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The Neuroethics and Feasibility of Genetic Engineering on the Nervous System


Our project deals with an idea which may seem, on the face of it, frightening to some; the insertion of modified brain cells, microglia, to try and alleviate Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Although more similar to a macrophage than a neuron, engineering microglial cells represents both a neuroscientific and a neuroethical challenge, not least because it seems like the stuff of zombie B-movies. In the interests of assessing the feasibility of the project in social terms, we are producing this report dealing with the potential use, and ethics of the use, of genetic engineering (GE) on the nervous system, as well as expounding a little on some of the scientific concepts behind various approaches. We felt that the ethics of the issues raised are best analysed in light of the science behind the various neuroscientific applications of GE, and so we present them together.

Synthetic Biology and Medicine

Synthetic biology is a broad and expanding discipline in which biological systems are modified on the genetic level to engineer new structures and functions of benefit to human kind, be that in the realms of industry, or art, or medicine, etc. Genetic engineering (GE) purports to improve our understanding of the mechanism of pathologies, create better diagnostic tools and even open up whole new ranges of methods with which to tackle human diseases, from cancer to neurodegenerative conditions. The later may be achieved via the cheap, efficient production of drugs, particularly gene products which can be administered therapeutically, or even through the insertion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically modified host cells (GMCs) into the body, where they can produce proteins in situ and employ complex systems to tackle disease-state targets accurately and effectively. The ability to insert a synthetic genome in a chassis to the site of pathology in the human body could allow for specific drug delivery, synthesis and activation, and following a bottom-up approach help usher in an era of highly personalised medicine.

However, from its conception, the idea of engineering bacteria, let alone human cells, has met with opposition from people of many different beliefs and backgrounds for a variety of reasons, though even those who stalwartly defend GMOs in other arenas may be cautious with about their use in humans, in vivo. Opponents’ arguments vary from religious to safety concerns, especially over the malevolent potential of this Promethean technology and the possibility of unintended negative fallout, despite the fact that the use of biotechnology is already common place in medicine. In fiction, for example, GE is often portrayed as a part of some dystopia. The use of GE in medicine is entangled with engrained social values and politics, and therefore necessitates the participation of the extended patient community as well as academic experts and medical practioners in the field. Generally, scientists from all fields view GE more favourably than laymen, and tend to view the issues at hand in a more teleological fashion as opposed to the deontological outlook more prominent in the public, who express with greater frequency moral, spiritual and cultural unease (Small 2009).