Announcing the Fall 2017 Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series

bbag-icon-decThe Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences at Michigan State University is proud to announce the 2017-2018 Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series, featuring a wide variety of bioethics topics. The fall series will begin on September 13, 2017. You are invited to join us in person or watch live online from anywhere in the world! Information about the fall series is listed below. Please visit our website for more details, including the full description and speaker bio for each event.

Fall 2017 Series Flyer

sept-13-bbagExpanded Carrier Screening for an Increasingly Diverse Population: Embracing the Promise of the Future or Ignoring the Sins of the Past?
How do we explain to patients what results might mean for their baby when they have only been validated in other populations?
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Kayte Spector-Bagdady, JD, MBioethics, is a Research Investigator in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and leads the Research Ethics Service at the Center for Bioethics & Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.

oct-11-bbagCrossing the Biology to Pathobiology Threshold: Distinguishing Precision Health from Precision Medicine
What level of risk will be tolerated for interventions that are developed for treating “pre-diseased” patients?
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Christopher H. Contag, PhD, is a John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering at Michigan State University.

nov-29-bbagProspects, Promises and Perils of Human Mind-Reading
What are the prospects for such technology to be widely used?
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Mark Reimers, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Neuroscience Program in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University.

In person: These lectures will take place in C102 (Patenge Room) East Fee Hall on MSU’s East Lansing campus. Feel free to bring your lunch! Beverages and light snacks will be provided.

Online: Here are some instructions for your first time joining the webinar, or if you have attended or viewed them before, go to the meeting!

Can’t make it? Every lecture is recorded and posted for viewing in our archive. If you’d like to receive a reminder before each lecture, please subscribe to our mailing list.

Defining The Spectrum of “Normal”: What is a Disease?

Bioethics-in-the-News-logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Jennifer Carter-Johnson, JD, PhD

The world of Gattaca once seemed a faraway place where some babies had genetic defects corrected before birth resulting in two classes within society. However, a recent report that a Swedish scientist, Fredrik Lanner, has begun to edit the genome of healthy embryos has made the movie seem ever more probable. This report follows on the heels of reports from China that two teams have edited non-viable embryos to correct for a blood disease and to make the embryos more resistant to HIV infection. Embryo gene editing experiments have also been approved in the UK, and while the U.S. National Institutes of Health refuse to fund such experiments, some state funding agencies are beginning to consider it. The eventual goal of these experiments is to correct genetic diseases at conception, saving people from living lives with Huntington’s disease or with genetic predispositions for heart disease or breast cancer.

Part of the DNA sequences from the human genome
Image description: a page of a book displays part of the DNA sequences from the human genome. Image source: Flickr Creative Commons.

There are a myriad of concerns connected with the editing of human embryos as discussed in the reports mentioned above. Usage of embryos for any research is controversial since some believe that embryos should have rights equal to a born person. Beyond the basic question surrounding all embryonic research, scientists have questioned whether we should be creating designer babies, citing concerns that the use of embryo editing might inadvertently create new diseases. Additionally, access to the technology might be limited due to the high cost, giving rise to a situation where those who can afford to edit their child’s genome will have the advantages of selecting for children who are highly intelligent, highly athletic and low health risks. In a society where class inequalities are becoming ever more pronounced, use of embryo editing could exacerbate the problem by unevenly allocating not only resources but also abilities to those with money.

Perhaps one of the most difficult questions to be answered relates to which genes should be modified. As an abstract concept, using embryonic gene editing to cure a disease is more palatable to many than choosing eye color and height, but identifying a “disease” may be more complicated than it looks. As researchers identify the genetic basis for conditions that impact a person’s health, it forces us to ask if those conditions are diseases or merely a variation on the normal of human existence.

Some mutations that increase susceptibility to disease are actually beneficial mutations in the response to other diseases. The mutation that leads to sickle cell anemia protects against malaria in people who only have one copy of the mutation. Mutations in the T cell receptor CCR5 make a person more susceptible to psoriasis and infection by West Nile Virus but protect against HIV and smallpox infections. Obviously, we don’t know all the mutations that are beneficial against diseases, merely that some people get more or less sick when confronted with certain pathogens. It is possible that super-healthy, specifically-designed children would be ill-equipped to defend against an emerging disease where some members of a genetically diverse population would have protection.

Image description: a bright blue frame surrounds an artist’s embroidered rendering of the human chromosome map. Image source: Flickr Creative Commons.

Other disease-causing genetic mutations may also shape traits that society views as a positive. For instance, some research links the genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder with high IQ and enhanced creativity. Would the individual or society benefit from ameliorating the former at the cost of decreasing intelligence and creativity? Conversely, if the intelligence and/or creativity are genetically linked to bipolar disorder, well-meaning parents, seeking to increase the potential of their child, may exacerbate a genetically related mental illness.

Finally, one person’s disease is another person’s normal, community and heritage. Deaf parents often resist cochlear implants in their deaf children. These parents don’t view deafness as a disability but rather a community with its own language and customs. This view stands in contrast to the views of many in the hearing community who view deafness as a defect to be cured. Indeed, most deaf people function well in both deaf and hearing areas of society. If embryonic gene editing became a norm, deafness might be “fixed” – a process that some in the deaf community would liken to genocide. Similarly, many in the autistic community refuse to define themselves as having a disease. Not too long ago, homosexuals were considered mentally ill, a view that has become anathema as research into and acceptance of alternate views of sexuality have grown. Understanding the genetic underpinnings of autism and homosexuality would open them to a similar debate about embryo editing.

Some variations from normal are not diseases, they are merely differences. Some diseases or predispositions to diseases mask a greater benefit to the person or to society as a whole under certain conditions. Still others are life threatening diseases that carry little to no benefit as compared to the harm. We don’t always recognize these alterations for what they are, which makes determining which genes to modify a very difficult task as embryo editing becomes more feasible.


Jennifer Carter-Johnson, JD, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Law in the College of Law at Michigan State University. Dr. Carter-Johnson is a member of the Michigan State Bar and the Washington State Bar. She is registered to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, November 3, 2016. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

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Would you donate to a biobank?

Tom TomlinsonCenter Director Dr. Tom Tomlinson and Raymond G. De Vries, Co-Director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at University of Michigan, have co-authored the article “Americans want a say in what happens to their donated blood and tissue in biobanks.” The authors discuss biobank donations, precision medicine, genetics, privacy, and consent.

The last time you went to a hospital, you probably had to fill out forms listing the medications you are taking and updating your emergency contacts. You also might have been asked a question about what is to be done with “excess tissues or specimens” that may be removed during diagnosis or treatment. Are you willing to donate these leftover bits of yourself (stripped of your name, of course) for medical research?

If you are inclined to answer, “Sure, why not?” you will join the majority of Americans who would agree to donate, allowing your leftovers, such as blood or unused bits from biopsies or even embryos, to be sent to a “biobank” that collects specimens and related medical information from donors.

But what, exactly, will be done with your donation? Can the biobank guarantee that information about your genetic destiny will not find its way to insurance companies or future employers? Could, for example, a pharmaceutical company use it to develop and patent a new drug that will be sold back to you at an exorbitant price?

These questions may soon become a lot more real for many of us.

Read the full piece at The Conversation.

Related reading: “Understanding the Public’s Reservations about Broad Consent and Study-By-Study Consent for Donations to a Biobank: Results of a National Survey” published July 14, 2016 in PLoS ONE, an open-access peer-reviewed journal. Authors: Raymond Gene De Vries, Tom Tomlinson, Hyungjin Myra Kim, Chris Krenz, Diana Haggerty, Kerry A. Ryan, Scott Y. H. Kim.

Dr. Cabrera presents on ethical issues in human genetic engineering

Laura Cabrera photoOn April 21, 2016, Laura Cabrera, PhD, presented at Memorial Healthcare’s Ethics and Technology of Human Gene Modification conference in Owosso, MI. Dr. Cabrera’s keynote presentation, “The ethics of human gene modification,” discussed various ethical concerns underlying human gene modification, in particular those concerns raised by CRISPR.

After her keynote presentation, Dr. Cabrera joined the panel and audience discussion. The panel was moderated by Daniel Williams and included Dr. Mario Chaves (Obstetrics & Gynecology), Peg Faulmann (Pastor), Dr. Tallat Mahmood (Oncology & Hematology) and Dr. Thomas Teal (Family Medicine). With the help of iClicker technology, a series of questions were posed to the public, followed by comments from the panel and the audience, leading to a very engaging and rich discussion.

Recent publications from Center faculty

Below is a list of recent publication from Center for Ethics faculty, including peer-reviewed journal articles, book reviews, and book chapters. Most articles can be accessed online through MSU Libraries. Open access publications are labeled as such.

  • Stahl D. Moral Evaluations of Genetic Technologies: The Need for Catholic Social Doctrine. National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. Autumn 2015;15(3):477-489.

Bioethics for Breakfast: A Snip Here and a Tuck There: Are There Limits to Editing Life?

bioethics-for-breakfastSean A. Valles, PhD, and Corey Washington, PhD, presented at the Bioethics for Breakfast event on February 18, 2016, offering perspective and insight on the topic, “A Snip Here and a Tuck There: Are There Limits to Editing Life?”

In 2015 a form of gene-editing technology called CRISPR-cas9 garnered considerable media attention. In principle it will give researchers the ability to edit individual genes in plants, animals or humans. The editing could have the intent of correcting mutated genes that would otherwise result in serious disease, or, alternatively, enhancing a normal gene to produce a superior version of that gene that would yield some superior health state. This technology is not perfected as yet, but researchers are actively engaged in moving that technology toward perfection so that it can have clinical applicability. In the United Kingdom Dr. Kathy Niakan has applied for government approval to use this technology to edit human embryos at the earliest stages of development, though none of those embryos would be allowed to be implanted in a uterus.

Feb18-B4B - Web
Left to right: (standing) Corey Washington, Sean Valles, and Tom Tomlinson. Image courtesy of Libby Bogdan-Lovis.

How should this technology be assessed from an ethical point of view and from a public policy point of view? It is easy to conclude that this technology is ethically unacceptable so long as there are clear risks for bad outcomes for people due to imperfections in the technology. But if those imperfections can be eliminated so that we can say the technology is safe and effective, then are there any other ethical concerns that should govern or prevent the deployment of this technology to shape the genetic endowment of future children as well as other life forms? Or, to ask a question in the present, is it ethically acceptable to genetically alter the embryos of various primates now in order to have scientific confidence that the technology may be applied to human embryos? These questions were addressed and discussed by the event speakers and attendees during Thursday’s program.

Sean A. Valles, PhD
Sean Valles is Assistant Professor in the MSU Lyman Briggs College and Department of Philosophy, as well as an affiliate faculty member in the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior program. He received his PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University. His work examines the interplay between ethical and evidentiary issues in a variety of population health science areas. His research on medical genetics includes a critique of FDA policies on direct-to-consumer genomic testing technologies and examinations of how normality concepts and reproductive rights concepts developed during 20th century eugenics and medical genetics research programs.

Corey Washington, PhD
Corey Washington currently serves as Director of Analytics and Strategic Projects in Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies (OVPRGS) at MSU. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford University as well as a PhD in Neuroscience from Columbia University. Before coming to Michigan State in 2013, he taught Philosophy and Cognitive Science at both the University of Washington and the University of Maryland. Washington also worked in the private sector as a consultant at McKinsey and Company in New York, New York.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Mighty mitochondria: a tiny organelle that can, and should, save lives

Bioethics-in-the-News-logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series. For more information, click here.

By Monica List, DVM, MA

A June 3rd headline from The Guardian reads: “Genetic treatment using three-parent embryos may be ready in two years.” This provocative headline surely raised many hackles. The thought of genetically modifying humans commonly produces a visceral reaction, even in those who in principle are not opposed to genetic modification. Perhaps this visceral reaction is well founded; after all, it is one thing to tinker with the genome of a corn plant to make it more resistant to pests or drought, but to modify the genetic code of human beings may change what it means to be human.

This deeply ingrained fear of genetic modification in humans may be responsible in part for negative reactions to proposals to conduct Phase 1 clinical research trials for mitochondrial replacement, the novel procedure that this Guardian article refers to. Mitochondrial replacement involves the replacement of defective maternal mitochondria with mitochondria from a healthy female donor.

DNAMitochondria, the cellular organelles that act as tiny powerhouses, are always inherited from the mother. An interesting feature of mitochondria is that they have their own form of DNA, mtDNA, which consists of 37 genes, an insignificant amount relative to the estimated 25,000 genes that make up the human genome. However in some women mitochondria carry mutations that may result in severe and often fatal disease in their children. (Callaway, 2014)

While maternal carriers can appear to be perfectly healthy, mtDNA is much more susceptible to mutation – it mutates about 1000 times faster than chromosomal DNA – so when defective mtDNA is passed on to the offspring the effects of those mutations can manifest as mitochondrial disease. Among other conditions, mitochondrial disease, for which currently there is no treatment, can result in kidney disease, blindness, deafness, neurological problems, and dementia. (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2012)

Two mitochondrial replacement techniques, maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer, have been developed but the idea behind mitochondrial replacement is far from new. Researchers started performing pronuclear transfers in mice back in the 1980s. More recently, research has been conducted on maternal spindle transfer in rhesus macaques, producing five healthy monkeys. Currently, a research team at Newcastle University has been performing pronuclear transfers on healthy, fertilized human eggs. To date they have performed around 100 successful transfers. (Callaway, 2014)

While experimental treatment could offer those mothers who are carriers of abnormal mitochondria the possibility of having a healthy child, ethical and legal controversy could prevent this procedure from moving forward to the clinical trial phase. In the UK, the law prohibits any procedure involving the modification of a person’s DNA. This means that although the described procedure could be ready to go to clinical trial in 18-24 months, the law first would have to be modified for this to occur. According to an article published in The Washington Post, in February of this year a US FDA expert advisory panel held a two-day meeting to discuss the issue. Although the FDA has not yet released official comments, the advisory panel recommended that a public hearing be held.

Most of the arguments against the use of this procedure in humans involve some sort of slippery slope scenario: allowing mitochondrial replacement will inevitably lead to cloning, designer babies, and other horrors worthy of a dystopian fiction novel. These arguments easily can be countered by referring to the scientific facts underlying mitochondrial replacement. First, as previously pointed out, mtDNA is distinct from chromosomal DNA, and as such mtDNA is not responsible for a person’s genotypic or phenotypic characteristics. Second, mitochondrial replacement does not involve genetic modification. No individual genes are being altered or replaced. What are being transferred from donor to recipient are cellular organelles. So in a way, it is a form of micro-organ donation, and not genetic modification.

A more interesting set of arguments against mitochondrial replacement raises questions pertinent to research ethics, for example, those related to risk/benefit ratio, and boundaries between research and clinical practice. On the surface the risk/benefit analysis does not seem too problematic. To begin with, extensive preliminary research has been conducted successfully on animal models; moreover, no other treatment options are currently available for mitochondrial disease patients. The next logical step would be to conduct Phase 1 clinical trials. A report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics seems to agree with this approach, stating: “subject to appropriate oversight, it is ethical to gather further information about these techniques, in order that they can be considered for treatment use.” (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2012) However, the risk/benefit analysis may not be so simple, considering that the procedure being tested not only will affect the involved subject, but also potentially the subject’s future offspring. We may be facing a whole new set of ethical questions related to intergenerational risk/benefit analysis.

Even more ethically problematic than the risk/benefit issue is the matter of establishing effective boundaries between research and clinical practice. In this case there is little distinction to be made; consenting subjects would be enrolling in a trial that offers them the only option to bear a healthy child. While it may be clear to those subjects that they are in fact participating in research, due to the nature of the procedure as well as to the desired outcome (a healthy baby) it is plausible to think that researchers and clinicians will work together very closely to monitor the process, thereby blurring, more than usual, accepted boundaries between research and practice.

These and other important ethical questions should be seriously considered, but in and of themselves they should not prevent mitochondrial replacement research from moving forward, especially when serious suffering and untimely death can be prevented. What is unnecessarily distracting is the moral panic related to the possibility of this research leading to genetic modification of chromosomal DNA. Hopefully, for now that panic will remain confined to the pages of science fiction novels.


Callaway, E. Reproductive medicine: the power of three. Nature 509 (7501). May 21, 2014.

Clark, Stuart. Genetic treatment using three-parent embryo may be ready in two years. The Guardian. Published online June 3, 2014.

Eunjung Cha, Ariana and Sandhya Somashekhar. FDA panel debates technique that would create embryos with three genetic parents. The Washington Post. Online, February 25, 2014.

Mitalipov, S. et al. Limitations of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis for Mitochondrial DNA Diseases. Cell Reports, 7 (4): 935 – 937. May 22, 2014.

Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Summary of report. Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review. June 12, 2012. Available online:

list-cropMonica List, DVM, MA, is a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. She earned a veterinary medicine degree from the National University of Costa Rica in 2002, and an MA degree in bioethics, also from the National University, in 2011.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, July 10, 2014. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives. You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.