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  • If you were born in Scotland between 1965 and 2003 then, more likely than not, a sample of your blood is being stored by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board. During that period blood samples taken from babies to run the heel prick test – the neonatal bloodspot, or ‘Guthrie’, test, regularly carried out on newborns to test for a number of genetic conditions – were routinely stored, indefinitely, by the NHS on a card with the baby’s name on it. This might come as a surprise, even for those whose samples are currently being stored in this way, because parents were never asked or informed about this.

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  • Recently, a group of leading healthcare organisations reported a 30% rise in worldwide measles cases from 2016. Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that remains a significant cause of death in children worldwide, despite the availability of an effective vaccine that has a high level of safety. In the UK, the measles vaccine is voluntary and it is administered to pre-school children as a measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) combination.

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  • epi- | ˈɛpi | (also ep-) prefix upon: epigraphabove: epicontinentalin addition: epiphenomenon. ORIGIN from Greek epi ‘upon, near to, in addition’.

    Genetics seems to be part of the public consciousness. We are sensitive to discussions about GM crops or animals; we say that our innermost convictions or tendencies are ‘in our DNA’. Genomics and genomes are themselves quite commonly discussed, either in terms of testing or, recently, in terms of editing. DNA is, quite literally, everywhere. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recently published several reports in which genetic themes loom large (see, for example, genome editing and non-invasive prenatal testing). So, a recent Council workshop dedicated to the topic of epigenetics was an interesting contribution to the wider discussion of ethics in the context of human biology, health and imagined futures.

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  • If you or your partner have been pregnant in the last five years, or you have seen news stories about pregnancy screening and Down’s syndrome, you will have probably heard of non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), or the ‘Harmony test’ as its often called (which is one of the test’s brand names).

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  • 2019 promises to be another busy and stimulating year for us all here at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and we look forward to welcoming some new Council members this spring. Here is a very quick run through of the major topics and projects that we have planned for this year.

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  • It’s Veganuary! The name – which has been hard to avoid anywhere this month – has been coined to inspire individuals to try being vegan for January and indeed for the rest of the year. The charity using the name says that there is ‘a reason for everyone to try vegan’. And that is a great claim. For added to the familiar assertion that we should avoid eating meat to reduce the suffering of animals, are claims that eating meat is bad for us and bad for the planet. For instance, a report published last week in The Lancet urges human beings to adopt a healthy diet that will at the same time safeguard a healthy planet. This diet – spelled out for the first time and based on current scientific evidence – would consist largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts – and  would dramatically reduce the consumption of ‘unhealthy’ red meat.

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  • “What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster?” (From “Monster”, The Automatic, 2005)

    We thought of everything – oracles, crystal balls, telescopes – as ways of trying to see into the future, or at least to the horizon, for what might be coming along next.  Not just monsters, but developments that might engage and challenge the public interest and public values. We asked around, to find out how others do their horizon scanning, and found that few are really satisfied with their efforts and processes.  Yet it is important to our mission that we keep a keen eye on what might be coming along in the fields of biological and medical research, as our central aim is to inform public and policy debate with timely consideration of the ethical issues arising from such developments. Timeliness demands anticipation, and anticipation depends on good information about what is emerging or likely to emerge.

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  • 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…)