Ethical Challenges in Cutting Edge ResearchDr. Nita Farahany, a neuroethicist and bioethicist, kicked off the Huang Fellows Program by discussing the ethics of creating human/monkey embryos.
Our dialogue began with the discussion of Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training, which includes ethical duties of scientists. As a group, we explored the importance of data integrity and informed consent when working with human subjects, a conversation that made many parallels to my patient activism and advocacy course in the fall semester.
From here, Dr. Farahany pivoted to talk about how ethics can and should be approached in research; a process, she argued, that begins with understanding the science. For the experiment we talked about, the basic science was human cells being added to a monkey embryo, creating a chimera. These human cells were able to persist in the monkey body.
One goal of this research was to address the fact that currently, we have relatively poor models for studying human beings. This work has the potential to alter the entire landscape of research models for humans, serving as an entity that could be used to better test and understand the etiology of certain diseases humans are exposed to and grapple with.
From here, Dr. Farahany posed the following question: “what makes you uncomfortable with this research?” As a group, we concluded that while the current stages of research are ethical, future experiments and developments could be problematic. If we continue to create chimeras with human cells that are able to survive and reproduce, then the chimera will become closer and closer to a human. Ultimately, the closer any model gets to being human, the more morally ambiguous the experiment becomes. Questions of consciousness, moral qualms surrounding birth, and creating a humanlike being for the sole purpose of using it for research begin to surface.
As we delved into the discussion of the ethics behind this experiment and other related ones, Dr. Farahany provided a meaningful and important reframing of the use of ethics in research. Instead of thinking about ethics as something that stops and stagnates scientific inquiry, Dr. Farahany encouraged us to think about ethics as the “guard rails” of research. Integrating ethics with research, or science with society, is about thoughtfully considering how research can progress in a way that chooses the most ethical path forward and that respects the best interests of society and those around us.
In these considerations, Dr. Farahany stressed the importance of leading with what she called “democratic deliberation.” This process rests on a basic set of principles that are consistent with minimizing the risk to society while also maximizing the benefit to scientific progress. Democratic deliberation creates an open dialogue between ethicists, scientists, policymakers, and the public. By valuing each perspective, we can hold researchers accountable to society, while also honoring research that proceeds in an ethically conscious direction. Dr. Farahany argues that this process of democratic deliberation is truly essential to reaching decisions about the future of each experiment.
In addition to these thoughtful conversations, another crucial part to the process of integrating ethics with research is having a scientifically literate public. This begins with researchers that are strong scientific communicators, a core skill that I believe should be more deeply integrated into graduate programs. Doctors, scientists, and researchers alike must embody Einstein’s argument that “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Ultimately, I found Dr. Farahany’s seminar a natural and terrific beginning to the next ten weeks, as I and the other Huang Fellows will consistently and thoughtfully consider the importance of integrating the science that we do with broader aims of society. In addition to this, Dr. Farahany’s talk started the conversation around how best to create an informed and educated public, something we all will be thinking deeply about through the creation of our science kits.
Julia Davis, Huang Fellow ’24
Julia is a prospective neuroscience major from the Boston area, who intends to pursue a Ph.D. in psychoneuroimmunology (PNI).