Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Students tackle tough bioethics questions

Should scientists be allowed to cultivate custom cellular machines? Students (left to right) Sarah Chambers, April Dworetz, and Maryam Daroudi present their findings. Their answer: Yes, but carefully. Photo by Ann Borden.

Paige Parvin writes in Emory Magazine:

What if scientists could create a real, live Neanderthal person, using knowledge of a genome sequenced from prehistoric DNA?

That might seem like something from a Michael Crichton novel, but there is evidence that it’s closer than you might think. That’s why it was the first test problem put to students in a new, experimental course on bioethics—specifically, what Roberta Berry, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, calls “ethically fractious problems.”

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the course brings together students from Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University College of Law and Morehouse School of Medicine. Berry, director of Georgia Tech’s Law, Science, and Technology Program, conceived of the course to address emerging problems that meet five criteria: They are novel, complex, ethically fraught, divisive, and unavoidably of public concern.

“The point of the grant proposal is that these problems will keep coming up, and we need to find ways to deal with them,” Berry says. “What caught the interest of the NSF was the idea of future scientists and engineers developing a particular set of skills necessary to deal with these issues at a policy level. The NSF also found the diverse mix of students very promising.”

The students are placed on teams of five to six members, with representatives from the biosciences, public policy, law, engineering, and even the humanities. There are no textbooks or assigned readings. The teams are given a series of three problems and set loose (guided by a faculty facilitator) to develop policy recommendations, which they ultimately present to invited stakeholders and policymakers including scientists and engineers, patent attorneys, law professors, judges, legislators, and legislative staffers.

"It’s a fascinating way to learn, and much truer to the way the students will work in the realms they are moving into,” says Kathy Kinlaw, associate director of Emory's Center for Ethics and a facilitator for the course.

Tara Wabbersen is an Emory graduate student working in cell and developmental biology. Faced with the first question of the course, she says it was fairly easy for her team to come up with the answer: No, scientists should not create a Neanderthal man. The challenge, though, was explaining why. “There were too many big questions,” she says. “Would it be defined as a person? Would there be social and class issues? The law student wanted to know what its rights would be.”

This year’s teams were assigned final problems with a focus on synthetic biology, so their work resonated with many of the key issues discussed by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which met at Emory in November.

One team analyzed the potential impact of cultivating emergent behaviors of differentiating cells, basically the production of biological “machines” through steering the differentiation of interacting stem cells. The second team worked on a real-life project that is actually in development, led by a Harvard researcher—the creation of a cellular system designed to detect glucose levels in the blood and then instruct other systems to produce and secrete insulin, to be used in treating type I diabetes patients.

Both teams drew on the highly controversial use of human embryonic stem cells to illustrate their points, noting the ongoing debate over the definition of life and when it begins. They covered religious and ethical implications, the need for balance between private innovation and public interest, the possibility for dual use if the advances fall into the wrong hands, and the importance of public perception in the success of new biological technologies. Ultimately, the teams found that researchers in these areas should be encouraged to proceed—but with caution, and overseen by regulatory agencies and clear, restrictive policies. Still, the potential for health benefits far outweighs the risks, the teams said.

Melissa Creary, an Emory graduate student of public health, ethics, and history, has worked in the Division of Blood Disorders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the past six years. “In my work, ethics comes up all the time,” she says. “If I were to rely on what I knew before this class, it was basically gut reaction and instinct. I was not really looking at the problem in a systematic way, which is what this class teaches.”

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