ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

28 November 2002


"No group of experts should be more aware of the hazards of unwarranted claims than geneticists. After all, it was the exuberance of geneticists early in this century that led to the creation of a discipline called eugenics." David Suzuki, professor of genetics

for more on human genetics:
see also:

1. Abort the disabled
2. Human-Mouse Hybrid
3. Made-to-order organisms & designer bioweapons
4. "Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity"


1. Bio-ethicist Sparks Furor by Suggesting Abortions of Disabled

November 25, 2002\Culture\archive\200211\CUL20021125b.html
By Robert B. Bluey

( - Disability advocates and pro-life groups are comparing the process of genetic selection to Nazi eugenics after a scholar from the National Institutes of Health said America would benefit from aborting the blind and disabled.

In a speech earlier this month at the University of Rhode Island, biomedical ethicist Dan W. Brock said his views are not discriminatory, and he said any decision must be left to parents, without government intervention.

Brock told that his beliefs are his own and do not represent those of the National Institutes of Health or the federal government. He also said it is not the first time he has faced criticism for his views.

The speech was meant, in part, to counter that criticism and offer a defense for genetic testing, which Brock said is not like the eugenics practiced by the Nazis. German dictator Adolf Hitler used eugenics, killing disabledindividuals and then Jews, with the goal of creating a perfect society.

But two pro-life groups said Brock's theory could have a detrimental impact on future generations.

"It's a hidden agenda that they want to rid our country of people who may cause us to care for them and protect them and may even cost some money," said Tom Lothamer, interim director of Baptists for Life. "If we have that kind of a culture of death, then I believe our country is doomed. If we can do away with the disabled, then who's next?"

Wendy Wright, spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, echoed those sentiments. She said Brock's theories undermine the field of bioethics and lead society down a dangerous path.

"It's particularly dangerous when you target people because of a disability," Wright said. "As we've seen throughout history, it's too easy for people who don't have a moral compass to fall into that way of thinking. Once people start down that slope, that inevitably expands to other classes of people."

Brock said this is not the first time he has been criticized by those in the disability and pro-life communities. As for the argument that he is promoting eugenics, "One thing doesn't always lead to every other thing," he said.

"One can distinguish between using this testing, either pre-conception or post-conception, to prevent the birth of children with very serious disabling diseases from any implications of how we should treat people who are born and live with those diseases," Brock said.

Other bioethics specialists have also challenged his views, including Adrienne Asch, a professor at Wellesley College, who said Brock has failed to understand how disabled individuals cope with their disabilities.

Brock, for instance, said blind individuals cannot enjoy the paintings at an art gallery and people with cognitive disabilities are unable to perform basic daily functions. For those reasons, he said, parents should give genetic testing some thought.

"Even after we've made all the accommodations of justice and equality of opportunity, there would still be some residual disadvantage from being seriously cognitively disabled or being blind," Brock said. "It's a judgment not about the person; it's a judgment about the condition and a judgment that it would be better if the children who are born don't have that condition."

Asch said blind individuals might not be able to see two-dimensional art, but that does not mean they cannot appreciate other things in life.

"Not every human being can do everything," Asch said, citing the athleticism of a basketball player or the knowledge of a mathematician. "Everybody has things they are able to experience and things they are not."

For Penny Reeder, who is blind, Brock's theories are hurtful. She said if genetic testing becomes prominent, parents would be faced with difficult ethical decisions.

"How dare he say that he's not denigrating people with disabilities when he's advocating aborting a pregnancy of a potential person with a disability. It's just amazing to me," said Reeder, who cited her job as a magazine editor as evidence that blind people can succeed.

Lothamer said the issue also extends beyond bioethics into an area where parents must decide if they should play the role of a higher being. But Brock was quick to counter that assessment as well.

"Medicine is in the business of messing with nature and God's will," he said. "Medicine tries to intervene in what would otherwise happen by natural processes or God's will. We normally think that if we can prevent serious suffering, then artificial interventions are justified."

Even Asch conceded that some parents would probably adopt Brock's way of thinking, but said she hopes those parents also consider the positive impact disabled individuals can have on society.

"I think people should get to make the decisions they want to make," Asch said. "I think they need to have better information about life with disability before they make those decisions, but if they ultimately make those decisions, then they make them."

Courtesy of Citizens United Resisting Euthanasia,


2. Stem Cell Mixing May Form a Human-Mouse Hybrid

November 27, 2002

A group of American and Canadian biologists is debating whether to recommend stem cell experiments that would involve creating a human-mouse hybrid.

The goal would be to test different lines of human embryonic stem cells for their quality and potential usefulness in treating specific diseases. The best way to do that, some biologists argue, is to see how the cells work in a living animal. For ethical reasons, the test cannot be performed in people.

But if the human stem cells are tested that way in mice, any animals born from the experiment would be chimeras - organisms that are mixtures of two kinds of cells - with human cells distributed throughout their body. Though the creatures would probably be mice with a few human cells that obey mouse rules, the outcome of such an experiment cannot be predicted. A mouse with a brain made entirely of human cells would probably discomfort many people, as would a mouse that generated human sperm or eggs.

Dr. Irving L. Weissman, an expert on stem cells at Stanford University, said that making mice with human cells could be "an enormously important experiment," but if conducted carelessly could lead to outcomes that are "too horrible to contemplate." He gave as an extreme example the possibility that a mouse making human sperm might accidentally be allowed to mate with a mouse that had made its eggs from human cells.

At least two biologists in the group that is discussing the experiment said they believed that it was premature or unethical and could stir policy makers to limit further stem cell research or ban it.

Stem cells are a kind of universal clay, so responsive to local cues that they can morph into blood, skin, bone or any other replaceable tissues. They retain the gift of self-renewal, which, to curb the risk of cancer, is withdrawn from all the body's mature cells. Stem cells, when they divide, usually produce one mature cell and one stem cell.

They hold high promise as an all-purpose material for repairing many degenerative diseases of old age like Parkinson's, cancer and heart disease.

Other scientists say such experiments would be of great value and could beconducted with human stem cells engineered so that they could not produce brain or reproductive cells. That group acknowledged that even an experiment drawn up with such precautions should first undergo scientific review and public debate.

The proposal for the experiment grew out of a meeting on Nov. 13 at the New York Academy of Sciences sponsored by the academy and Rockefeller University. It was organized by Dr. Ali H. Brivanlou, a Rockefeller biologist who studies embryology.

Dr. Brivanlou invited eight other experts and, as observers, two editors of scientific journals and Dr. James F. Battey Jr., director of the National Institute of Deafness and chairman of the stem cell task force of the National Institutes of Health. The meeting was not intended to be public, Dr. Brivanlou said, and at one point, the nine experts held a closed session at which the observers, including even Dr. Battey, were asked to stepoutside.

One journal editor wrote of the meeting in the current issue of Nature, reporting that Dr. Battey "criticized participants for what he regards as excessive secrecy." Dr. Battey did not return telephone calls to his office.

The purpose of the meeting, Dr. Brivanlou said yesterday in an interview, was to discuss quality standards for several new lines, or colonies, of human embryonic stem cells being developed around the world.

In one test that they discussed, human embryonic stem cells would be injected into an early mouse embryo when it was still a small ball of cells called the blastocyst. Scientists would then see whether the human stem cells showed up in all the mouse's tissues. That ability, known as pluripotentiality, is the hallmark of a true embryonic stem cell.

Injection into another mouse's blastocyst is the standard test for mouse embryonic stem cells. Those cells, like human embryonic stem cells, come from a small pool of all-purpose cells a few days after the fertilized egg has started to divide.

No one knows whether human embryonic stem cells would survive in a mouse blastocyst. If they did, and they contributed to all the tissues, that would be a useful test for the many claimed human embryonic stem cell lines being developed, Dr. Brivanlou said.

One participant, Dr. Janet Rossant of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said that she did not consider the test necessary and that if the injected human cells made major contributions to the mouse, "I think that is something that most people would find unacceptable."

Dr. Weissman of Stanford, who was not at the meeting, said the experiment could help scientists follow the behavior of human cells with genetic diseases. Studying how the diseased human cells develop in a mouse could offer treatment insights.

Dr. Weissman said undesirable outcomes like a mouse with a brain made of human cells or a mouse that generated human sperm could be avoided by deleting certain genes from the human cells before injecting them into a mouse. He added that such procedures should be carefully reviewed by a body like the National Academy of Sciences.

"You must assure yourself and the public," he said, "that it's ethical. It's not for scientists alone to decide."

A biologist at the meeting here, Dr. Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute, said that the question of making mice with human cells deserved further consideration and that scientists and the public "should listen to each other more" before reaching a conclusion to go ahead.

In using mice simply to test the pluripotentiality of human embryonic stem cells, it would not be necessary to let the mice grow to term, Dr. Gage said. The earlier the mice were killed the smaller would be the ethical issue, in his view.

Dr. Richard M. Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who has long opposed research with human embyronic stem cells, said his primary objection remained with the first step, that of killing a human embryo to obtain embryonic stem cells. Dr. Doerflinger's initial reaction to the proposed experiment was that as a test for pluripotentiality it might not be objectionable.

"If you end up with one human cell per organ of a mouse, I don't think it raises a new problem," he said. "The amounts of human material in an animal would have to be pretty substantial to start talking about a human hybrid, and I don't think this raises that specter."  The nine participants at the conference are drafting a white paper to lay out proposed standards to test human embryonic stem cells. The mouse injection test is on the list, Dr. Brivanlou said, with the wording under discussion.

Federally financed researchers can work only with "presidential cell lines," the human cell lines established before Aug. 9, 2001, which President Bush declared as the cutoff for permissible stem cell work. The guidelines prepared by Dr. Brivanlou's group could be applied to those stem cells, as well as the nonpresidential ones.


3. Made by you

By Lisa Stein
U.S. News & World Report December 2, 2002
Vol. 133 , No. 21; Pg. 16

This summer, scientists revealed that they could make a polio virus from scratch, using mail-order chemicals. Now another group plans to brew up a more complex life form, a single-celled bacterium. The goal: new bugs with useful traits like the ability to make hydrogen fuel, says the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, which last week won a $ 3 million government grant for the work. Scientists plan to wire the homemade bugs so they'll self-destruct if they escape. But ethicists say the move toward made-to-order organisms raises safety concerns and even the specter of designer bioweapons.


APPEAL of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity

Alarmed by the potential hostile uses of biotechnology, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appeals to:

*       all political and military authorities to strengthen their commitment to the international humanitarian law norms which prohibit the hostile uses of biological agents, and to work together to subject potentially dangerous biotechnology to effective controls.

*       the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society in general to ensure that potentially dangerous biological knowledge and agents be subject to effective controls. The ICRC appeals in particular:


*       To become parties to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, if they have not already done so, to encourage States which are not parties to become parties, and to lift reservations on use to the 1925 Geneva Protocol,
*       To resume with determination efforts to ensure faithful implementation of these treaties and develop appropriate mechanisms to maintain their relevance in the face of scientific developments,
*       To adopt stringent national legislation, where it does not yet exist, for implementation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and to enact effective controls on biological agents with potential for abuse,
*       To ensure that any person who commits acts prohibited by the above instruments is prosecuted,
*       To undertake actions to ensure that the legal norms prohibiting biological warfare are known and respected by members of armed forces,
*       To encourage the development of effective codes of conduct by scientific and medical associations and by industry to govern activities and biological agents with potential for abuse, and
*       To enhance international cooperation, including through the development of greater international capacity to monitor and respond to outbreaks of infectious disease.


*       To scrutinize all research with potentially dangerous consequences and to ensure it is submitted to rigorous and independent peer review,
*       To adopt professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing the abuse of biological agents,
*       To ensure effective regulation of research programs, facilities and biological agents which may lend themselves to misuse, and supervision of individuals with access to sensitive technologies, and
*       To support enhanced national and international programs to prevent and respond to the spread of infectious disease.

The ICRC calls on all those addressed here to assume their responsibilities as members of a species whose future may be gravely threatened by abuse of biological knowledge. The ICRC appeals to you to make your contribution to the age-old effort to protect humanity from disease. We urge you to consider the threshold at which we all stand and to remember our common humanity.

The ICRC urges States to adopt at a high political level an international Declaration on "Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity" containing a renewed commitment to existing norms and specific commitments to future preventive action.

Geneva, September 2002

ngin bulletin archive