All blog posts by Peter Mills

  • I arrived in Hong Kong on Monday lunchtime for the second ‘international summit’ on genome editing amid stories circulating that gene-edited twin girls had been born to a Chinese couple. The editing, it was claimed, had targeted the CCR5 gene, with the aim of introducing a variant that confers immunity to HIV and some other viruses by altering the cellular receptors to which the virus binds on the surface of human cells. At first I was sceptical, recalling the alleged cloning attempts of reproductive biologists more than a decade ago, but discussions in the margins of the summit suggested that the claims had credibility.

    The doctor responsible for this was Dr Jiankui He, a PhD physicist who went on to study bioengineering in the US, and who is currently on leave from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China (which has since condemned his work, along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and almost everyone I have met in the last two days). He was on the conference programme for Wednesday, due to present in a session on ‘Human Embryo Editing’. (more…)

  • According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau ‘the first person who, having fenced in a piece of land, bethought himself to say “this is mine” and found others simple-minded enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society.’ While it is hard to share Rousseau’s nostalgia for idealised anarchy, the patterning of social relations that is entailed when people start staking claims to property can have morally ambiguous consequences.  Such claims are now, it appears, being staked on the emerging territories of electronic data.

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  • Very quietly, last month, NHS Digital, the national authority that governs information relating to health and social care provision in England, renewed its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Home Office to share information about ‘immigration offenders’ (such as those entering the UK without proper papers and asylum seekers who have had their asylum claims rejected).  The original MoU between NHS Digital and the Home Office was introduced, very quietly, over a year ago. (more…)

  • One place that social epistemologists tracking contemporary manifestations of the ‘two cultures’ problem can still find rich material is the encounter between the biological scientists and the ‘security community’.  And one of the most recent sites for this encounter is the security implications of genome editing.  This was the subject of an international workshop last week organised by the Inter Academy Partnership, the European Academies Science Advisory Council, the German National Academy for Sciences (Leopoldina), and the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and hosted by the Volkswagen Foundation.

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  • Last month I spoke at the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) annual conference in Jerusalem about genome editing, bioethics and human rights. My invitation came via the Bioethics Committee of the Council of Europe, of which I was a member until the end of 2016, although my talk offered a personal perspective and not that of the Committee.  The Council of Europe is the body responsible for the European Convention on Human Rights and (among other things) the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine; formed in 1947 and therefore predating the communities that became the European Union, the Council of Europe has 47 members (whereas the EU has 28 – all too soon to be 27), encompassing states from Ireland and Portugal in the west and Iceland in the north to Russia and Azerbaijan in the East and Cyprus in the south.  My contribution was part of a ‘science and society’ session at the conference.  In an otherwise rather technical event, the session was well attended and – judging from the discussion – the audience was very thoughtfully engaged with the issues.  The following picks out some of the points from my presentation and was previously posted to the FEBS Network.

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  • When I worked at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in the early years of the present century we still had a working fax machine. It sat on a filing cabinet in the middle of our floor, in a shared office building in the vicinity of Liverpool Street station. If, on any given morning, the mainstream media had happened to scratch at a contentious issue that pushed against the boundaries of our small and orderly world, it was a fair bet that at some point, as the day thickened towards lunchtime, the fax machine would begin to whir and grind. Out of it would emerge, line by line, on (I remember now) either green or lilac paper, an admonitory epistle in verse. Sometimes the poet would castigate the Authority for some regulatory decision or omission; more often than not, however, the poem would end with an unanswerable gesture into the horizonless, oceanic nihil ulterius. Where (the poet asked) will it all end?

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