How Can We Decide If a Biomedical Advance Is Ethical?
"All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…"
On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown was born in Oldham, England, the first human born through in vitro fertilization, through the work of Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist, and Robert Edwards, a physiologist. Her birth was greeted with strong (though not universal) expressions of ethical dismay. Yet in 2016, the latest year for which we have data, nearly two percent of the babies born in the United States – and around the same percentage throughout the developed world – were the result of IVF. Few, if any, think of these children as unnatural, monsters, or freaks or of their parents as anything other than fortunate.
How should we view Dr. He today, knowing that the world's eventual verdict on the ethics of biomedical technologies often changes?
On November 25, 2018, news broke that Chinese scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, claimed to have edited the genomes of embryos, two of whom had recently become the new babies, Lulu and Nana. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative.
Times change. So do views. How will Dr. He be viewed in 40 years? And, more importantly, how should we view him today, knowing that the world's eventual verdict on the ethics of biomedical technologies often changes? And when what biomedicine can do changes with vertiginous frequency?
How to determine what is and isn't ethical is above my pay grade. I'm a simple law professor – I can't claim any deeper insight into how to live a moral life than the millennia of religious leaders, philosophers, ethicists, and ordinary people trying to do the right thing. But I can point out some ways to think about these questions that may be helpful.
First, consider two different kinds of ethical commands. Some are quite specific – "thou shalt not kill," for example. Others are more general – two of them are "do unto others as you would have done to you" or "seek the greatest good for the greatest number."
Biomedicine in the last two centuries has often surprised us with new possibilities, situations that cultures, religions, and bodies of ethical thought had not previously had to consider, from vaccination to anesthesia for women in labor to genome editing. Sometimes these possibilities will violate important and deeply accepted precepts for a group or a person. The rise of blood transfusions around World War I created new problems for Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe that the Bible prohibits ingesting blood. The 20th century developments of artificial insemination and IVF both ran afoul of Catholic doctrine prohibiting methods other than "traditional" marital intercourse for conceiving children. If you subscribe to an ethical or moral code that contains prohibitions that modern biomedicine violates, the issue for you is stark – adhere to those beliefs or renounce them.
If the harms seem to outweigh the benefits, it's easy to conclude "this is worrisome."
But many biomedical changes violate no clear moral teachings. Is it ethical or not to edit the DNA of embryos? Not surprisingly, the sacred texts of various religions – few of which were created after, at the latest, the early 19th century, say nothing specific about this. There may be hints, precedents, leanings that could argue one way or another, but no "commandments." In that case, I recommend, at least as a starting point, asking "what are the likely consequences of these actions?"
Will people be, on balance, harmed or helped by them? "Consequentialist" approaches, of various types, are a vast branch of ethical theories. Personally I find a completely consequentialist approach unacceptable – I could not accept, for example, torturing an innocent child even in order to save many lives. But, in the absence of a clear rule, looking at the consequences is a great place to start. If the harms seem to outweigh the benefits, it's easy to conclude "this is worrisome."
Let's use that starting place to look at a few bioethical issues. IVF, for example, once proven (relatively) safe seems to harm no one and to help many, notably the more than 8 million children worldwide born through IVF since 1978 – and their 16 million parents. On the other hand, giving unknowing, and unconsenting, intellectually disabled children hepatitis A harmed them, for an uncertain gain for science. And freezing the heads of the dead seems unlikely to harm anyone alive (except financially) but it also seems almost certain not to benefit anyone. (Those frozen dead heads are not coming back to life.)
Now let's look at two different kinds of biomedical advances. Some are controversial just because they are new; others are controversial because they cut close to the bone – whether or not they violate pre-established ethical or moral norms, they clearly relate to them.
Consider anesthesia during childbirth. When first used, it was controversial. After all, said critics, in Genesis, the Bible says God told Eve, "I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children." But it did not clearly prohibit pain relief and from the advent of ether on, anesthesia has been common, though not universal, in childbirth in western societies. The pre-existing ethical precepts were not clear and the consequences weighed heavily in favor of anesthesia. Similarly, vaccination seems to violate no deep moral principle. It was, and for some people, still is just strange, and unnatural. The same was true of IVF initially. Opposition to all of these has faded with time and familiarity. It has not disappeared – some people continue to find moral or philosophical problems with "unnatural" childbirth, vaccination, and IVF – but far fewer.
On the other hand, human embryonic stem cell research touches deeper issues. Human embryos are destroyed to make those stem cells. Reasonable people disagree on the moral status of the human embryo, and the moral weight of its destruction, but it does at least bring into play clear and broadly accepted moral precepts, such as "Thou shalt not kill." So, at the far side of an individual's time, does euthanasia. More exposure to, and familiarity with, these practices will not necessarily lead to broad acceptance as the objections involve more than novelty.
The first is "what would I do?" The second – what should my government, culture, religion allow or forbid?
Finally, all this ethical analysis must work at two levels. The first is "what would I do?" The second – what should my government, culture, religion allow or forbid? There are many things I would not do that I don't think should be banned – because I think other people may reasonably have different views from mine. I would not get cosmetic surgery, but I would not ban it – and will try not to think ill of those who choose it
So, how should we assess the ethics of new biomedical procedures when we know that society's views may change? More specifically, what should we think of He Jiankui's experiment with human babies?
First, look to see whether the procedure in question violates, at least fairly clearly, some rule in your ethical or moral code. If so, your choice may not be difficult. But if the procedure is unmentioned in your moral code, probably because it was inconceivable to the code's creators, examine the consequences of the act.
If the procedure is just novel, and not something that touches on important moral concerns, looking at the likely consequences may be enough for your ethical analysis –though it is always worth remembering that predicting consequences perfectly is impossible and predicting them well is never certain. If it does touch on morally significant issues, you need to think those issues through. The consequences may be important to your conclusions but they may not be determinative.
And, then, if you conclude that it is not ethical from your perspective, you need to take yet another step and consider whether it should be banned for people who do not share your perspective. Sometimes the answer will be yes – that psychopaths may not view murder as immoral does not mean we have to let them kill – but sometimes it will be no.
What does this say about He Jiankui's experiment? I have no qualms in condemning it, unequivocally. The potential risks to the babies grossly outweighed any benefits to them, and to science. And his secret work, against a near universal scientific consensus, privileged his own ethical conclusions without giving anyone else a vote, or even a voice.
But if, in ten or twenty years, genome editing of human embryos is shown to be safe (enough) and it is proposed to be used for good reasons – say, to relieve human suffering that could not be treated in other good ways – and with good consents from those directly involved as well as from the relevant society and government – my answer might well change. Yours may not. Bioethics is a process for approaching questions; it is not a set of universal answers.
This article opened with a quotation from the 1848 Communist Manifesto, referring to the dizzying pace of change from industrialization and modernity. You don't need to be a Marxist to appreciate that sentiment. Change – especially in the biosciences – keeps accelerating. How should we assess the ethics of new biotechnologies? The best we can, with what we know, at the time we inhabit. And, in the face of vast uncertainty, with humility.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.