Category Archives: Bioethics

“A day in the life of a bioethicist”: Careers feature in the Biochemical Society

The Biochemical Society runs a monthly “Careers” feature. This month (June 2019) they ventured outside the life sciences to talk about careers in Bioethics. Here’s the result of a conversation with Lorenza Giannella. Thanks for featuring me and most importantly, bioethics!

careeers

http://www.portlandpresspublishing.com/sites/default/files/biochemist/Synthetic%20Biology%20June%202019/BioJUNE19_All%28Careers%29.pdf

 

Consider the pig – killed, humanised, resuscitated, for the benefit of whom?

On April 18th, 2019, I had the pleasure of speaking to Adam Rutherford for BBC Inside Science about the experiments carried out by scientists at Yale University reanimating pigs’ heads:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00046sj

Following from our conversation, I wrote down a few  thoughts here: *

Consider the pig – they have made the headlines and the cover of the two major American scientific journals in  the last two years: first in Science when scientists led by George Church at MIT created humanised organs in pigs with CRISPR genome editing technology, raising spectre of Margaret Atwood’s “pigoons” , 57578698_2057650081000436_7939556395970461696_o( I wrote a little article on those experiments here) and today when in an article published in  Nature, scientists at Yale University described how they engineered  a technology – which they named Brain Ex – which was able partially restore cellular functions in pigs severed heads several hours  post mortem.  The Italian saying, “nothing is thrown away of the pig”, seems to be most appropriate here.

While some commentators have rushed to write that the Yale experiments  have  huge implications for our understanding of ‘death’, this is incorrect. As a matter of fact, the BrainEx technology does not change our conception of death, at all. Legally, there are two types of death – cardiac death (absence of pulse) and brain death (defined in the UK, as absence of brainstem functions).

Brain death was established as a legal criterion of death fifty years ago, with a declaration of the World Medical Association in Sydney, and an Ad Hoc Report of the Harvard Committee. What the Yale scientists have been able to do with BrainEx technology is observe a decrease in cell death and some preservation in anatomical and neural cell integrity, in combination with the restoration of specific cellular functions, in the absence of global brain activity.

The 1968 Declaration of the World Medical Association included a paragraph which clearly stated  that cellular function was not necessary for determination of death. (“Cessation of all life at a cellular level is not a necessary criterion for the determination of death”.) Fast forward fifty years,  we have the BrainEx technology that allows us exactly to restore this cellular function, but this has no impact whatsoever on the legal determination of death.

In the West we have a brain-centric conception, which goes back to Descartes’ and the mind body duality, according to which the brain is where our  human identity and essence lies.  Think if instead of the brain we were talking about re-perfusing and reactivating some cellular function in another organ – if we had a LiverEx, or KidneyEx, or LungEx technology, would we make such a big deal out of it? Probably not. But, it would probably be more useful than the current technology, as it could be used to prolong the window of viable for organ transplantation for essential organs (currently, we don’t have brain transplants). As a matter of fact, it is questionable why the Yale scientists did not try their technology on other organs first, where the clinical applications in terms of organ transplantation would have been more straightforward.  I suspect it is because the experiments would have had less of an impact, at least in this part of the world.

The Yale experiments only show us that some cellular function is reactivated a prolonged period post mortem – it is not that surprising   as they would like us to believe that we are able to intervene aggressively with technology and restore some cellular function!

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Luigi Galvani’s electro-physiology experiments in Bologna, 1791

Indeed, the Italian Luigi Galvani in the late 18th century was conducting pioneer electrophysiology experiments on frogs, and showing that dissected legs of frogs in his laboratory at the University of Bologna seemed to jump to life under various conditions, because of signals going through their synaptic (neuronal) cells. His experiments demonstrated for the first time and the nervous system delivered animal electricity to muscle tissue, and inspired May Shelley to write her famous novel “Frankenstein”

, which by some commentators is now being used to refer to the experiments by the Yale team as “Frankenswine”. The poor Shelley is surely turning in her grave at seeing the latest mis-use of her title.

With an homage to David F. Wallace, we could say: consider, again, the pig: often killed, sometimes humanised, lately resuscitated. For the benefit of whom?

*I tried to publish this in “The Conversation”, but they turned me down 😦

2014-2019: Celebrating 5 years of the Bioethics & Society programme

2019 marks the 5th year of the Bioethics & Society programme at King’s College London.

To celebrate the 5 year of the programme we are running a series of events, including a “Bioethics & Society alumni series” where we feature the career trajectories of our amazing alumni. Our students come from all over the world and bring to King’s a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. They really make the programme and have been shaping it over the past few years.

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The amazing first cohort of the Bioethics & Society programme at King’s College London, 2014/15

I had to privilege to work on this unique programme (the only bioethics programme in the UK based in a faculty of social sciences and public policy, and combining training in social sciences qualitative and quantitative methods and a critical philosophical approach to ethics) from the very beginning, with Ilina Singh and Annette Rid. Both colleagues have since left King’s (Ilina Singh is Professor of Neuroscience and Society at the University of Oxford, while Annette Rid is Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health, and Professor of Philosophy Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University) and I am now working with another wonderful colleague, Dr Gry Wester.

It has been a privilege to direct the programme over the past few years and to teach amazing people and I look forward to continuing doing so and helping the programme grow to the next level over the next 5!

Here are some of our alumni’s testimonials:

James Aluri, class of 2016.

Andrew Barnhart, class of 2016:

 

 

Paige Fitzsimmons, class of 2017:

 

 

Lienkie Diedericks, class of 2019.

Melissa W. Gaule, class of 2018.

Richard Gibson, class of 2016.

Louisa Howard, class of 2018.

Gemma McKenzie 2019

Gemma McKenzie, class of 2017

Gemma McKenzie, class of 2017, featured April 19th, 2019.

Alex Meyer, class of 2016.

 

If  you are a B&S alumni and would like to participate in the series, please do get in touch with me – I  would love to hear from you!