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Biologists tow ethical line after growing brain tissue

Neuroscientists are at something of an ethical impasse after successfully cultivating human brain tissue in laboratory conditions, and serious consideration needs to be taken before pushing forward.

With the recent breakthroughs in Biotechnology and tissue cultivation, biologists the world over are working at 100mph as they vie to reinvent the medical wheel for future generations.

However, there are serious concerns surrounding this next big initiative, which involves the creation of mini-brains or brain ‘organoids’. Maverick docs have invested serious time and money into creating small tissue masses using stem cells, and while they’re little bigger than a pea, they have shown signs of developing spontaneous brain waves similar to those emitted from premature babies.

It’s worth mentioning early on that neuroscientists aren’t looking to create their own humanoids here, otherwise there would be no debate to be had. Their primary purpose is to probe into the world of debilitating neurological disorders and degenerative diseases, with the ultimate goal of eventually eradicating them from the world: we’re talking everything from schizophrenia and autism, to Alzhemier’s, Parkinson’s, and macular degeneration.

We previously covered technology’s push to eradicate incapacitating disorders both mental and physical (here) with serial entrepreneur Elon Musk heading the race (if you’ll pardon the pun). This, in a nutshell, is biology’s attempt.

A chief question at the moment asks whether, seeing as brains are the central hub for pain which is the primary indicator that life is under threat, will these organoids experience suffering in any way? It’s a distinct possibility considering researchers at Harvard have already developed brain organoids with a rich diversity of tissues, from cerebral cortex neurons to retinal cells. After just eight months these organoids sparked with neural activity and even responded to light as a stimulus. It’s all eerily sophisticated.

In another study headed by Fred Gage at the Salk Institute in San Diego, researchers transplanted human organoids into mouse brains and found that, as hypothesised, they sprouted fresh connections and seamlessly supported the rodent’s blood supply. While this undoubtedly is an amazing achievement, it’s brings to head the necessary question: where do we draw the line? We’re not patching faulty lung or kidney tissue here. This is a whole different ball game. It literally is brain surgery.

Dr Ohayon is understandably concerned about the possibility of causing suffering to sentient or semi-sentient beings; that being either lab mice, humans of the future, or very possibly lab-engineered organoids.

Laws are currently in place to govern research into human tissues specifically to combat proposal’s like this one, but further research is needed to determine the point at which sentience is likely to arrive. However, Ohayon reckons he has developed computer models to help us do just that. He’s yet to spill the beans on that unfortunately, it doesn’t suit his agenda after all.

Truthfully, it just seems that until today organoids just weren’t sophisticated enough to cause any real concern, and now that breakthroughs have been made medical professionals appear to be fumbling around to put the necessary guidelines in place.

The implanting of organoids into hosts is the ultimate goal for those all about the science, but there are concerns that even the probing of cultivated brain tissue in a petri dish is a step too far. To get the green light we need to categorically discount sentience where the tissue is concerned, but the innate hyperactive nature of brain tissue suggests that this might not be possible – especially when considering the tissue’s already massive development in the aforementioned studies.

Personally, I’m leaning towards seconding Ohayon’s stance at the moment. Although the technology has world changing potential, we simply can’t go any further until we can quantify and control the development of cultivated brain tissue. The fact that professionals are being surprised day to day by the tissue’s reaction to stimuli suggests they aren’t able to predict how it could develop in the future.

The prospect of having to prematurely end a life that we’ve creating is truly disturbing and unsettling and could open a can of ethical worms akin to the pro-life, pro-choice debate.

Are you erring on the side of caution with this one, or is the potential gain too great to ignore now? Let us know in the comments.


~ For more extensive research on bioprinting and where cultivated tissue is heading, check out this recent report from Polylactide.com ~

 

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