What’s in a name? Why metaphors matter for genetics research

By Mildred K. Cho, PhD

In 2017, the US FDA approved a gene therapy for the first time. However, it’s important to remember that the term “gene therapy” has been an optimistic misnomer for nearly 30 years, since the first clinical trial of a gene-based intervention was initiated in 1990.  Although the FDA has now approved a handful of gene-based therapies, there are concerns about the viability of the approach in actual clinical practice.

Because of the decades-long struggles of the technology to live up to its hype, the term “gene therapy” has been heavily criticized for encouraging the “therapeutic misconception” and for conveying unwarranted “therapeutic optimism.” In addition, there is evidence of how clinical trial participants and investigators both overestimated benefits from research but also how research was framed as treatment.  As a result, many recommended the alternative term “gene transfer” to more accurately represent the purpose and benefit of the intervention.  We may never know exactly how much the use of the term “gene therapy” contributed to potential bias in perceptions of effectiveness and intent, but it does highlight the potential impact of language on the ethical conduct of research.

Similarly, the rhetoric surrounding the genetic “revolution” has been justly criticized. Our research published in Genetics in Medicine, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), suggests that researchers and advocates should not only avoid hyperbole, but also be more cautious and reflective about the use of metaphors.  We asked patients in a Northern California health system to tell us what the word biobank made them think of, and received a range of notable responses.  Some people associated the term with financial banks or gold mines, and others expressed suspicion of commercial motives of pharmaceutical or insurance companies for collecting and using biosamples.  Others associated the term with computers or databases, and some may have been misled by the association of biobank with the concept of electronically-accessible information, saying that a benefit of a health system’s research biobank-linked database was that patients could look up personally-relevant information in it directly and therefore not have to see a doctor. Continue reading

What can an 11th century Islamic philosopher teach us about 21st century neuroscience?

There is a lot of fascinating research about the brain coming out of Stanford University, with some exciting, cutting-edge work being done there. Early last month I reported on the findings made by neuroscientists at Stanford in understanding how mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Today, I’ll outline the recent advances made by a team led by Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and discuss some of the ethical implications of this research.

Pasca’s method enables him to culture cells in order to form brain organoids with robust structures that are not compromised by cells from other parts of the body, thereby allowing him to more accurately replicate distinct brain regions. Doing so provides greater structural organization and also allows him and his team of researchers to better study and understand pathological mechanisms and perhaps one day to examine the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels of a person’s neurons. This is a promising method and a big step toward greater understanding of psychiatric and neurological disease, leading Pasca to declare, “This is our doorway into personalized psychiatry.” At the same time—although these “brain balls” are not brains, nor do they receive sensory inputs from the outside world—it is clear that as scientists progress in both the techniques and complexity of replication, major ethical questions and dilemmas will arise.

Chief among these will undoubtedly be the perennial ethical debate about the ontology of a human being. Is it only physical, material, social—in which case we might think of ourselves as technicians—or is it spiritual, religious, metaphysical—in which case we would more likely consider ourselves custodians? When we speak about attributing rights to animals or consciousness to AI, it is because at bottom we hold some fundamental belief: about dignity, a soul, being, or about what life might mean in a relational or social and emotional sense. This is no different with Pasca’s brain balls; in fact, it is an even more pressing quandary. As Bruce Goldman notes in his article, “One of the most amazing things about their brain balls was that, with not much chemical guidance, they tended to take on a default structure that’s a facsimile of the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain: the human cerebral cortex, with all six layers you find in a living human brain.” The ethics of growing human organs are one thing, but the ethics of growing brain balls, which might eventually lead to more and more complex synaptic connections followed by even more elaborate renditions of an actual brain, will become especially contentious given the meaning and significance that we associate with the brain—both biologically and existentially.

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