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Scanning Mice Brains

  • Posted on January 23, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Okay, so I get that it is unethical to kick off medical experiments on people before we have some assurance of their safety.  I get that.  I’m onboard with that.

But, creating autistic mice?  Really?  First, that which we call “autism” is a collection of observed behaviors.  Most observable human behaviors can have multiple causes.  Just because you can recreate a facsimile of those observed behaviors in mice doesn’t mean there’s any causal relationship between what you did to the mice and what happens in a normal, naturally-developing autistic human.  That seems pretty obvious to me.

So what is the scientific value of scanning the brains of these artificially created autistic mice?

I totally get testing out the scanning technology to make sure it works.  I also see the value of the scanning technology; I suspect it’s going to help researchers gain a better understanding of the working differences between so-called “normal” brains and autistic brains.  (Though, I disagree with these researchers starting with the assumption of pathology or wrongness.)

But what conclusions can we really draw from scanning the brains of mice which scientists have manipulated to demonstrate autistic-like behaviors?  Do these scientists really think they’re going to gain insight into naturally-occurring human autism by scanning the brains of these mice?

Am I missing something?  Really, if you understand this leap of logic, which to me seems like driving off a cliff versus jumping to a different level of reasoning, please share!

On another note, this seems a bit more promising:

This type of finding—an inherited difference that cannot be explained by variations in genes themselves—has become increasingly common, in part because scientists now know that genes are not the only authors of inheritance. There are ghostwriters, too.

It also adds another layer of significance to our daily lives. A number of environmental factors, from nutrients to temperature to chemicals, are capable of altering gene expression, and those factors that manage to penetrate germline chromatin and escape reprogramming could, in theory, be passed on to our children and possibly our grandchildren.

Given the elusive nature of inherited epigenetic modifications, it seems that, despite decades of investigation, scientists remain on the brink of understanding. The possibilities, however, seem endless, even with the constraint that, to be inherited, epigenetic modifications must affect gene expression in the germline, a feat that even genetic mutations rarely accomplish. But with the skyrocketing prevalence of conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and autism, which have no clear genetic etiology in the majority of cases, as Brunet pointed out, “It seems that all complex processes are affected by epigenetics.

While scientists continue to search for definitive evidence of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans, the implications so far suggest that are our lifestyles and what we eat, drink, and breathe may directly affect the genetic health of our progeny.”

What can I say?  I like it when scientists discover that what they knew wasn’t all there was to be known.  This is the science that attracted me so much in my childhood:  Science as exploration and discovery, not science as a god or using science to “prove” politically- or ideologically-motivated beliefs.

The idea that nurture might affect nature as a ghostwriter appeals to me.  Our lives are not predetermined by the genetic makeup of our ancestors, but products of on-going choices that echo through generations.  And we just might have a scientific way to study a portion of that phenomenon.

Testing: Then and Now

  • Posted on February 28, 2011 at 10:30 AM

A recent article by Mike Stobbe “uncovers” the little known history of human experimentation in the United States.

Shocking as it may seem, U.S. government doctors once thought it was fine to experiment on disabled people and prison inmates.

Ethics is somewhat progressive.  What once seemed acceptable now seems abominable.  Yet, sometimes I have to wonder how some acts were ever justified.  Then again, there are throwbacks who still can justify their behavior, though it’s clearly unethical by contemporary standards.  Now, we apologize for past mistakes:

Much of this horrific history is 40 to 80 years old, but it is the backdrop for a meeting in Washington this week by a presidential bioethics commission. The meeting was triggered by the government’s apology last fall for federal doctors infecting prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with syphilis 65 years ago.

U.S. officials also acknowledged there had been dozens of similar experiments in the United States -- studies that often involved making healthy people sick.

This ugly history of unethical human experimentation is not news to me.  American doctors conducted many studies using eugenically defined “undesirables”—convicts, disabled people, and the mentally ill—to test their scientific theories.  The AP article cited some horrific examples, which I’ll let you check out at your leisure.

Strikingly, though it was never considered particularly outrageous, once it was considered eccentric:

Prisoners have long been victimized for the sake of science. In 1915, the U.S. government’s Dr. Joseph Goldberger - today remembered as a public health hero - recruited Mississippi inmates to go on special rations to prove his theory that the painful illness pellagra was caused by a dietary deficiency. (The men were offered pardons for their participation.)

But studies using prisoners were uncommon in the first few decades of the 20th century, and usually performed by researchers considered eccentric even by the standards of the day. One was Dr. L.L. Stanley, resident physician at San Quentin prison in California, who around 1920 attempted to treat older, “devitalized men” by implanting in them testicles from livestock and from recently executed convicts.

Newspapers wrote about Stanley’s experiments, but the lack of outrage is striking.

I suspect eugenics theories made it more socially acceptable here, just as it did in Germany.  However, there’s a chance that it is NOT over—perhaps these unethical activities have simply been moved off shore to target different vulnerable populations:

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general reported that between 40 and 65 percent of clinical studies of federally regulated medical products were done in other countries in 2008, and that proportion probably has grown. The report also noted that U.S. regulators inspected fewer than 1 percent of foreign clinical trial sites.

Monitoring research is complicated, and rules that are too rigid could slow new drug development. But it’s often hard to get information on international trials, sometimes because of missing records and a paucity of audits, said Dr. Kevin Schulman, a Duke University professor of medicine who has written on the ethics of international studies.

So now President Obama has ordered an investigation.  Has research ethics really progressed?  Or is it just that society has progressed enough to express the outrage that’s due?