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What are the dangers associated with scientific and medical progress?

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

As biomedicine and biotechnology are rapidly advancing and producing huge benefits for patients, for example through robotics, analysts warn that we should not look away from a number of worrying developments in these fields. Some of the trends that Martin Rees identifies regarding transplant surgery, growing resistance of infections to antibiotics and biohacking pose threats that are “potentially terrifying” – in particular because of the impossibility of effective worldwide enforcement of rules and regulations.

Rees points to the worrying trend of the growing market of selling organs. Transplant commercialism is a serious crime in most countries, although the debate on its ethics is ongoing, and organ trafficking and transplant tourism “violate the principles of equity, justice and respect for human dignity and should be prohibited”, according to the 2008 Istanbul Declaration. Rees feels this trend should be countered by prioritizing xenotransplantation – using organs from pigs or other animals for human use – or 3D printing of replacement organs. “Bio-printing” has attracted immense interest in recent years as it potentially allows doctors to print replacement organs from a patient’s own cells.

Although serious road blocks, such as the inability to print the complex vasculature that can supply nutrients to densely populated tissues, are currently being addressed, experts note that we are still far away from commercially available 3D organ printers. Printing an entire organ is still hugely challenging due to the volume and number of different cells involved.

Rees also draws attention to bacteria increasingly becoming immune to antibiotics and the surprising ease with which virulent and transmissible viruses can be developed by researchers means “an increased risk of dangerous viruses being released unintentionally, or of bioterrorists gaining access to new techniques”. The role of biohacking, referring to the practice of energizing and enhancing the body by changing its chemistry and physiology, is also relevant in this regard. Biohacking covers a broad spectrum, ranging from dietary changes or using wearable technology to monitor physiological data to implant technology and genetic engineering.

Analysts argue that far too many people are in denial about potential bio-catastrophes, given that the worldwide enforcement of the ethical rules is ineffective and that biohacking is an increasingly prominent phenomenon. The picture sketched by Rees is particular gloomy: “Both bio error and bio terror are possible within the next ten to 15 years. And the risk will become even greater in the long term once it becomes possible to design and synthesize viruses. The ultimate nightmare would be a highly lethal bioweapon that has the transmissibility of the common cold”. Research on biosecurity has indeed warned against the neglect of biological invasions – i.e. the establishment and spread of organisms beyond their native ranges. It is argued that similar precautions should apply to this danger as to natural disasters, for which many countries have detailed emergency response plans.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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