Scientists Are Giving Dead Brains New Life. What Could Go Wrong?

A few years ago, a scientist named Nenad Sestan began throwing around an idea for an experiment so obviously insane, so “wild” and “totally out there,” as he put it to me recently, that at first he told almost no one about it: not his wife or kids, not his bosses in Yale’s neuroscience department, not the dean of the university’s medical school.

Like everything Sestan studies, the idea centered on the mammalian brain. More specific, it centered on the tree-shaped neurons that govern speech, motor function and thought — the cells, in short, that make us who we are. In the course of his research, Sestan, an expert in developmental neurobiology, regularly ordered slices of animal and human brain tissue from various brain banks, which shipped the specimens to Yale in coolers full of ice. Sometimes the tissue arrived within three or four hours of the donor’s death. Sometimes it took more than a day. Still, Sestan and his team were able to culture, or grow, active cells from that tissue — tissue that was, for all practical purposes, entirely dead. In the right circumstances, they could actually keep the cells alive for several weeks at a stretch.

When I met with Sestan this spring, at his lab in New Haven, he took great care to stress that he was far from the only scientist to have noticed the phenomenon. “Lots of people knew this,” he said. “Lots and lots.” And yet he seems to have been one of the few to take these findings and push them forward: If you could restore activity to individual post-mortem brain cells, he reasoned to himself, what was to stop you from restoring activity to entire slices of post-mortem brain?

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/02/magazine/dead-pig-brains-reanimation.html

German Ethics Council: Germline editing “not ethically out of the question” | European Scientist

On Monday, the German Ethics Council made public a 230-page report discussing their current position on human genome manipulation and in particular, germline editing. According to the press release published on 9 May, a few days before the report, “germline interventions currently too risky, but not ethically out of the question”.

The council made up of 26 ethicists, legal scholars, scientists, and other experts unanimously agreed there are no compelling philosophical arguments against altering human germlines, which they write is not “in principle, ethically reprehensible.” […]

The World Health Organization called for the establishment of a global registry of gene editing research on humans last March. And many scientists would now agree, genome-editing in the human germline should not be regulated by the scientific community but by law.

All members agreed “ the human germline is not inviolable”, although not all are in favour of the pursuing germline interventions – some are concerned the possible benefits may not outweigh the potential downsides.

https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/public-health/germline-editing-not-ethically-out-of-the-question/

Prepare Yourself For The Shock Of Mass Implantable Brain Technology | Forbes

Patient Undergoing Implantable Brain Technology Procedure

Patient Undergoing Implantable Brain Technology Procedure


[…] The first wave of evolution is expected to offer healing-of-sorts for various individuals such as those profiled in the film with Parkinson’s Disease, paralysis, blindness and more. The next wave is more about general usage.

Of course, who would deny any person suffering from neurological disorders the ability to possess a better quality of life through brain implants? But when such technology is beginning to be touted via interviews in this documentary as that which will be able to help you jump higher, run faster, rid oneself of this habit or that, or that annoying personality trait or another via programming, we could be teetering on some very shaky moral and spiritual ground.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurencoleman/2019/05/12/prepare-yourself-for-the-shock-of-mass-implantable-brain-technology/


A war made me realize: The world needs biomedical engineers | Zahra Moussavi

It was a sunny and pleasant spring day in Dezful, a small city in the south part of Iran. There were not many people on the street but I remember a young teenager pedalling slowly on his bike. I remember him because a moment later he was decapitated by a piece of metal when an Iraqi missile hit the neighbourhood.

His headless body pedalled for a while before falling to the ground. Everything in that moment registered in my brain like a scene in slow motion.

In shock, all I was thinking was: “Wow! How can the body balance without the brain? The body’s motion must have also been programmed in the spinal cord!”

It was spring of 1981 and I was 20 at the time, a second year university student with no background in biology or human physiology. A year earlier, I wanted to become a nuclear physicist and work on a Nobel Prize winning project. Then the war between Iran and Iraq started and the universities closed. I went to the Red Cross and to hospitals to learn first aid and then to the fronts to help with the war casualties.

The war scenes — and particularly the teenage cyclist on that particular day — made me decide to become a biomedical engineer.

https://theconversation.com/a-war-made-me-realize-the-world-needs-biomedical-engineers-84759

AI MIT CSAIL’s AI can predict the onset of breast cancer 5 years in advance

Breast cancer is the second leading cancer-related cause of death among women in the U.S. It’s estimated that in 2015, 232,000 women were diagnosed with the disease and approximately 40,000 died from it. And while exams like mammography have come into wide practice — in 2014, over 39 million breast cancer screenings were performed in the U.S. alone — they’re not always reliable. About 10% to 15% of women who undergo a mammogram are asked to return following an inconclusive analysis.

Fortunately, with the help of AI, scientists at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Massachusetts General Hospital are making steps toward more consistent and reliable screening procedures. In a newly published paper in the journal Radiology, they describe a machine learning model that can predict from a mammogram if a patient is likely to develop breast cancer as many as five years in the future.

https://venturebeat.com/2019/05/07/mit-csails-ai-can-predict-the-onset-of-breast-cancer-5-years-in-advance/

Should fentanyl dealers be charged with manslaughter if their customers die? | CBC News

The Sarnia, Ont., case of a drug dealer charged with manslaughter after a customer died from taking cocaine laced with fentanyl is raising questions about the legal and moral implications of such charges. 

As the opioid crisis in Canada deepens, the defence lawyer who represented the Sarnia drug dealer thinks there will be more such charges. 

In 2017, a drug dealer sold cocaine laced with fentanyl to someone who died of an overdose. The dealer was charged with trafficking and manslaughter, and this week, she pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of criminal negligence causing death. 

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/london-ontairo-fentanyl-should-dealers-be-charged-with-manslaughter-1.5120166

For people with dementia, a fight for the right to die | MacLean's

Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor speaks outside the House of Commons, in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017., about medical assistance in dying (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor speaks outside the House of Commons, in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017., about medical assistance in dying (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Ron Posno was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—a precursor to dementia—in 2016, and soon after, the London, Ont., resident re-wrote his will. He already had a Do Not Resuscitate order in place, and to this he added instructions for the niece who was his substitute decision maker that at a specific point in the progress of his illness, she was to seek medical assistance in dying on his behalf.

The eight conditions that Posno identified as signalling the proper time for his death are like a photographic negative that also reveals what he considers a life worth living. When I am unable to recognize and respond to family and friends; when I frequently experience hallucinations, paranoia or acute depression; when I become routinely incontinent; when I am unable to eat, clean or dress myself without assistance: that is when I want it to be over.

But then Posno’s niece, a lawyer in Toronto, informed him that an advance request like this for medical assistance in dying (MAID) was against the law and she would have no ability to act on it once he could no longer consent.

Posno had assumed that this request was basically an extension of his DNR: a statement of his desires for medical treatment in a given set of circumstances. He found it incomprehensible that he could legally state that he did not want CPR and the instruction would be followed if he were unconscious with a DNR in place, but in the face of an illness that would eventually render him unable to provide informed consent, he couldn’t request MAID on behalf of a carefully delineated future version of himself.

https://www.macleans.ca/society/for-people-with-dementia-a-fight-for-the-right-to-die/

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing | Nature

Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg and specialists from seven countries call for an international governance framework.

We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.

By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.

In Spain, prisoners’ brains are being electrically stimulated in the name of science | Vox

A team of scientists in Spain is getting ready to experiment on prisoners. If the scientists get the necessary approvals, they plan to start a study this month that involves placing electrodes on inmates’ foreheads and sending a current into their brains. The electricity will target the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that plays a role in decision-making and social behavior. The idea is that stimulating more activity in that region may make the prisoners less aggressive.

This technique — transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS — is a form of neurointervention, meaning it acts directly on the brain. Using neurointerventions in the criminal justice system is highly controversial. In recent years, scientists and philosophers have been debating under what conditions (if any) it might be ethical.

The Spanish team is the first to use tDCS on prisoners. They’ve already done it in a pilot study, publishing their findings in Neuroscience in January, and they were all set to implement a follow-up study involving at least 12 convicted murderers and other inmates this month. On Wednesday, New Scientist broke news of the upcoming experiment, noting that it had approval from the Spanish government, prison officials, and a university ethics committee. The next day, the Interior Ministry changed course and put the study on hold.

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/3/9/18256821/prisoner-brain-study-spain-aggression-neurointervention-ethics

Scientists Successfully Double the DNA Alphabet | Smithsonianmag.com

In 1953, when scientists conclusively identified DNA’s structure, it was a monumental, Nobel-Prize-winning revelation: four nucleotides, each containing a letter-labeled base, were arranged in a double helix structure. These four bases, or “letters,” form pairs: adenine, A, matches with thymine, T, and cytosine, C, bonds with guanine, G. These pairs are essentially the building blocks of life on Earth; the way in which the pairs are arranged creates the genetic instructions for how proteins are made, which in turn aid in pretty much every critical process that keeps us alive.

Now, an interdisciplinary team of researchers has expanded the genetic alphabet by creating synthetic DNA that uses eight letters rather than four, according to a new study published in the journal Science. The new manufactured structure is called "hachimoji DNA," from the Japanese words for "eight" and letter." Creating hachimoji DNA was, as Carl Zimmer writes in The New York Times, “a chemical tour-de-force” for the group led by Steven Benner, a synthetic biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. The advance offers new possibilities in many fields, including medical research and data storage.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-just-doubled-number-letters-dna-alphabet-180971552/

China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced | MIT Technology Review

The brains of two genetically edited girls born in China last year may have been changed in ways that enhance cognition and memory, scientists say.

The twins, called Lulu and Nana, reportedly had their genes modified before birth by a Chinese scientific team using the new editing tool CRISPR. The goal was to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Now, new research shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls’ DNA, deletion of a gene called CCR5, not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school.

“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” says Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose lab uncovered a major new role for the CCR5 gene in memory and the brain’s ability to form new connections. 

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” says Silva. He says the exact effect on the girls’ cognition is impossible to predict, and “that is why it should not be done.” 

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612997/the-crispr-twins-had-their-brains-altered/


Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate | Bloomberg Businessweek

[…] Wright decided to try again in 2016, this time using a cocktail of drugs he’d ground into a powder. As he tells the story now, he was preparing to mix the powder into water and drink it when his dog jumped onto his lap. Suddenly he had a moment of clarity that shocked him into action. He started doing research and came upon a Columbia University study of a pharmaceutical treatment for severe depression and suicidality. It involved an infusion of ketamine, a decades-old anesthetic that’s also an infamous party drug. He immediately volunteered.

His first—and only—ketamine infusion made him feel dreamlike, goofy, and euphoric. He almost immediately started feeling more hopeful about life. He was more receptive to therapy. Less than a year later, he married. Today he says his dark moods are remote and manageable. Suicidal thoughts are largely gone. “If they had told me how much it would affect me, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Wright says. “It is unconscionable that it is not already approved for suicidal patients.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-02-05/ketamine-could-soon-be-used-to-treat-suicidal-ideation

Wanting to die at 'five to midnight' - before dementia takes over | Andrew Bomford

It's not unusual for Dutch patients with dementia to request euthanasia, but in the later stages of the disease they may be incapable of reconfirming their consent - one doctor is currently facing prosecution in such a case. But fear of being refused is pushing some to ask to die earlier than they would have liked.

Annie Zwijnenberg was never in any doubt.

"The neurologist said: 'I'm sorry, but there's no way we can mistake this - its Alzheimer's," says Anneke Soute-Zwijnenberg, describing the moment her mother was first diagnosed.

"And she said: 'OK, then I know what I want.'"

Anneke's brother Frank chips in: "Maybe she hesitated for five seconds, and said: 'Now I know what to do.'"

They both knew she was referring to euthanasia.

You could say Annie's story is a textbook case of how euthanasia is supposed to happen in the Netherlands - with very consistent and clear consent. But there are other cases where the patient's consent is less consistent, and at the final moment, less clear.

https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47047579

Europe's top rights court to hear Belgian euthanasia case | AP

LONDON (AP) — Europe’s top human rights court has agreed to hear a case being brought against Belgium by a man whose mother was euthanized in 2012 for depression, the second case that implicates one of Belgium’s leading euthanasia doctors.

In a statement Tuesday, lawyers for Tom Mortier said they brought their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg after Belgian authorities declined to pursue it.

Robert Clarke, one of Mortier’s lawyers, said there were some “deeply worrying” details about the case.

“This was a woman who was under the care of a psychiatrist and according to medical definition was a vulnerable person,” Clarke said. “The state had a duty of care to protect her and it failed.

https://apnews.com/8217108af4f841b3a2d551ca73eecb9c

Ethics in genetic counselling | Journal of Community Genetics

Difficult ethical issues arise for patients and professionals in medical genetics, and often relate to the patient’s family or their social context. Tackling these issues requires sensitivity to nuances of communication and a commitment to clarity and consistency. It also benefits from an awareness of different approaches to ethical theory. Many of the ethical problems encountered in genetics relate to tensions between the wishes or interests of different people, sometimes even people who do not (yet) exist or exist as embryos, either in an established pregnancy or in vitro. Concern for the long-term welfare of a child or young person, or possible future children, or for other members of the family, may lead to tensions felt by the patient (client) in genetic counselling. Differences in perspective may also arise between the patient and professional when the latter recommends disclosure of information to relatives and the patient finds that too difficult, or when the professional considers the genetic testing of a child, sought by parents, to be inappropriate. The expectations of a patient’s community may also lead to the differences in perspective between patient and counsellor. Recent developments of genetic technology permit genome-wide investigations. These have generated additional and more complex data that amplify and exacerbate some pre-existing ethical problems, including those presented by incidental (additional sought and secondary) findings and the recognition of variants currently of uncertain significance, so that reports of genomic investigations may often be provisional rather than definitive. Experience is being gained with these problems but substantial challenges are likely to persist in the long term.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12687-018-0371-7


Medical Assistance in Dying | The Expert Panel on Medical Assistance in Dying

In December 2016, the CCA was asked by then Minister of Health Jane Philpott and Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould to undertake independent reviews related to medical assistance in dying (MAID). Specifically, the CCA was tasked with examining three particularly complex types of requests for MAID that were identified for further review and study in the legislation passed by Parliament in 2016: requests by mature minors, advance requests, and requests where a mental disorder is the sole underlying medical condition.

On December 12, 2018 the CCA released the three final reports of the Expert Panel, one on each type of request: The State of Knowledge on Medical Assistance in Dying for Mature MinorsThe State of Knowledge on Advance Requests for Medical Assistance in Dying; and The State of Knowledge on Medical Assistance in Dying Where a Mental Disorder is the Sole Underlying Medical Condition.

https://www.scienceadvice.ca/reports/medical-assistance-in-dying/

"Rogue, Crazy": Alarm Over China Scientist's Claim Of Gene-Edited Babies

A Chinese scientist triggered alarm, shock and confusion across the scientific community Monday with the claim that he had edited the DNA of human embryos to create twin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, who he said had been born "crying into the world as healthy as any other babies" a few weeks ago.

The controversial experiment, publicized through the media and videos posted online by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China, was criticized by many scientists worldwide as premature and called "rogue human experimentation." More than 120 Chinese scientists called the experiment "crazy" in a letter, adding that it dealt a huge blow to the global reputation of Chinese science. Southern University said in a statement it would be investigating the experiment, which appeared to have "seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct." 

He's unverified claim came on the eve of an international summit dedicated to discussing the emerging science and ethics around powerful tools that give scientists unprecedented potential to tweak traits and eliminate genetic diseases - but that have raised fears of "designer babies." By editing the DNA of human embryos, scientists change not just the genes in a single person, but all their potential offspring - in effect, altering the human species

https://www.ndtv.com/science/rouge-crazy-experts-concerns-on-chinese-scientist-he-jiankuis-designer-babies-1953810

Woman who inherited fatal illness to sue doctors in groundbreaking case

Lawyers are bringing a case against a London hospital trust that could trigger major changes to the rules governing patient confidentiality. The case involves a woman who is suing doctors because they failed to tell her about her father’s fatal hereditary disease before she had her own child.

The woman discovered – after giving birth – that her father carried the gene for Huntington’s disease, a degenerative, incurable brain condition. Later she found out she had inherited the gene and that her own daughter, now eight, has a 50% chance of having it.

The woman – who cannot be named for legal reasons – says she would have had an abortion had she known about her father’s condition, and is suing the doctors who failed to tell her about the risks she and her child faced. It is the first case in English law to deal with a relative’s claim over issues of genetic responsibility.

“This could really change the way we do medicine, because it is about the duty that doctors have to share genetic test results with relatives and whether the duty exists in law,” said Anna Middleton, head of society and ethics research at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/25/woman-inherited-fatal-illness-sue-doctors-groundbreaking-case-huntingtons

Exclusive: A new test can predict IVF embryos' risk of having a low IQ | New Scientist

THE prospect of creating intelligent designer babies has been the subject of ethical debate for decades, but we have lacked the ability to actually do it. That may now change, thanks to a new method of testing an embryo’s genes that could soon be available in some IVF clinics in the US, New Scientist can reveal.

The firm Genomic Prediction says it has developed genetic screening tests that can assess complex traits, such as the risk of some diseases and low intelligence, in IVF embryos. The tests haven’t been used yet, but the firm began talks last month with several IVF clinics to provide them to customers.

For intelligence, Genomic Prediction says that it will only offer the option of screening out embryos deemed likely to have “mental disability”. However, the same approach could in future be used to identify embryos with genes that make them more likely to have a high IQ. “I think people are going to demand that. If we don’t do it, some other company will,” says the firm’s co-founder Stephen Hsu.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032041-900-exclusive-a-new-test-can-predict-ivf-embryos-risk-of-having-a-low-iq

Should patients with anorexia be force-fed to save their lives? - The Globe and Mail

Madam Justice Lise Bergeron of the Quebec Superior Court recently ruled that a 20-year-old woman who is suffering from severe anorexia should be force-fed to keep her alive.

The hospital where the young woman is being treated, Centre hospitalier universitaire du Québec, sought a court order when she began to suffer life-threatening pericardial effusion (build-up of fluid around the heart).

The patient, who is not identified for privacy concerns, has been under almost constant treatment since 2012. At one point she weighed a mere 32 kilograms, and was refusing to eat.

These cases are among the most ethically and legally challenging.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-should-patients-with-anorexia-be-force-fed-to-save-their-lives/