Research is not a magical practice

May 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhy does hearing about research sometimes scare us in a vertiginous way? I mean the feeling that researchers sometimes dig too deeply, that they see through what should not be seen through, that they manipulate the fundamental conditions of life.

It does not have to concern GMOs or embryonic stem cell research. During a period, I wrote about studies of human conversation. When I told people that I was working on conversation analysis, I could get the reaction: “Oh no, now I dare not talk to you, because you’ll probably see through everything I say and judge how well I’m actually talking.”

Why do we react in such a way? As if researchers saw through the surface of life, as through a thin veil, and gained power over life by mastering its hidden mechanisms.

My impression is that we, in these reactions, interpret research as a form of magic. Magic is a cross-border activity. The magician is in contact with “the other side”: with the powers that control life. By communicating with these hidden powers, the magician can achieve power over life. That is at least often the attitude in magical practices.

Is this how we view research when it scares us in a dizzying way? We think in terms of a boundary between life and its hidden conditions; a boundary that researchers transgress to gain power over life. Research then appears transgressive in a vertiginous way. We interpret it as a magical practice, as a digging into the most basic conditions of life.

The farmer who wants to control the water level in the field by digging ditches, however, is not a magician who communicates with hidden forces. Digging ditches gives you ordinary power in life: it gives control of the water level. I would like to say that research is more like digging ditches to control the water level than like engaging in magic to control life itself. Certainly, research gives power and control – but in life, not over “life itself.”

This does not mean that research does not need to be regulated; digging ditches probably needs regulation too.

The magical aura of charismatic researchers sometimes seduces us. We think they are close to the solution of “the riddle” and give them a free hand… We must be careful not to give research work a magical interpretation.

Pär Segerdahl

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More biobank ethics and law

March 13, 2017

Biobank and registry research comes with particular sets of legal and ethical issues. We explore some of them in our Biobank Perspectives newsletter.

In this issue, you can read about some of the challenges that arise when biobanking stem cells in relation to a new project on the legal and ethical aspects of using stem cells to treat type 1 diabetes. We also offer a progress update from the B3Africa project and present the new Swedish legal officer BBMRI-ERIC ELSI helpdesk.  You can also read about the Swedish Government Inquiry  that was presented recently, proposing a new legal framework for handling and investigating research misconduct, with a new act suggested to enter into force on 1st of January 2019.

Josepine Fernow & Anna-Sara Lind

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Stem cells: unique biobank material?

March 7, 2017

Pär SegerdahlStem cells are perhaps not what first springs to mind as biobank material. Yet, even stem cells can be biobank material and there are biobanks that focus on stem cells. The use of this biobank material, however, has some unique features.

Stem cell researchers process not only data from human material. The material itself is “processed” and sometimes transplanted to research participants. Commercializing stem cell research moreover implies that cells derived from donated human tissue appear in products on a market. This gives rise to ethical and legal questions.

Does the law allow patenting cell lines derived from human donated material? Is buying and selling such material lawful? Another issue concerns research participants’ right to withdraw their consent at any time. Human embryonic stem cell research uses stem cells from donated spare embryos from IVF treatment. How far does embryo donors’ right to withdraw consent stretch? Must transplanted devices with matured cells be removed from research participants, if the embryo donor withdraws consent? Moreover, assuming that researchers share stem cell lines with companies, are these companies willing to invest in the development of stem cell products if embryo donors may withdraw their consent at any time?

Another difficulty is the purpose to which embryo donors are asked to consent. According to the law, human embryos can be donated only for research purposes (or to other IVF patients). Yet, medical research loses its meaning if results cannot be commercialized. It cannot then reach patients. It is important to inform donors about this broader context of embryo donation. Does that information imply that the consent becomes broader than has support in the law? Or is there support since embryos are not used in product development, only derived material?

The answers to these questions probably depend on whether one can distinguish between donated embryos and cell material derived from embryos (using various inventions). This raises also more philosophical questions about how to view embryos, stem cell lines, matured cells, and human tissue.

Pär Segerdahl

An earlier version of this text was published in Biobank perspectives.

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Stem cell therapy remains a form of treatment

February 27, 2017

Pär SegerdahlThere is a picture of stem cell therapy: It is in harmony with the body’s own way of functioning. Damaged tissue is regenerated as the body always regenerates tissue: through stem cells maturing into new body cells.

Patients can then hope for a body without a trace of disease: a healed body that takes care of itself as a healthy body does. It is almost as if we were not dealing a treatment at all, for the body restores itself, as it always does.

Stem cell therapy is certainly an important step towards effective treatment of several currently incurable diseases. The methods can also be said to be based on the body’s own way to regenerate tissue.

Nevertheless, I think we should emphasize that stem cell therapies are treatments next to others, with risks and benefits. Cells are transplanted into patients whose immune system can react. The implants may need to be checked regularly, or even be replaced. The transplantation can go wrong. And so on.

Stem cell therapy does not “transcend” all disease treatment hitherto by supporting the body’s own way of healing itself. We are still dealing with treatments of patients, rather than with “salvation from disease.”

Rhetoric of salvation is dangerous. It invites magicians and our faith in them. It justifies sacrifices to the benefit of Mankind. It disturbs our judgement.

Pär Segerdahl

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Ethics and law of stem cell treatment of diabetes

December 21, 2016

Pär SegerdahlMany people support in various ways medical research, which they perceive as urgent in view of the needs of various patient groups. But patients typically won’t benefit from research unless the results are translated into development of medical products.

Type 1 diabetes is an incurable disease that requires daily life-sustaining treatment and strict dietary rules. Disease onset usually occurs at an early age.

In Sweden, about 50 000 people have this form of diabetes and of these around 8 000 are children. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells. Without insulin the body cells cannot use glucose for energy, and the sugar level in the blood rises. Energy is recovered instead from fat and protein, which causes waste products that can cause diabetic coma and attacks on vital organs.

Today, diabetes is treated with daily insulin injections, or by using an insulin pump. This requires continuous measurement of blood sugar levels, as incorrect doses of insulin entails risks and can be life-threatening. It is not easy to live with diabetes.

An alternative treatment, which is still at the research stage, is to generate new insulin-producing cells using human embryonic stem cells. The insulin-producing cells detect blood sugar levels and regulate the secretion of insulin. In order not to be attacked by the immune system, the transplanted cells are encapsulated in a protective material. It may become easier to live with diabetes.

But research alone doesn’t treat diabetes. Encapsulated insulin-producing cells need to be produced and made available also to patients; not only to research participants. But this is a big step and a host of ethical and legal issues, including embryo donation, patentability and consent, need to be examined and discussed.

The Swedish Research Council recently granted funding for a project to examine these issues. The project is led by Mats G. Hansson at CRB and is a collaboration with Olle Korsgren, professor of transplantation immunology, as well as with lawyers Anna-Sara Lind and Bengt Domeij, and philosophers and ethicists Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist and Pär Segerdahl.

The step from stem cell research to available treatments requires reflection. I look forward to start thinking about the ethical and philosophical questions.

Pär Segerdahl

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Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

How are ethical policies justified?

January 20, 2016

Pär SegerdahlEthical policies for practices such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research should, of course, be well justified. But how does one justify that activities involving the destruction or killing of human embryos and fetuses should be allowed? How does one justify that they should be banned?

Just because the issues are so sensitive and important, they awaken a desire to find the absolutely conclusive justification.

The questions arouse our metaphysical aspirations. Ethicists who discuss them can sometimes sound like the metaphysicians of the seventeenth century who claimed they had conclusive arguments that the soul affects the body, or that it absolutely cannot affect it; who thought they could prove that God is the soul of the world, or that such a view detracts from God’s perfection.

Since both parties claim they have absolutely conclusive proofs, it becomes impossible to exhibit even the smallest trace of uncertainty. Each objection is taken as a challenge to prove the superiority of one’s own proofs, which is why metaphysical debates often resemble meetings between two hyper-sensitive querulants.

This is how I perceive many of the arguments about the embryo’s “moral status,” which are believed to provide conclusive evidence for or against moral positions on abortion and embryonic research – based on the nature of things (i.e., of the embryo).

Others, who want to reason more rigorously before drawing conclusions, instead scrutinize the arguments to demonstrate that we haven’t yet found the metaphysical basis for a policy (you can find an example here). From metaphysical dogmatism to metaphysical pedantry.

The metaphysical vision of an absolute path through life does not seem to give us any walkable path at all. It does not even allow meaningful conversations about what we find sensitive and important. But isn’t that where we need to begin when we look for a justification?

Pär Segerdahl

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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

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