Brews and Views returns, addresses “the science and ethics of IVF and artificial wombs”

Can society and the judicial system keep pace with the technologies of in vitro fertilization (IVF), stem cell biology, artificial wombs, and in vitro gestation?

Simple green line drawing depicting a fetus and its umbilical cord inside a circular womb.

On a Friday evening in late September, there was an obvious energy in the IQ Building atrium as faculty, staff, and researchers gathered for the first in-person Brews and Views event in well over two years. Chris Contag, Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, noted this significance as he introduced the session on “Human Reproduction in a Dish: The Science and Ethics of IVF & Artificial Wombs.”

A panel of experts sat facing the audience, ready to share their perspectives on innovations to the science of human reproduction that could dramatically impact reproductive health. These experts were Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, associate professor, College of Law; Leonard Fleck, PhD, professor, Center for Bioethics and Social Justice, College of Human Medicine; Richard Leach, MD, professor and chair, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, College of Human Medicine; and Margaret Petroff, PhD, professor, Department of Pathobiology & Diagnostic Investigation, College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Leach, reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist, explained new developments in human gamete derivation or in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) for IVF. Citing research on this process that has been successful in mice, he explained a future where it could be possible to create human embryos by taking an adult’s cells and reprogramming them into egg and sperm cells. Asking attendees to consider this possible future, he noted that there are already three companies in the U.S. and Japan related to IVG.

How far are we from this type of assisted reproductive technology (ART) existing? Dr. Margaret Petroff shared that there currently are 2.5 million IVF cycles per year—more than 500,000 babies born each year globally. Dr. Petroff stressed that there is still much to learn about long-term health effects of ART, and that long-term epidemiological studies are needed to learn about impacts of all types of ART.

What is it that makes us human? Dr. Jennifer Carter-Johnson, who is an associate professor of law with a background in microbiology, asked attendees to think about how life is defined—ethically, scientifically, legally. She noted that there is no good definition, that discussing human life is legally ambiguous. In contrast, there is legal precedent about when human life ends. Dr. Carter-Johnson discussed the complexities and unknowns related to the June 2022 Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Individual U.S. states are now making different decisions about access to abortion, and about how a person is defined. If life were to be legally defined as beginning at conception, that would greatly impact the current and future use of IVF and ART.

Philosopher and medical ethicist Dr. Leonard Fleck introduced the idea of an artificial womb and what medical purpose it would serve were it to exist. In theory an artificial womb might be used to save a fetus that was going to be born before viability, or by someone without a uterus. He characterized it as a micro version of a neonatal intensive care unit. The idea of an artificial womb brought up a wide variety of ethical questions related to abortion, who has the right to make decisions about a fetus in an artificial womb, and the high cost of the use of such technology creating access barriers and utilizing limited healthcare resources.

One message from the panelists in the discussion that followed was the importance of thinking about guidelines for this technology now, rather than waiting. The complexity of the topic continued to be apparent—legal, ethical, scientific, safety, health policy, and societal implications.

The question and answer portion brought forth more unique perspectives, demonstrated with both passion and vulnerability from panelists and attendees.

“We can only see a limited distance into the future when trying to assess new technologies,” stated Dr. Fleck. The event generated more questions than answers, but that is the very nature of the mission of Brews and Views. Though the event had officially ended, the room remained abuzz with conversation.

While Brews and Views continued virtually during 2020 and 2021, this event was not only the first in-person offering is years, but also the first that explored a non-COVID topic since the pandemic began. The series is an ongoing collaboration between the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering (IQ) and the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice, and aims to hold moderated discussions addressing fascinating and provocative areas of bioscience and engineering.

Brews and Views events pivot to online format

Brews and Views icon green and purple As members of the MSU community continue to work remotely and practice social distancing, Brews and Views has pivoted to online-only “at home editions” of the series that addresses the implications and ethical considerations of biomedical innovations and topics at the forefront of scientific investigation.

The first Brews and Views: At Home Edition was held on March 20 on the topic “Novel Coronavirus Pushes our Limits— We Need to Push Back, Thoughtfully and Fast.” Discussants were Brett Etchebarne, MD, PhD (College of Osteopathic Medicine), Leonard Fleck, PhD (College of Human Medicine), Maria Lapinski, PhD (College of Communication Arts and Sciences and College of Agriculture & Natural Resources), and Richard Lenski, PhD (College of Natural Science). Dr. Chris Contag, Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering (IQ) and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, served as moderator.

The group of experts addressed scientific, communication, medical, societal, and ethical challenges presented by the novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 disease. Their goal was to inform and help those in the audience as we all navigate this global crisis. A recording of the event is available to watch on the IQ website.

On April 17, a second “at home edition” event took place, titled “COVID-19 and Our Children: Worry Now or Worry Later?” Moderators Dr. Chris Contag and Dr. Keith English, Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, were joined by discussants from across the university: Carrie Shrier (MSU Extension), Kendal Holtrop, PhD (College of Social Science), Dawn Misra, MHS, PhD (College of Human Medicine), and Amy Nuttall, PhD (College of Social Science and C-RAIND).

Given the various ways that the current pandemic will impact children, they considered several questions: How will social distancing impact children? How can we use online learning to facilitate education? How can we prepare for the next epidemic? How do we deal with the direct and indirect effects and the social sequelae of this pandemic? How do we effectively communicate information to our children without increasing or generating fear?

To receive notice of future Brews and Views events, subscribe to IQ’s email newsletter. The next Brews and Views: At Home Edition is scheduled for Friday, May 29 from 5:00-7:00 pm on “The Dollars and Sense of Economic Convalescence from COVID-19.” The discussion will feature members of the local business community as well as Sanjay Gupta, PhD, Dean of the Eli Broad College of Business. Registration for the online event is open.

Brews and Views is presented collaboratively by the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering at Michigan State University.

Brews and Views: Trust Me, I’m a Scientist!

Scientist [ˈsīəntəst] — a person who has expert knowledge.

Brews and Views logo with people, brain, DNA, and gear icons

Last month more than 100 faculty members and researchers attended the latest Brews and Views session: “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist! Responsibility and Accountability in Science.” The event series, presented collaboratively by the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering, features moderated discussions addressing fascinating and provocative areas of bioscience and engineering.

The event was moderated by Dr. Monique Mitchell Turner, Chair and Professor in the Department of Communication, College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Dr. Turner began with an audience response poll that asked attendees to consider both the role of institutional review boards regarding responsible and ethical research conduct, and the ethical obligations of scientists studying risky innovations that could potentially cause harm. Subsequent questions focused on the concept of dual use, which Dr. Turner clarified as referring to “technologies that alternately can be used for peaceful as well as for hostile purposes.” Regarding potential dual use harms, who is ultimately responsible: the principal investigator, the journal that published the work, or someone else entirely?

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Image description: an illustration depicts four scientists holding a double helix, beaker, atoms, and a magnifying glass. Image source: vecteezy.com.

Discussant Dr. Heather Douglas, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, College of Arts & Letters, examined moral responsibility in scientific endeavors, focusing on two qualities of dual use concerns, i.e., the intention of the researcher and that which might or might not be foreseeable. She clarified that when the ultimate use is readily predictable, ignoring the prospect of use for hostile purposes would be reckless, but unfortunately, many things are not predictable.

Dr. Douglas pointed out that the two checks on scientific endeavors include responsibility and accountability, but the conundrum is that those two checks are not necessarily synced — scientists can be held responsible for things which they are not accountable and accountable for things which they are not responsible. It’s reasonable to hold scientists accountable to good methodology, to their colleagues, and to society. But there are other actors who are accountable as well, including the institution (as well as journals that publish research). The paradox is that the more an institution enforces accountability checklists, the more an individual scientist might mistakenly feel that they’ve met their responsibility by simply complying with that checklist. Dr. Douglas urged that to be accountable, scientists have a responsibility to think beyond such checklists to imagine future possibilities including dual use concerns.

Discussant Dr. Victor DiRita, Rudolph Hugh Professor & Chair in the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, College of Natural Science, acknowledged that scientists need to be both responsible and accountable, but he pointed out that science “works” by advancing incrementally, building on the base of prior work. For this reason, he rejected the broad notion of dual use, since it is impossible to have sufficient imagination to accurately predict future nefarious use of any given innovation. To illustrate, he noted that dual use concerns are often related to “gain of function” in which research builds on and extends the capacity of previous work. He noted that governance, carried out through the vehicles of institutional policies is unable to predict such capacity extension, and therefore dual use itself is impossible to predict.

Dr. DiRita expressed worry that excessive focus on potential risks can blur the lines between real risk and perceived risk, possibly impeding the progress of important useful research. While institutional regulatory policies are well-intended, he is concerned about undue regulatory burdens in those labs that lack the resources necessary to be compliant. Moreover, he was in agreement with Dr. Douglas that such checklists erroneously allow scientists to believe that simple compliance with regulation is sufficient to meet their responsibilities, and that journals should share responsibility for publicizing dual use science.

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Image description: Pictured left to right are Heather Douglas, Monique Mitchell Turner, and Victor DiRita presenting to the audience at Brews and Views on January 24, 2020. Photo courtesy of Libby Bogdan-Lovis.

Brews and Views is collaboratively organized by Dr. Christopher Contag, Dr. Laura Cabrera, and Libby Bogdan-Lovis. Visit our website for more information on past events in the series.