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Event Review: The Physiological Society's 2014 annual public lecture

07 July 2014

By Dr Molly Godfrey

Appeared in BioNews 761

A doctor by training and a researcher at the forefront of fertility studies, Professor Lord Robert Winston is no stranger to making science accessible. He has given countless lectures, appeared on television, and written many popular science books. Professor Winston is a pioneer in the field of IVF and was instrumental in the development of PGD. His talk, entitled 'Shall we be human in the next century?', discussed the implications of new techniques for genetically modifying embryos.

The danger posed by eugenics was a recurring theme throughout the lecture. People generally regard eugenics as a discipline that fell out of favour after the traction it gained with the Nazis, but Professor Winston emphasised how mainstream it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He claimed that preventing breeding of 'unfit' people was still prevalent in the 1960s, with forced sterilisations of women who wanted abortions. Even more startlingly, he said that this still happens now, using the sterilisation of a number of female prisoners between 2006 and 2010 in California as an example. Professor Winston maintains that in times of conflict, people return to eugenic ideas more readily, and that racial prejudices are an example of this.

A second element that kept cropping up was the idea of a 'science delusion' – scientists getting 'seduced by the brilliance of their own ideas' and overemphasising their importance, which he convincingly cautioned against. In particular, Professor Winston was critical (perhaps overly so) of the human genome project, which he claimed has not led to as many medical advances as initially touted.

Professor Winston was also strongly (and persuasively) critical of the unregulated development of IVF techniques by private clinics, stating that the fact that there is a market for such techniques inhibits genuine research. He questioned the ethics of advertising and getting people to pay for techniques such as egg freezing.

This led to another major topic in Professor Winston's talk: the importance of studying epigenetics as well as, or even over, genomics. Professor Winston emphasised that techniques such as IVF could actually change gene expression within developing embryos. In fact, people have seen epigenetic effects when moving mice embryos. For him, this is another reason why we need to be extremely careful with IVF techniques, and why regulation is so important.

The crux of Professor Winston's talk relates to the development of transgenic technologies to modify human embryos. He was clear from the beginning of the lecture that, for him, there is a difference between eugenics and genuine medical need. In his opinion, selective breeding (choosing embryos free of genetic defects) can be justified if is to prevent the development of life-threatening diseases. The question is how far we can take this.

Professor Winston believes that transgenic technologies (mainly using transgenic mice to model diseases) have been much more useful than genomics to the medical field. But we can not only modify mice to make them sick – we can also 'enhance' them. He showed a video of a 'supermouse', which had been modified so it ran for four hours on a treadmill without getting tired (a normal mouse lasted ten minutes).

Until now, genetically modifying human embryos (rather than selecting for disease free ones) has been too technically difficult to contemplate. However, Professor Winston and his collaborators have recently developed easier methods for modifying embryos of larger animals. He claims that this could be useful, for instance, to modify pigs to grow organs compatible for human transplantation. Professor Winston then said, with Schubert rather melodramatically playing in the background, that there is nothing stopping this technique from being applied to human embryos.

Given the current 'market' for IVF techniques, the ever-present tensions in world politics, and the desire for people to better their children, what will stop this technology from being misused, Professor Winston inquired. He ended the lecture with the question: 'what price would be our humanity?'

It comes as no surprise that Professor Winston was genial and engaging. The talk was thought-provoking, genuinely entertaining and, at times, laugh out loud funny. It was also easy to understand. I felt, however, that several of his statements were too strong, notably those arising from his obvious antipathy towards the human genome project. 

Further, although he exposed quite convincingly that it is now, or will soon be, possible to modify humans, I felt that he didn't explore the moral implications of this deeply enough (although the recurrent damnation of eugenics was an indication of his feelings on this point). His title could be branded somewhat misleading as he did not actually give an answer to his question – we are no further towards knowing whether we shall be human in the next century. In fact, he didn't go into the definition of what it really means to be 'human'. Perhaps for Professor Winston, it was more a question of getting people's attention and making them aware that such a question can be asked – which, overall, he succeeded in doing.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

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Should women who choose their career first, and children second, be allowed to receive IVF on the NHS at an age when some would consider it 'unnatural'? Now ask whether it's acceptable for young soldiers fighting in Afghanistan to store their sperm in case they don't come back. And the questions surrounding reproductive medicine don't end there: after insemination, how much screening or manipulation of genetic material is reasonable?...
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