Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Human cloning - a bright idea?

Blog by Adèle Langlois: Genomics Forum Genomics Forum Bright Ideas Fellow

Coming to the Genomics Forum as a Bright Ideas Fellow is, for me, the perfect fit: I have a long association with the Genomics Network (I did my PhD through Innogen) and the book I am writing during my Fellowship will form part of the Network’s Genetics and Society series. And I’m in Edinburgh, which is not only one of my favourite cities, but also a place that will forever be associated with cloning—which the book is partly about—through Dolly the Sheep.

The book’s provisional title is Negotiating Bioethics: The Governance of UNESCO’s Bioethics Programme. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) began its work in bioethics in 1993. Over the past two decades it has ‘negotiated’ bioethics in two ways. Firstly, it has navigated the twists and turns of a developing moral discourse, as science and technology, particularly in relation to the human body, have progressed. Secondly, at the formal intergovernmental level, it has hammered out three international declarations: the 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the 2003 International Declaration on Human Genetic Data and the 2005 Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. More recently, it has been investigating whether we need an international convention to ban human reproductive cloning.

I’m using my time at the Forum to get to grips with the scientific and moral arguments for and against cloning that have emerged over last 15 years or so, in the wake of Dolly and the completion of the Human Genome Project. As a student of international relations, my main concern rests with the legal implications. The UN tried for a binding ban on reproductive cloning back in 2001, but after four years of wrangling could manage only a vaguely worded, non-binding declaration, supported by only 84 of the 190-odd member states. This has left something of a ‘black hole’ in the international regulatory framework, which prompted UNESCO to see if it could come up with a stronger, less ambiguous legal instrument. It couldn’t. Realising that achieving international consensus is impossible at present, the organisation has instead decided to focus on promoting international dialogue on the issue.

There is question mark over whether all this really matters. Amidst the daily reality of the myriad challenges humanity faces—war, hunger, poverty, disease—is regulating the one-day-it-might-be-possible world of human cloning really a priority? Inmaculada de Melo-Martín articulates this point thus:

When one reads analyses of this technology, one has the impression that we live in a society where our most serious and pressing problems are the pleas of infertile people, or the requests of those who want to replace their dead loved ones; a world where genetic disease is the main cause of preventable deaths, where individuality is threatened, where one of the worst things that can happen to children is that their parents have too many expectations because of their genetic make up, and where resources are all but limited.[1]

And the UN Declaration on Human Cloning recognises it too:

Member States are further called upon, in their financing of medical research, including of life sciences, to take into account the pressing global issues such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which affect in particular the developing countries.[2]

In other words, declared (half of) the UN, there are better ways to spend scarce resources than funding research on human reproductive cloning, which would likely be of dubious benefit to a relatively small number of people. Yet we must be careful of assuming that such frontier technologies are of little interest to developing countries faced with addressing more immediate and basic needs than those de Melo-Martín lists. As part of my research, I have sat in on UNESCO’s discussions on cloning. One of the most striking perspectives came from the delegate for Madagascar. Cloning research, he said, is not about ‘playing God’, but about understanding him better, so that we can love him more. I have not come across this viewpoint in any of the (largely Western) bioethics literature on cloning, yet surely such voices need to be heard if the debate is to be truly global.

[1] de Melo-Martín, I. (2002) “On Cloning Human Beings”, Bioethics, 16 (3), pp. 246-265.

[2] United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning, available at www.un.org/law/cloning/ (accessed 18 May 2012).

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Genomics Forum seeking a Photographer-in-Residence

Have you recently (2011-2012) graduated from a higher-education photography course? Would you be interested in creating a portfolio of work inspired by the work of the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum/Genomics Network, with a view to submitting this to the ESRC ‘Portraits of Britain’ photographic competition?

The ESRC Genomics Forum is seeking a Photographer in Residence to create a portfolio of photographic works inspired by the work of the Genomics Forum and its involvement with the wider Genomics Network.

Based at the Forum’s offices in Edinburgh, the residency will involve the photographer spending a minimum of 1-2 days a week working with Forum staff (and potentially those from other Genomics Network Centres such as Innogen) and attending Forum events, in order to explore the issues and topics researched.

The portfolio of work resulting from the residency, which will run from late June 2012 until late July/early August 2012, will be exhibited at various events in order to promote the Forum’s work. Selected photographs will also be entered into the ESRC Portraits of Britain photography competition, which has a closing date of 17 August 2012.

It is intended that the residency would provide an ideal opportunity for a recently-graduated photographer to gain experience working creatively in an education/research environment.

If you – or someone you know – might be interested in becoming the Forum’s Photographer in Residence this summer, further details on the position and how to apply can be found at the Genomics Forum website.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

We Want You! (And we promise it won’t hurt a bit)

What Scientists Read
Blog by Dr. Christine Knight, Genomics Forum Policy Research Fellow

This month I was extremely proud to launch the website for a new project designed to investigate the influence of literature on scientific thought and practice, What Scientists Read. If you’re a scientist, we’d love to hear from you about your reading habits and how these relate to your work. If you’re based in the Scottish Central Belt (Edinburgh, Glasgow or nearby) please consider signing up for a 1-hour interview. But no matter where you are in the world, you can contribute your thoughts and experiences via the online discussion. Please do get involved!

The project got off to a flying (if early!) start with an interview on BBC Radio Scotland in their breakfast programme on Wednesday 9 May. We’ve also been lucky enough to be covered on the New Scientist blog CultureLab, and the twitterati haven’t been silent, either – check us out @whatsciread.

For me personally one of the most exciting parts of the project is the opportunity to collect research data (scientists’ online contributions) at the same time as engaging with the public, scientists and other interested groups. By investing a relatively small amount of money in an online interface like this, we can create a genuinely international community and allow anyone, anywhere to keep up to date with what we’re doing. You can’t beat a traditional research interview for real-time, face-to-face discussion – but in practice any research project can usually only include a small number of interviews; they’re time-consuming to conduct and expensive to transcribe. In What Scientists Read we have the best of both worlds.

My fellow researchers on the project are Dr Sarah Dillon, Lecturer in Contemporary Fiction at the University of St Andrews, and Dr PippaGoldschmidt, the Genomics Forum’s Writer in Residence. Our scientific advisor is Miles Padgett, Professor of Optics at the University of Glasgow. What Scientists Read is funded by the Scottish Crucible, the professional development and leadership programme developed by NESTA for junior academics. Sarah and I were participants in Scottish Crucible 2011… which is how What Scientists Read got started.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Stem cell comic hits the spot, say scientists

European stem cell research consortium OptiStem yesterday launched Hope Beyond Hype, a short educational comic that tells the story of stem cells from discovery to therapy. The comic, now available online and as attractive hard-copy
'starts with the true life story of two badly burned boys being treated with stem cell generated skin grafts in 1983. We then follow the successes and setbacks of a group of researchers working together to use stem cells to cure blindness, whilst being introduced to knotty issues that are part of the process, including stem cell regulation and the controversial ethical issues surrounding the subject. Whilst some of the story lines sound like science fiction they are in fact all true, despite the fact the script was written by the well-known Scottish Science Fiction writer, Ken Macleod. Comic book artist Edward Ross illustrated the script with his clear, friendly and attractive artwork, whilst stem cell researchers from OptiStem provided the real-life examples of their research and experiences.'
The comic was produced by a team led by Cathy Southworth, Optistem and EuroSyStem's Public Engagement, Outreach and Communications Manager, who works at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine. She came up with the idea, recruited the team, showed us around the marvellous building in which the Centre is housed, introduced us to her colleagues, and arranged the immense privilege of an hour for us all with stem cell pioneer Professor Michele De Luca.

Cathy and I consulted graphic-novel guru David Bishop at Napier, who explained how comics scripts are written and suggested books to read. I went off and read them, then wrote the script. Comics artist Edward Ross and his colleague, Glasgow University PhD student Jamie Hall, did the design and artwork. Meanwhile Edward and Jamie were just finishing a rather longer comic on malaria, and Edward and his wife were expecting a happy event (now happily eventuated, as you can see from the pram handle in the picture below), but they took it all in their stride. The script (and some panels - none of us will forget the blastocyst picture) went through several iterations, as we and some of Cathy's colleagues tore successive drafts to shreds.

For all that, we finished on time and in budget, and it was a proud moment when we all got the finished article in our hands.