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Biotech Science

First Genetically Modified Human Embryo Under Review 509

Wired is reporting that Cornell University researchers genetically modified a human embryo in 2007, but have only recently been gaining publicity as their work is being reviewed. "The research raises a number of thorny ethical questions. Though adding a fluorescent protein was merely a proof-of-principle step, scientists say that modified embryos could be used to research human diseases. They say embryos wouldn't be allowed to develop for more than a few weeks, much less implanted in a woman and brought to term."
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First Genetically Modified Human Embryo Under Review

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  • by vertinox ( 846076 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @06:18PM (#23384872)
    And when the embryo is not brought to term the soul would go to hell... or would that be heaven since it hasn't committed sin yet? Wait what are the thorny ethical questions again?

    So does god send unborn yet dead people to hell or heaven?

    If he sends them to heaven then its sweet deal for the person involved.

    If he sends them to hell... Well... I'm not sure if that is a kind and loving god. Could you worship something like that?
  • by Bragador ( 1036480 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @06:20PM (#23384898)

    At this age they are not self aware. Basically they don't know they exist. I don't see the difference between studying an embryo of that age and studyng plants.

    We are already using animals that are aware of their existance in labs. Apes can recognise themselves in front of a mirror and we are using them so I feel this is really not a big issue and we should let science go ahead.

    Now I'm going to start a very heated debate. We know that babies start to be self aware around the age of 2 so if you really want to test my logic I'll tell you my opinion. We could logically use babies to make tests. Why this horrifies people is because they are attached to their own babies but since these newborns are not sentient yet, where is the harm in using "lab babies"? They would have to be grown in artificial wombs and all that to dehumanize them but logically it shouldn't be stopped.

    I might be modded down for opening a can of worms but try to have fun with this ethical puzzle.

  • by BearRanger ( 945122 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @06:36PM (#23385064)
    In the long run the Cornell scientists have probably done a good thing, as I'm sure this will be a milestone in manipulating our genome. A great proof of concept. But you have to wonder if, as a species, we're ready for this.

    Few people would object to using genetic manipulation to eliminate diseases or birth defects. What about homosexuality? Or dark skin? Or some other socially marginalized trait that has no bearing on the genetic fitness of the individual? What effect would "enhanced humans" have on a society built by "mundane" humans?

    I personally believe we don't yet have the wisdom or foresight necessary to manipulate our genes. Until we can reach some sort of ethical consensus on the how, why and when of human genome manipulation we should collectively say no.
  • by Nerdposeur ( 910128 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @06:41PM (#23385104) Journal

    Great question, but aren't "right and wrong" culturally defined?

    If right and wrong are culturally defined (not just specific application, but the general principles), I would argue that they don't exist. There is a big difference between "I/we prefer you don't do X" and "X is wrong."

    Imagine that you're walking down the street and trip on someone's foot. You're annoyed, right? Now imagine that you realize the person tripped you on purpose, and is laughing. Now you're indigent. Tripping people is wrong!

    Clearly your anger has less to do with the pain of falling than with your deep-seated feeling that "it's wrong to harm others." You would not describe this as a preference.

    Whatever we say about the source of morality, I think everyone feels that certain things are simply wrong. To deny this removes an important aspect of what it means to be human.

    I know that someone will say that different cultures have different concepts of morality, but I don't buy it. There are different applications, yes; but no culture values cowardice and treason and murder. Some cultures defend their genocide and slavery by arguing that the victims aren't human, for example, but they do this because they must justify their actions against the standard that genocide and slavery are wrong. Our instinct to make excuses shows that we agree with the standard.

  • by Straker Skunk ( 16970 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @06:49PM (#23385194)
    An embryo is human (Homo sapiens) and living (not dead tissue), in the technical sense. That has nothing to do with whether it is "a person who { is, should be } granted societal protection from being killed." After all, a brainless vegetable is also human and living, and most folks don't see a problem with pulling the plug on one. (The Terry Schiavo case hinged on whether she really was "brainless," in the public consciousness.)
  • Re:Invalid arguement (Score:2, Interesting)

    by LandDolphin ( 1202876 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @06:56PM (#23385280)
    I tend to lean towards human life not being valuable.

    There are already too many people on the planet as it is, and thousands of them die on a daily basis. There is no "magic" to creating life and the resources (Sperm and Eggs) are plentiful. Might as well get something from the resources via scientific study, instead of just letting them go to waste.
  • by NonSequor ( 230139 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @07:00PM (#23385326) Journal
    I figured that they were probably talking about a mass of undifferentiated cells, but I don't think that dismisses all questions here.

    I have no problem with stem-cells being collected from an embryoblast to create a culture. However, if the cells of a zygote or embryoblast are genetically modified in place without disrupting its structure so that it would develop into an embryo if allowed to proceed along its current course then it falls into a gray area. The article doesn't make it clear exactly what was done.

    Exactly how long should something that could conceivably be brought to term, but which we would not want to see brought to term be kept around?
  • by Mr. Roadkill ( 731328 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @07:08PM (#23385390)

    where is the harm in using "lab babies"? They would have to be grown in artificial wombs and all that to dehumanize them but logically it shouldn't be stopped.
    And once we're there, it's only a stone's throw to cloning complete organisms for organ harvesting for transplants - and vat-grown beef, pork, lamb and even long-pig.

    Actually, on the subject of cloning for organ harvesting, I see no reason why that couldn't be done provided brain development was suppressed...and maybe the reproductive system too. I'd probably get a little squeamish about vivisecting a copy of me that had a working brain, but I'd have few problems receiving the heart and lungs and liver from a headless incubator and having a barbecue with the leftovers.

    I can think of a situation in which a working reproductive system might be desirable, though - chemotherapy or disease can render people infertile, and it could be handy to have an ovary or testicle available for harvesting (for use in IVF) or even for transplantation. It might even be possible to replace a uterus lost to disease or accident or abuse in this way.
  • by keller999 ( 589112 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @07:14PM (#23385470)

    I agree with the semi-serious argument that all anti-abortion advocates should have to sign up to adopt all the children that their cause prevents being aborted.
    I tend to side with the quite-serious argument that if people could not have abortions, they may abstain from sex more often or pursue another form of birth control. In this case, I think that abortion being easy, common, and cheap cause more pregnancies to happen. If abortion is a viable answer, why take personal responsibility for your sexual decisions?

    And just because I believe that you shouldn't be able to terminate a fetus, doesn't mean I should have to adopt the results of you not keeping your penis to yourself. That's like me saying that if you're for abortion, you should have to sign up for a mailing list for pictures of dead fetuses. Neither argument is sane.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 12, 2008 @07:34PM (#23385648)

    From the other side, these are not humans and/or not alive.
    I'm all in favor of abortion, but your argument is untenable. "Human" is defined by our DNA, and "alive" is defined by the ability to grow, divide, and use energy. An embryo meets both definitions. To say that it isn't alive is just monumentally stupid, and to say that it isn't human life is dishonest.

    Really, is it so hard to just tell the truth: some human life is not valuable. Some human life is too small to have an consciousness, so we don't have a problem experimenting with it and then disposing of it.

    Is that so hard for people to say? To claim that it's not human and it's not alive is like claiming that the rats we experiment with are really made out of rainbows. It's just making something up to make yourself feel better. Just tell the truth.
  • by kurt555gs ( 309278 ) <kurt555gs&ovi,com> on Monday May 12, 2008 @07:52PM (#23385818) Homepage
    Am I the only one here that has no problem with the genetic engineering of humans? Why wait millions of years for evolution to fix things that are obvious?

    There are many things we do not know, but many we do. Why not make beter people? I see it no different that giving antibiotics for strep throat, or immunizing against the flu.

    We have upset normal genetics with life saving medicine so as to prolong the life of beings that really shouldn't be from a strict Darwinian sense.

    If we can make stronger, smarter, and yes, even better looking people with genetic engineering, then go for it.

    This is not flaimbait, it is how I feel, so if you want to comment on it, do it from that prospective.

  • Effectively, by accepting that if they don't feel pain (or anything for that matter) they can be disposed, opens the door to euthanasia in case of people in coma - and also to abortion and to extract embryos from pregnant women to do experiments on them. But also it opens the door to murder, just by giving anesthesics to people before they die. But that opens the door to ethnical cleansing. Later it won't make any difference if the people murdered died a quick painless death (i.e. a gunshot in the head, or even a nuke quick enough to guarantee they won't feel pain), or even a pleasureable death (i.e. drugs).

    When that happens, good bye, humanism.... good morning, Soylent Green!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 12, 2008 @08:47PM (#23386290)

    OK .. I chose the arbitrary point when a fetus emerges from a woman as the point a fetus becomes human. I have just as much basis for that statement as anyone who chooses fertilization. It's all arbitrary depending on your beliefs, since there are no scientific or legal definitions for a soul. Religious definitions don't count, as you just said. As far as the law is concerned, a soul doesn't exist.
    Of course you also set yourself up for the situation where if the doctor performing the termination triggers a miscarriage before the foetus is dead, he imediately flips from being actively engaged in destroying the foetus to being imprisoned for life should he do so. If you think that's just an hypotheitical issue, consider that in the UK the development limit for a termination is 24 weeks, whereas 1 in 5 babies born prematurely at 23 weeks survive -- doctors are somewhat regularly engaged in destroying foetuses that if they were removed from the womb at that point they would be duty bound to protect and provide medical aid, and that would have a significant chance of survival.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 12, 2008 @08:55PM (#23386362)
    Strange, the bible itself doesn't consider abortion murder. If you hurt a woman causing a miscarriage, it's a civil matter. : "And if men struggle and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." Exodus 21:22-25
  • by Danny Rathjens ( 8471 ) <<gro.snejhtar> <ta> <2todhsals>> on Monday May 12, 2008 @09:26PM (#23386600)
    Nope. "life" does not enter the equation at all. Most people other than Buddhist monks have few qualms about killing a mosquito or cockroach that we all agree is alive. My theory is that it is simply about the human instinct to like the similar and dislike the different. Dogs are like us, social mammals, so killing them is bad. Roaches are alien critters - certainly alive - but quite different than ourselves and hterefore it is ok to kill them.

    So the people against abortion are thinking of a blastocyst/embryo/fetus as a miniature human similar to themselves and it triggers that similarity instinct. Those that view a blastocyst as a clump of cells quite different than themselves are likely to not think it is such a big deal to destroy it.

    So people are pretty much for or against abortion or the use of embryonic stem cells based on gut instinct and then they come up with rationalizations - including silly arguments distorting the meaning of the word "life" - to justify it (we're good at that).
  • by jmorris42 ( 1458 ) * <> on Monday May 12, 2008 @11:23PM (#23387370)
    > OK .. I chose the arbitrary point when a fetus emerges from a woman
    > as the point a fetus becomes human. I have just as much basis for that
    > statement as anyone who chooses fertilization.

    Lots of logic problems here.

    Fertilization is the only logical point to draw a line ans say HERE is where a seperate entity begins. Sperm is just a part of you, the egg is just a part of her. When they meet something is created that isn't either of you. Consult a basic biology text is this isn't clear; The parts about immune system issues between the fetus and mother should be especially instructive.

    Time of birth is unsuitable for a multitude of reasons. First off, a child a few days from delivery would have an almost 100% chance of independent survival with modern medical science. Happens all the time, some trauma forces an early delivery, etc. But the current legal regime, and your stated position, would allow the same baby who could equally be delivered and have an almost normal chance of a productive life to be aborted instead. Fairly major ethical problem.

    Of course we (in the US) live in a Republic that clearly has birth as the legal definition of citizenship. Says so right in the Constituition. The legal problem can be fixed of course.

    > I've noticed it also depends on whether or not the person arguing
    > is the one that has to support it.

    This is a popular straw man argument. First off, once you conclude you are dealing with a child and not a tissue mass support is a given. After all you can't legally kill off a two week old by denying it basic life support. If you accept the child argument it is totally consistent. Besides, there are long waiting lists to adopt so the argument fails anyway.

    > That flimsy argument aside, the US recognizes 90 days of
    > development as to when an abortion can occur,

    It is getting harder and harder by the year to find a legal scholar who won't admit Roe v Wade wasn't one of the worst cases of legislation from the bench in the 20th Century. Depending on such a dubious 'ruling' isn't exactly an appeal to reason. Besides, medical science has advanced a lot since the 1970s and will only continue. Arbitrary 'viability' cutoffs are dangerous ground to stake out firm moral or even legal positions.
  • by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Monday May 12, 2008 @11:48PM (#23387492)
    it turns out it was a difference in diet and nutrition

    The steady flow of which, in a particular vein, causes different populations to adapted over time. There's a reason that Inuits look the way they do. I guarantee that if you take someone with a sub-Saharan diet and available nutrition, but raise them in Norway eating herring cold weather root vegetables, they will not become pasty pale, and grow blond hair. Neither will the Norwegian, transplanted to Papua, take on the local look - no matter what she eats.

    Very well fed and nutritionally well-taken-care-of Vietnamese folks aren't going to have the same body type as a large-boned Teutonic alp-dweller, complete with turbo-powered fat cells designed for packing on the pounds before the cold whether sets in. It's breeding... adaptation.

    And now that we're all past the geographic re-inforcing of these traits by virtue of a more globe-wandering population, you're forced to look at what people actually DO. You can't have made it past high school without recognizing the trend (with exceptions, of course) for lanky, attractive people to tend to wind up with each other, and with similar children. Likewise with the more trollish body types. This is slashdot, you know what I mean.

    Would you have any scientific evidence on these?

    No need, really. Just use your eyes. For purposes of this discussion, you know exactly what I mean. If you travel, you can spot it instantly. In a given area, economic classes can show a visible differences that are not strictly quality-of-dinner related. I have no axe to grind here - just calling like I've actually seen it. In Pennsylvania, in Verona, in Athens, in Denver, in Mexico City.
  • by Kashgarinn ( 1036758 ) on Tuesday May 13, 2008 @07:41AM (#23389618)
    I think most people don't understand that the line between ethical and unethical is an arbitrary one.

    Is it ethical to eat a baby? Well, when you eat veal, that's what you're doing, it's not the same species as you, but you're eating a child of that species, a living, breathing individual with its own characteristics and persona.

    Children are being killed, eaten and abused of all types of species, is that ethical? If we take this to the extreme, left: is it ethical to kill any other living thing for your consumption? right: is it ethical to deny your right to kill and eat what you wish?

    If you accept that we kill individuals and children from other species for food and we deem that as ethical, why do we deem embryo testing as something unethical?

    I'm guessing it's the ignorance of news-media and the people consuming the news that's the problem.

    In my opinion the experiments are of legitimate use, it's up to the experts and the companies they work at to make sure that they at least define the line for themselves and the regulations to keep them on the right side of their own definitions.


"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990