As you can tell by the fact that we haven’t updated this blog since January, the pandemic has hit our research group pretty hard. With one of our postdoctoral fellows stuck in Italy, and all of us having at best spotty access to much of our digital humanities infrastructure, things have been moving pretty slowly. But there is some good news to report! As a part of a seven-university consortium, the lab has just been awarded a new grant from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 “Science with and for Society” program. Read on to learn more!
As many of you know, despite the relative lack of publications on the question (*cough*), our group has been interested for some time in the ethical impacts of contemporary scientific research, especially dual-use technologies (scientific research that also has a potential military application) and biotechnology. I was recently approached by my colleague and friend Mylène Botbol-Baum, an excellent local bioethicist cross-appointed in the institute of philosophy and the institute of public health, who is particularly involved with our local center for research in healthcare ethics, HELESI. She thought we would be a good fit, added to her role in a consortium led by Jan Helge Solbakk at the University of Oslo, which was preparing a grant for a new Horizon 2020 SwafS target area: the ethics of organoid research.
Organoids are a particularly interesting novel biotechnology. The idea is to innovate upon traditional methods of tissue culture by moving into three dimensions – and not only doing so in the sense of positioning cells in 3D, but in the more robust sense of building small model objects, organoids, which duplicate something of the histology and function of full-sized organs. A model intestinal organoid, like the ones pictured here, would have the right kinds of cells in the right kinds of relative positions to be able to reproduce at least some relevant features of intestine itself, allowing a sort of middle ground between in vivo and in vitro experimentation.
There are a variety of ethical questions at work here. At least some of these organoids are chimeras – they are built from combinations of human and animal cells. In some cases, organoids built from human cells will be implanted into animals. This raises interesting questions about the status of animal subjects, which must be counterbalanced against the fact that robust organoid research should, in general, allow for the use of fewer experimental animals, since it enables more varieties of more sophisticated non-animal research.
Similarly, some of the types of organoids that have already been generated and that are planned for the future might raise intrinsic ethical questions. Some organoids are intended to replicate the behavior of early embryogenesis, allowing us to understand and perhaps better treat various kinds of disease that occur early in differentiation. Cerebral organoids also are a target for future research, given that they might serve as exceptional model systems for the treatment of diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s. In both cases, we might be worried about the ethical status of these objects themselves – if we have produced something like a “artificial embryo,” or a “minimal brain,” we would have some intrinsic questions that need to be explored.
Moving from the technology itself to its social impact, there are a variety of concerns here as well. Organoid technology, as with most new biotechnologies, is often extremely over-hyped: “mini-brains” will be the new silver bullet for curing neurodegenerative disease, for instance. We thus have to consider not only the ethics of research, but the ethics of our presentation of that research to the public. This is compounded by the fact that we have very little knowledge of just how scientists and the public currently think about organoids, and that there are very few extant structures for research ethics and governance surrounding them.
The consortium for our project, called Hybrida, intends to tackle all of these questions head-on. Our group at UCLouvain – more on this in a moment – will work on conceptual analysis, trying to understand the framework within which both the public and the scientific community contextualizes organoids. Other groups will build an expanded Health Technology Assessment for organoids; chart the current regulatory environment surrounding organoid research; survey a variety of stakeholders, from researchers to the general public; develop novel normative frameworks to approach the ethical questions which they raise; prepare a new European Code of Conduct for organoid research; and distribute the results of the project to both researchers and the general public through a series of workshops and publications. In short, from the empirical to the theoretical, we’ve got an excellent team together, competent to approach a very difficult question from a wide variety of angles.
As I mentioned above, our group will be responsible primarily for the first work package – broadly a project in conceptual analysis. When scientists and the public think about organoid research, they will do so in a context that is informed by a variety of preexisting concepts. Members of the public will approach this technology with extant ideas about hybrids and chimeras (which have precursors throughout literature, mythology, or science fiction), religious frameworks, and famously thorny biological concepts like the idea of a “natural” intervention. For the scientific and medical communities, on the other hand, there is a different kind of history – not only of other, similar technologies like stem cell research, but also of conceptual unclarity surrounding the very idea of organoids themselves. (Think, for example, of the persistent marketing of organoids as “mini-organs” like “mini-brains,” despite the fact that this analogy almost certainly produces more confusion than illumination.) It is our goal to try to chart, understand, and hopefully positively intervene on this thicket of preexisting notions. This work will be vital for the future steps in the project, particularly as we think about how to engage with these very stakeholders in our public focus group meetings.
This is a 3-year project, which includes funding for a postdoctoral fellow to help us out with the research – watch this space for more information in the next few years! Many thanks to the EC and H2020 for supporting us.