A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: February 2014

Is it human fan club mentality?

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogPhilosophers often put humans on display as beings that have some unique quality, like rationality or conceptual powers. And conversely they present animals as beings that lack that quality.

What comparison underlies such a notion of “human positivity” and “animal negativity”?

One could suspect that the dualism arises through a human-centered comparison. As if intellectual football fans treated football as the sport with which all sports are to be compared, which would turn football into the sport that has the unique qualities of full-fledged sport, while all other sports are grouped together as hollow sports that lack what football has.

One could thus suspect that philosophy implicitly employs a human standard for its comparisons, as if philosophy was a human fan club, busy to secure power and exclusive membership rights.

I have my doubts, though, since football can be surveyed in a way that human life cannot be. It is hardly possible to place “us” at the center, since we don’t know who “we” are as football fans know what football is.

Whatever is placed at the center, it will have to be an idealization; not actual human lives.

This implies that the philosophical dualism might be unjust not only to animals, but also to humans who breathe and talk and live independently of philosophical ideals and claims about their essence.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

Stress turns ordinary cells into pluripotent stem cells

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogTissues of the body originally form when “naïve” undifferentiated embryonic stem cells differentiate to form the “mature” cells of specific tissues: liver cells, brain cells, skin cells, and so on.

The mature cells are then locked in their differentiated forms, as if they met their fate.

I recently mentioned that Yamanaka and Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 for their surprising findings about dedifferentiation. Through direct genetic modification of nuclear function, mature cells can be reprogrammed to return to naïve stem-cell states. These dedifferentiated cells are pluripotent and can differentiate again and form a variety of mature cell types.

The rejuvenated cells regain the naïve properties of embryonic stem cells!

In January this year, an article published in Nature reported that the genetic reprogramming can be achieved more easily, without direct nuclear manipulation.

All you need to do to dedifferentiate mature cells, according to this article, is to subject them to stress: like an acid environment. Not all but some of the mature cells will be freed from their fate as liver or skin cells and return to naïve pluripotent states.

An easy to read summary can be found in BioEdge, and here is a link to the article:

Using mature cells to create stem cells with properties of embryonic stem cells might thus be easier than expected. In fact, the new findings weren’t even made in a stem-cell laboratory.

The ethical responses to the findings are not as thrilling as the findings. Some welcome the possibility of creating “ethical stem cells” that avoid the controversy about embryonic stem cells. Others see “new ethical issues” on the horizon.

These responses are characteristic of a routine view of ethical assessment as a static one-way process: ethicists assess others. But these findings indicate that processes in the opposite direction are possible as well, since they seem to challenge ethical assumptions about the unique function of the embryo.

I’m tempted to extend Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions to ethics. The new findings could function as anomalies for ethically paradigmatic ways of thinking about the embryo.

As stress turns mature cells into naïve pluripotent stem cells, these findings could stress some ethicists to return to more open-minded states that in the future can differentiate in new and unexpected directions.

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging findings - The ethics blog

Self-contradictions of anti-movements

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogOne cannot say, “I’m the humblest person in the world,” without displaying arrogance. One cannot protest, “How dare you call me arrogant? My whole life I’ve served individuals who don’t even deserve to tie my shoelaces!” without once again displaying arrogance.

Or listen to this: “Nothing is certain; here is the proof.”

Anti- and post-movements – anti-metaphysics, post-humanism etc. – display similar difficulties of avoiding comical self-contradiction. It is difficult to reject the grandiose ambitions of metaphysics to describe the world order, without trying to describe a world order that evades description.

That is to say: it is difficult to resist the temptation.

Rhetorically brilliant anti-metaphysicians compete contriving the most awe-inspiring neologisms to unveil the world’s essential evasiveness… a nomadic world of quasi-objects, hybridization and crossings of borders.

“How dare you call me a pretentious metaphysician? I know everything about the world’s inexplicability!”

Pär Segerdahl

The temptation of rhetoric - the ethics blog

Why do cancer patients participate in clinical trials?

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogHearsay and good intentions won’t suffice. If a new treatment is chosen for a patient with cancer, one must first have seen that the treatment is at least as efficient as the conventional treatment. And one must have looked at side effects and right dosages.

Seeing this, however, presupposes that some patients agree to test the treatment… before one has clearly seen its efficacy. This is done in so-called clinical trials arranged in phases where first side effects and dosages are studied, and finally efficacy is compared to conventional treatment.

This gives rise to questions: Why are some patients prepared not to be patients on the same conditions as other patients? Why are they prepared to test a treatment one hasn’t yet seen is most efficient?

Do they understand what they agree to participate in? Since they participate in a study of a new treatment, do they understand that in order to see its efficacy, some in the group will be given just the conventional treatment?

Tove Godskesen, PhD student at CRB, noticed that such questions were relatively unexamined in the context of Swedish clinical cancer trials. She therefore did a survey study with cancer patients in several Swedish phase 3 clinical trials (where experimental and conventional treatments are compared).

Godskesen’s study (done together with Mats G. Hansson, Peter Nygren, Karin Nordin and Ulrik Kihlbom) was recently published online in the European Journal of Cancer Care:

The article contains many interesting findings. For example, patients-participants seemed generally to have understood the information about the “seeing” that they were willing to support by not being patients quite the same way as others.

Most important and salient, however, was that patients have two main motives for participating. They hope for a cure; and they wish to help future patients.

I would like to say: Patients hope that they will be given the new treatment already and that it will turn out to be more efficient than the conventional one. And they want to help future patients get the treatment that one has seen is most efficient.

Sight and future, patient role and research participant role, hope and altruism, in complex association.

Pär Segerdahl

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