Ethics, human rights and responsible innovation

October 31, 2017

josepine-fernow2It is difficult to predict the consequences of developing and using new technologies. We interact with smart devices and intelligent software on an almost daily basis. Some of us use prosthetics and implants to go about our business and most of us will likely live to see self-driving cars. In the meantime, Swedish research shows that petting robot cats looks promising in the care of patients with dementia. Genetic tests are cheaper than ever, and available to both patients and consumers. If you spit in a tube and mail it to a US company, they will tell you where your ancestors are from. Who knows? You could be part sub Saharan African, and part Scandinavian at the same time, and (likely) still be you.

Technologies, new and old, have both ethical and human rights impact. Today, we are closer to scenarios we only pictured in science fiction a few decades ago. Technology develops fast and it is difficult to predict what is on the horizon. The legislation, regulation and ethical guidance we have today was developed for a different future. Policy makers struggle to assess the ethical, legal and human rights impact of new and emerging technologies. These frameworks are challenged when a country like Saudi Arabia, criticized for not giving equal rights to women, offers a robot honorary citizenship. This autumn marks the start of a research initiative that will look at some of these questions. A group of researchers from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas join forces to help improve the ethical and legal frameworks we have today.

The SIENNA project (short for Stakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact) will deliver proposals for professional ethics codes, guidelines for research ethics committees and better regulation in three areas: human genetics and genomics, human enhancement, and artificial intelligence & robotics. The proposals will build on input from stakeholders, experts and citizens. SIENNA will also look at some of the more philosophical questions these technologies raise: Where do we draw the line between health and illness, normality and abnormality? Can we expect intelligent software to be moral? Do we accept giving up some of our privacy to screen our genome for genetic disorders? And if giving up some of our personal liberty is the price we have to pay to interact with machines, are we willing to pay it?

 The project is co-ordinated by the University of Twente. Uppsala University’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics contributes expertise on the ethical, legal and social issues of genetics and genomics, and experience of communicating European research. Visit the SIENNA website at www.sienna-project.eu to find out more about the project and our partners!

Josepine Fernow

The SIENNA projectStakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact – has received just under € 4 million for a 3,5 year project under the European Union’s H2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No 741716.

Disclaimer: This text and its contents reflects only SIENNA’s view. The Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

SIENNA project

This post in Swedish

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Research data, health cyberspace and direct-to-consumer genetic testing

December 14, 2016

josepine-fernow2We live in a global society, which means there are several actors that regulate both research and services directed at consumers. It is time again for our newsletter on current issues in biobank ethics and law. This time, Biobank Perspectives  lets you read about the legal aspects of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Santa Slokenberga writes about her doctoral dissertation in law from Uppsala University and how the Council of Europe and the EU interact with each other and the legal systems in the member states. She believes direct-to-consumer genetic testing can be seen as a “test” of the European legal orders, showing us that there is need for formal cooperation and convergence as seemingly small matters can lead to large consequences.

We also follow up from a previous report on the General Data Protection Regulation in a Swedish perspective with more information about the Swedish Research Data Inquiry. We are also happy to announce that a group of researchers from the University of Oxford, University of Iceland, University of Oslo and the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics at Uppsala University received a Nordforsk grant to find solutions for governance of the “health cyberspace” that is emerging from assembling and using existing data for new purposes. To read more, download a pdf of the latest issue (4:2016), or visit the Biobank Perspectives site for more ethical and legal perspectives on biobank and registry research.

Josepine Fernow

This post in Swedish

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Genetic screening before pregnancy?

June 20, 2016

Pär SegerdahlGenetic diseases can arise in strange ways. So-called recessive diseases require that both parents have the gene for the disease. The parents can be healthy and unaware that they are carriers of the same non-dominant disease gene. In these cases, the risk that the child develops the disease is 25 percent.

In families with a history of some recessive disease, as well as in communities where some serious recessive disease is common, genetic screening before pregnancy is already used – to determine whether couples that are planning a child are, so to speak, genetically compatible.

As these genetic tests have become more reliable and affordable, one has begun to consider offering preconception genetic screening to whole populations. Since one doesn’t know then exactly which genes to look for, it’s not just about screening more people, but also about testing for more recessive traits. This approach has been termed expanded carrier screening (ECS).

In the Netherlands, a pilot project is underway, but the ethical questions are many. One concerns medicalization, the risk that people begin to think of themselves as being more or less genetically compatible with each other, and feel a demand to test themselves before they form a couple and plan children.

Sweden has not yet considered offering expanded carrier screening to the population and the ethical issues have not been discussed. Amal Matar, PhD student at CRB, decided to start investigating the issues in advance. So that we are prepared and can reason well, if preconception expanded carrier screening is suggested.

The first study in the PhD project was recently published in the Journal of Community Genetics. Interviews were made with clinicians and geneticists, as well as with a midwife and a genetic counselor, to examine how this type of genetic screening can be perceived from a Swedish health care perspective.

Ethical issues raised during the interviews included medicalization, effects on human reproductive freedom, parental responsibility, discrimination against diseased and carriers, prioritization of resources in health care, as well as uncertainties about what to test for and how to interpret results.

The study serves as an empirical exploration of the ethical issues. Some of these issues will be examined philosophically further on in Amal Matar’s project.

(Read more about Amal Matar and her work at CRB here.)

Pär Segerdahl

Matar, A., Kihlbom, U., Höglund, A.T. Swedish healthcare providers’ perceptions of preconception expanded carrier screening (ECS) – a qualitative study. Journal of Community Genetics, DOI 10.1007/s12687-016-0268-2

This post in Swedish

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog


Laboratories interpret genetic test results differently

June 15, 2015

Pär SegerdahlA new study suggests that the results of genetic tests are not always as reliable as we want to believe. A comparison between laboratories providing these tests shows that the same genetic variant can be interpreted differently.

A single gene variant can thus be interpreted as an increased risk of breast cancer by one laboratory, but as no increased risk by another.

Given that the results of genetic tests can motivate a person to undergo, or not undergo, preventive surgery, this is quite alarming.

Genetic risks are not literally written in our genes. They require interpreting the significance of different genetic variants. The interpretation requires research that can show whether the variant is associated with increased risk of disease or not.

Most variants cannot be interpreted at all. Many are so rare that there is no data to even begin interpreting their meaning.

If I understand correctly, interpretations differ partly because laboratories do not always share their data. Their interpretations are based on limited studies using their own data. Such studies may point in different directions.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of open data, all this shows that we cannot take genetic tests or effective healthcare for granted. They require ongoing research work with large amounts of data.

We easily neglect this: how research continuously underpins healthcare.

But even with better interpretations of genetic tests, it will be difficult to interpret what the results mean for the individual.

Genetic risk continues to be a complex concept.

Pär Segerdahl

Following the news - the ethics blog


How do people live with genetic risk?

December 3, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogFor the doctor, the patient’s disease is a virus infection, a non-functioning kidney, a mutation. The disease is a disorder within the patient’s body.

But for the patient, the disease is not least a disorder of his or her life and of how the body functions in daily life. The disease disrupts the patient’s plans and direction of life. This can be experienced with grief as a loss of what was “one’s life.”

The concept of disease is ambiguous. It has one meaning in medicine; another in the patient’s own life and experience. Also the diseased body is ambiguous. The doctor’s conception of the patient’s bodily disorder is something else than the patient’s experience of the disorder of the body.

At one of our seminars, Serena Oliveri (see below) discussed how people experience genetic risk of disease.

Also genetic risk is ambiguous I believe Oliveri wants to say. Genetic risk has one meaning in genetics (hard to grasp even for geneticists and physicians). But what happens in people’s own lives when they get to know the risk? How does one live with the risk of developing breast cancer or Alzheimer’s disease in the future? How does one live as “someone who is at risk?”

Oliveri indicates that the challenge here isn’t only that of informing people in more comprehensible ways. No matter how well the doctor explains the disease or the genetic risk to the patient, disease and genetic risk continue to be ambiguous. Disease and genetic risk continue to have different meanings in the medical setting and in people’s own lives.

The ambiguity is inevitable. For we do not cease to live and to experience life just because some medical or genetic issue was explained to us in very comprehensible ways. So how does life change when it becomes a life with genetic risk? That question needs to be investigated.

The ambiguity is a responsibility. Today, it is becoming increasingly easy and cheap to provide people with genetic risk information. You can even buy your own genetic test online! That aspect of genetics develops more rapidly today than the methods of treating or giving advice to people at risk.

Through genetic tests, then, it has become very easy to create people who “live at risk” without us really knowing yet what it means in those people’s lives. And without us really knowing yet what they should do with the risk in the form of treatments or changes in lifestyle.

We are dealing with ambiguous concepts, Oliveri points out, and therefore we face double challenges.

Pär Segerdahl

  • Serena Oliveri, PhD, is a Post-Doc researcher in Cognitive Psychology and Decision-Making processes at the University of Milan and a member of the Applied Research Unit for Cognitive and Psychological Science at the European Institute of Oncology (IEO). Her research interests focus on medical decision making, risk analysis related to genetic information, effects on cognitive functions of cancer treatments and cognitive enhancement. She is author of several scientific papers published on indexed peer-reviewed international journals. She participates in the project “Mind the risk” at CRB, which among other issues investigated the questions in this post.

In dialogue with patients


Direct to consumer genetic tests: soon history?

November 5, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogMore and more companies are selling genetic tests directly to consumers. You don’t need a prescription. Just go online and order a test and you’ll get a cotton swab with which you scrape the inside of your cheek.

You then send the cotton swab to a laboratory and await the answer: What do your genes have to say about your disease risks?

These tests may seem harmless. It’s only a bit of information. No one can be harmed by some information, it may seem.

But the information is sensitive and can have consequences. For example, the test can provide information about genetic predispositions that you can transfer to your children. Paternity can be determined. You can get information that you are at risk for a certain form of cancer or can suffer side effects from the drug that your doctor prescribed. In addition, information about risk of disease can cause you to begin to exhibit symptoms prematurely!

Are the tests reliable? How should the information be interpreted in your case? What should you do with it? – Can one really market such tests directly to consumers as any commercial product?

No, it looks like it soon will be impossible. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently informed a number of companies that sell genetic tests directly to consumers that the tests will from now on be treated as medical devices. Such devices must meet specific quality requirements and be approved product by product.

Also in Europe a change is underway, going even further. The European Parliament is proposing a regulation that would more or less ban selling genetic tests directly to consumers.

This EU proposal is described and discussed in an article in Science, written by Louiza Kalokairinou, Heidi Howard (from CRB) and Pascal Borry:

From having been regarded as harmless, the authors write, genetic tests are now proposed to be classified as medical devices on risk level C (on a scale from A to D). In addition, a medical prescription will be required to get a genetic test, and the test must be ordered by a physician. Genetic counseling must also be given.

Genetic tests are here to stay, but presumably in a different context than today. The proposed EU regulation requires a medical context for genetic testing, the authors write: a patient-doctor relationship.

The article ends asking: Will doctors’ waiting rooms soon to be filled by people who want prescriptions for genetic tests? Can doctors keep up with the rapid development of the field, which is required to interpret new genetic tests and assess how these can benefit individual users?

Whereupon I ask: If it is unclear if even doctors can manage the genetic tests, how could one have assumed that individual consumers could do it?

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


From tree of knowledge to knowledge landscapes

May 7, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogScience was long revered as free and self-critical pursuit of knowledge. There were hopes of useful applications, of course, but as fruits that once in a while fall from the tree of knowledge.

In a thought-provoking article in the Croatian Medical Journal, Anna Lydia Svalastog describes how traditional reverence for science and devout hope of fruits from above in practice disappeared with World War II.

Researchers who saw science as their calling instead found themselves called up for service in multidisciplinary projects, solving scientific problems for politically defined aims. Most famous is the Manhattan project, intended to develop an atomic bomb to alter relative military strengths.

This way of organizing research has since then become the rule, in a post-war condition in which research initiatives aim towards altering relative economic strengths between nations. Rather than revering science, we value research in project format. We value research not only in economic terms, I want to add, but also in terms of welfare, health and environment.

From the late 1970s, political and economic interest in research shifted from physics to the life sciences and biotechnology. Svalastog mentions examples such as genetically modified organisms (GMO), energy wood and biological solutions to pollution. It is difficult to say where research ends and applications begin, when interest in applications governs the organization of research from the outset.

The main question in the article is how to understand and handle the new condition. How can we understand the life sciences if society no longer piously anticipates applications as fruits from above but calculates with them from the beginning?

Svalastog uses a new concept for these calculated fruits: bio-objects. They are what we talk about when we talk about biotechnology: energy wood, GMO, cultivated stem cells, vaccines, genetic tests and therapies, and so on.

The point is that science doesn’t define these objects on its own, as if they still belonged to science. Bio-objects are what they become, in the intersection of science, politics and society. After all, vaccines don’t exist and aren’t talked about exclusively in laboratories, but a parent can take the child to the hospital for vaccination that was decided politically to be tax-financed.

Instead of a tree of knowledge stretching its fruit-bearing branches above society, we thus have flatter knowledge landscapes in which a variety of actors contribute to what is described in the article as bio-objectification. The parent who takes the child to the hospital is such an actor, as is the nurse who gives the vaccine, the politicians who debate the vaccination program, the journalists who write about it… and the research team that develop the vaccine.

Why do we need a concept of bio-objectification, which doesn’t reverently let the life sciences define these objects in their own terms? I believe, to understand and handle our post-war condition.

Svalastog mentions as an example controversies about GMO. Resistance to GMO is often described as scientifically ignorant, as if people lived in the shadow of the tree of knowledge and the solution had to consist in dropping more science information from the tree. But no links with levels of knowledge have been established, Svalastog writes, but rather with worldviews, ethics and religion.

What we need to handle our condition, Svalastog maintains, is thus the kind of research that was neglected in the post-war way of organizing research. We need humanistic research about knowledge landscapes, rather than instinctive reactions from a bygone era when the tree of knowledge was still revered.

I presume that this humanistic research too will be performed in project format, where humanistic scholars are called up for research service, studying the contexts within which bio-objects are understood, handled and valued.

Undeniably, however, some interesting thoughts about our condition here hover more freely above the knowledge landscapes.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


%d bloggers like this: