Why law and social sciences must keep up to date with biological research
by Lina Ntokou
What happens when the fast-paced biological research advances towards a weird direction for our society? When should bioethics and regulations interfere in scientific progress and why interdisciplinary committees should monitor research growth for a sustainable future?
These are some of the main questions I will try to answer. As a biologist I am thrilled with any new finding, either it contributes to basic or translational science. However, as a member of our society I cannot keep blind or mute when scientific advances entail dangers for our civilization and touch upon morals and individual rights.
Let me explain what triggered this series of thoughts and why I think policy makers should keep a close eye on scientific research, both in a national and an international level.
Last summer a research article was published by the group of Dr. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz describing a mouse model of synthetic embryos developed in lab mimicking real ones, even in brain activity. The brain is one of the most complex organs to study in the lab and it has been puzzling researchers for years. Such studies give a great tool to research not only for the early developmental stages of this organ but also how interventions e.g. targeted mutations or specialized drugs can affect its function, cellular organization and overall performance. Super exciting so far. Right? I would say no.
Let’s take a step back and see how research with animals works. If I want to do any experiment involving mice for example, I have to write a proposal explaining in detail everything I intend to do with them and provide details and bulletproof evidence from previous literature or extremely logical arguments why such studies are needed and how they will advance my field of study. Then this proposal goes through a series of approvals and requests for clarification or further evidences by an independent committee comprised by veterinarians examining closely the level of pain the study might cause to the animals. If anything looks unreasonable or exceeds the approved limits it is rejected. The humane use of animals is essential to the level that if there is even a small possibility that an animal might suffer , the experiment will be terminated. By regulation. If researchers won’t follow the rules of animals usage, they face consequences according to the country, institution, and other regulatory organizations they refer to, that could even ruin their entire careers.
Now how do we know what are the limits when synthetic life is at play? If anything is lab-made, can it still be considered an animal or in the future a human being? The future of creating synthetic babies to harvest their organs for transplantation today sounds like a scenario from a horror movie. However, with synthetic mice being generated in thelab it is only a matter of time before – if not already – scientists start experimenting with synthetic humanoids.
To my knowledge the current regulations allow studies in artificial embryos up to 10 days post fertilization. Yet, the embryos die anyway by that day and there is no reason to worry about ethical consequences. What will happen though when after some time researchers achieve longer viability of the synthetic embryos?
The only answer I see, should come from the policy makers and social scientists. It is clear what we can or cannot do in the lab today. As we all push for improvements of human health, better models, better drugs and more accurate predictions, the definition of human and animal rights and their suffering levels should be extremely protected. Bioethics should be a mandatory training for every researcher and institutions should push for continuous evaluations by not only veterinarians but also anthropologists and law experts. In an ideal scenario, such committees should function in an international level, and beyond local laws. Unfortunately, we all know that researchers from countries with strict regulations have their collaborators in countries with looser criteria to conduct their most brutal experiments there and then publish the results together. It’s a win-win as scientists from the west bring the prestigious institutional name and the ones from the east the results from not well-controlled animal studies. Well, win for everyone but the animals.
The future is exciting, but we should not lose our core morals in the race for new discoveries. After all we all want the best for our world, right?
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