iGEM Tel-Hai 2016


Throughout our preparations for the competition, we met with multiple bioethicists: Efrat Tiktin, Prof. Hanoch Slor, and Prof. Asa Kasher. They helped us both in understanding what the field of bioethics means, and also how it affects us as young entrepreneurs in the field of biotechnology and our project specifically.

Throughout our conversation with Efrat, it was made quite clear that bioethics is a very complex and controversial field, and that it is rather difficult to draw out solid boundaries as to what is right and what is wrong. The question to what extent ethics can intervene with science depends on many different factors, the strongest being the following: do I care solely about the truth or do I care as well about the aftermath of my actions?

The question "what is right" has been asked and debated on for thousands of years, and still to this day, no one person or body has ownership of the truth. This makes for many gray areas and essentially, all damage is measured by the outcome of our intervention with nature. Every intervention with genetics means we have intervened with nature- for better and for worse.

The committee that consulted the U.S. approximately one decade ago on bioethical matters determined that the genetic pool of all people in the U.S. is a shared genetic pool. Any person who causes any changes to that genetic pool is essentially committing a crime against humanity.

When we discussed our project specifically, we were pleased to find out that the likelihood of there being much resistance to our project from the ethical standpoint was minimal. This is mainly because the correction we are aiming to perform to the CFTR gene is very specific and is done to somatic cells, so it is not passed down to the coming generations.

We later had the genuine honor and pleasure to meet with Prof. Asa Kasher, winner of the “2000 Israel Prize in Philosophy”. Prof. Kasher is a noted expert in the fields of practical ethics, and pragmatics, and the theories of the use of language.
He began our talk by insisting that certain terms be defined so we can properly understand the field and potentially the correlation between our project and the field of bioethics.
Ethics - The perception regarding the proper behavior. Rules of how someone should behave in certain conditions. Morals- the appropriate relations between human beings.
Bioethics becomes relevant the minute a scientific action on a human body affects other elements of that given person.

Bioethics helps us maintain methodology and truth and make sure that we are being moral human beings as well as scientists. The scientists must research and aim to find the truth and that is what must guide him, not money or fame, but instead a desire to learn more about the world we live in.

As said before, bioethics includes amongst many other things, questions such as what is allowed and what is not, and in order to answer those questions, we must address the question: what is moral? When asked about abortion and about designer babies, and what the difference between the two is, if there even is one, he answered: “If we can heal, ease pain and make life easier, that’s important and a wonderful thing for all. On the other hand, eye color or gender aren't logical reasons to genetically design, and therefore it is unethical. As for abortion, if the baby is imposing a threat on the mother's' life, the woman is to abort. Otherwise, it would be unethical.”

Todays' bioethics is focused on medical research dedicated to getting rid of diseases.
One issue with the whole industry behind medicines, according to Kasher, is that it is run with economics in mind much more than the wellbeing of the patient. An example of this is that there are less medications for children because it is a smaller market, and markedly harder to perform experiments on children. It is logical that there is more and more research on the elderly population, as life expectancy has gone up over the last many years.

When asked what he thought about peoples' idea that genetic engineering is against nature, he replied by stating that "the claim that genetic engineering is against nature is ridiculous because unlike the turtle, who is born with a home, we were not, so by living in one we are interfering already with nature, as we are when we wear glasses. I believe that much of the reason we are afraid of genetic engineering is simply because it is new. In addition it is a permanent decision that affects future generations and we do not know exactly how it will affect them! Those who say that genetic engineering are playing God is ridiculous- after all, we all use glasses, medicines, houses, etc."

When asked what he recommends for us young entrepreneurs in the field of biotechnology he answered that every researcher must be able to write at least half a page about what it means to him personally to be a researcher, what his life views are , what he is doing and where he is going. There is a need to develop an understanding of one's self, and to read much about the field of ethics. In order to know what is allowed and what is not, there must be boundaries, and for that one must understand the meaning of research. There have been many cases where research has been stopped in the middle due to certain moral and ethical reasoning.

When we asked Slor about his views on genetic engineering, he mentioned stem cell cloning in the case of a failing immune system as a paradigm for when genetic engineering is beneficial and maybe even crucial.