Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avatar: The Future of Bioethics is Now

Avatar, the recently released big budget movie by James Cameron, has taken the entertainment industry by storm. Normally “not to be pleased” film critics cannot find enough complimentary words to print. With a $300 million price tag to produce, Avatar has become an instant “cult hit”. Audiences leave theaters in awe of the computer generated special effects that reportedly have transformed the movie viewing experience to a state of virtual reality. In addition to achieving ultimate moviemaking technology, the story line is a compelling account of a science fiction that may be less fiction than it is real science.
The story of Avatar explores the ability of a human to inhabit the mind and control the body of a lesser being created by science to accomplish tasks considered too dangerous for the human to engage in. The manufactured humanoids are sent to an inhospitable planet where war is being waged for control of the universe. Sound like a better way to wage war? Sound far-fetched? Perhaps science is far more capable of creating this fantastic world than most moviegoers would expect.
The word “avatar” derives from a Hindu word representing the embodiment of the god Vishnu in typically lesser forms of being some of which are god-like and others much less so, including turtles, fish, boars or lions. Vishnu was embodied in countless life forms all created for specific purposes to achieve the intent of the god who engendered them. 
The word came into popular American culture through the language of Internet gaming in which players created virtual selves to live, play and potentially die to live again in the game “Habitat” first created in 1986.  As players created their “online persona” they lived vicariously through their surrogate in playing the game by engaging in virtual activities which hopefully they would never choose to participate in “the real world”. Their avatars could murder, maim, deceive and steal with impunity.
How could this fiction possibly be realized through science? It is much closer to reality than we might wish to admit. The science of transgenics has accomplished amazing feats in the laboratory which movie makers could only wish to recreate for the big screen. Truth in fact is stranger than fiction.
Would you like to manufacture a natural fiber much stronger than steel? How about combining the genetic code of a spider with that of a goat to create goat’s milk with the strength characteristics of a spider’s web? Outlandish, you say! Done. BioSteel® is the product of a Canadian company which comes from its “spidergoat” created by combining the genomes of spiders with those of goats.
Barnyard experimentation is one thing, but human experimentation is something entirely different. Right? Wrong. In Amherst, Massachusetts genetic engineering company Advanced Cell Technology created hybrid embryos resulting from the injection of human cells into cows eggs. South Korean research company Maria Bio-Tech created a “hu-mouse” by injecting human stem cells into mouse embryos The living altered embryos were implanted into to a mouse womb with a litter of healthy “hu-mice” delivered thereafter. And just for the fun of it, Cambridge University researchers created “she-male” hermaphrodite human embryos by implanting male genes into female embryos. These chimeras (part one life form and part another) are scientifically capable of creation in infinite varieties.
Make no mistake about it, as a human born with a bi-cuspid aortic heart valve, I am very interested in creating a pig which would carry my own genetic code so if the time arrives that a valve replacement is medically necessary, I can harvest a perfect body part for the task. But because I can, should I?
More critically, because we might be able to create human-like forms in the lab for the purpose of conducting warfare, scientific experimentation or medical therapy should we?
At present, no federal laws in the US prevent these outcomes. Only human restraint does so (if in fact such experimentation is being restrained rather than simply not reported).
All significant human scientific advances raise ethical concerns. The time has long passed for us to seriously consider and engineer the ethical limits, conditions and consequences of genetic experimentation. Only a multi-disciplinary dialogue will provide the breadth and depth of discourse necessary for this critical conversation. Scientists, ethicists, lawyers, physicians, policy makers and the public must be invited into this discourse lest one segment of society hijacks the possibility of a reasoned outcome.
In all the debate and diatribe surrounding health care reform, dialogue concerning bioethics has been noticeably absent. For the sake of humans, avatars, chimera and other life forms capable of being “born” in our laboratories, the time to convene this dialogue is now.
[Larry Bridgesmith is a guest blogger for the Womens Bioethics Blog; you can see more about his background here. ]

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