. There is also evidence that we can be morally modified in a more positive direction. For example, SSRIs like Prozac, a class of drugs widely used to treat depression, have been shown to act on healthy volunteers to make them more cooperative and less critical.
Another objection is that we need the negative aspects of our human character. We need people who can fight wars. We need to be able to blot out the suffering of the wider world: to experience it as we would if it applied to our nearest and dearest would be unbearable. This might be so. If aggressiveness and denial, or strong bonding to small communities, are important traits, it is important that we understand how, and to what degree, they should be controlled. It is unlikely that nature has dished out exactly the right levels of all morally relevant characteristics on an individual or population level. We don't claim to have all the answers to what characteristics we need to enhance, and what characteristics we need to diminish. But we see no reason to believe that the status quo is the optimum.
We haven't argued that we should go blindly in now with half-baked moral enhancers, or that we should forget about moral education, or legal solutions. Evolution has a built-in response to existential threats through adaptation. But adaptation takes generations and can't deal with threats that take out a whole population. Some threats are too important —and too urgent—to be left to chance.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”