Last week I attended Biotech & the Ethical Imagination (BEINGS 2015), the summit I previewed on this blog back in early May. It many ways the summit lived up to its lofty ambitions.
Steven Pinker kicked off the event by emphasizing the power and importance of biomedical research, noting that almost everyone is affected by disease and imploring the bioethics community to “stay out of the way.”
Margaret Atwood followed Pinker noting both the excitement of modern biotech and the perils of the enterprise. She broadened the scope of the discussion to include environmental concerns, arguing that if we don’t address pressing environmental issues, such as climate change, there would be little reason to worry about continuing to advance human health. Both Pinker and Atwood were part of the panel considering the appropriate aspirations for the biotechnological enterprise and gave the assembled delegates plenty of food for thought.
The meeting alternated these short TED-style talks with panel discussions addressing five major topics: (1) Aspirations for Biotechnology, (2) Alien Organisms and New Identities, (3) Bioerror and Bioterror, (4) Ownership, and (5) Donorship. The hope was to raise key issues for the delegates to consider as they begin the difficult process of drafting ethical principles and policy guidelines for the future of cellular biotechnology.
The meeting has already generated substantial discussion (see here, here, here, here and here for example) and I won’t try to review it all here. Rather, I’d like to highlight a few of the major themes I took away from the summit:
(1) Global Nature of Biotech. Biotechnology is truly a global enterprise with important advances coming from scientists working in many different countries. This reality poses important challenges for biotech policy as substantial heterogeneity exists in country-level regulatory approaches toward the advancement of bioscience.
(2) Importance of money. Biotechnology in the 21st century is driven by money. Money drives the questions that are studied (and those that are ignored). Raising money (typically through grants) is central to the careers of many research scientists, particularly in the life sciences. Corporate agendas and the pursuit of profits also shape research in myriad ways from the focus on specific research questions to the acquisition of research materials to the sharing (or lack thereof) of research results.
(3) Rapid Pace of Advance. Biotechnology is advancing at an extremely rapid pace, which offers both hope for the future and poses substantial challenges for the policy and ethics community. In short, it’s important not just to oversee past science, but to prepare for future advances, even if these are uncertain and unpredictable.
None of these themes is novel but each one points to important challenges in shaping the future of cellular biotechnology. I am working along with a team of 15 or so delegates to draft principles and guidelines related to the broad topic of “donorship” – the provision of biological materials for cellular biotechnology. We are early in our deliberations thinking through what works and doesn’t work at the current time and how donation should be construed and overseen as the field advances. As we continue these deliberations, I hope we can develop useful guidelines that consider the context of the rapidly advancing, global and money-driven biotechnological enterprise. Such a task will be challenging, but hopefully rewarding as well, both for the delegates who are spending their summer voluntarily contributing to the effort and for the broader biotech community.
I welcome your thoughts and ideas on these themes in general and their implications for the future of cellular biotechnology as well as your thoughts on the issues of provision of biological materials for research purposes.