Top Bioethics News Stories - Fall 2016

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“More U.S. Babies with Zika-Related Birth Defects Reported by Health Agency”

by Bill Berkrot, Reuters, June 30, 2016

Three more babies have been born in the United States with birth defects likely linked to Zika virus infections, while another lost pregnancy was linked to the virus, according to figures updated by health officials on Thursday. That brings the U.S. totals, as of June 23, to seven babies with microcephaly or other Zika-related birth defects such as serious brain abnormalities, and five lost pregnancies from either miscarriage, stillbirth or termination. (

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is linked to microcephaly and other neurological defects in unborn babies. Ignorance over how the virus is transmitted, whether it affects adults, and whether it causes other birth defects has fueled fears over travel to infected parts of the world. The U.S. recently called for certain areas of Florida to stop collecting blood at blood donation centers until it can be tested for Zika. In the midst of the questions over just how damaging Zika can be, abortion advocates, both in the U.S. and in infected countries, have called for fewer restrictions so that babies who may show signs of birth defects can be aborted.

“Supreme Court Firmly Backs Abortion Rights, Tosses Texas Law”

by Lawrence Hurley, Reuters, June 28, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday [June 27] struck down a Texas abortion law imposing strict regulations on doctors and facilities in the strongest endorsement of abortion rights in America in more than two decades. (

A Texas law required that doctors who provide abortions have admitting privileges at a local hospital and that abortion clinics meet the standards for out-patient ambulatory care. The Court struck down this law in a 5-to-3 vote as unconstitutional on the grounds it placed an undue burden on women seeking an abortion.

“After Wrangling, Canadian Parliament Adopts Law on Assisted Death”

by David Ljunggren, Reuters, June 17, 2016

Canada’s Parliament on Friday [June 17] adopted a law allowing medically-assisted death for the terminally ill, brushing aside critics who wanted the legislation to cover people with degenerative diseases. (

“Calif. End-of-life Law, Inspired by Brittany Maynard, to Go into Effect” by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, June 8, 2016

Somewhere in California on Thursday [June 9], a terminally ill person may lift a glass and drink a lethal slurry of pulverized prescription pills dissolved in water. And then die. That’s the day the nation’s most populous state implements a law, passed in 2015, making physician-assisted dying accessible to 1 in 6 terminally ill Americans. (

Laws in California and Canada went into effect allowing for physician-assisted suicide this past summer. Both were met with obstacles with Canadian groups calling for the law to be extended to people with degenerative diseases, and doctors in California suing to suspend the law because it lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent its abuse.

“Federal Panel Approves First Use of CRISPR in Humans”

by Sharon Begley, STAT News, June 21, 2016

A federal biosafety and ethics panel on Tuesday [June 21] unanimously approved the first study in patients of the genome-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9. . . to create genetically altered immune cells to attack three kinds of cancer. (

“Chinese Scientists to Pioneer First Human CRISPR Trial” by David Cyranoski, Nature, July 21, 2016

Chinese scientists are on the verge of being first in the world to inject people with cells modified using the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technique. . . . The clinical trial received ethical approval from the hospital’s review board on 6 July. (  

CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology that has the ability to remove and replace genetic material at multiple locations in the genome, continues to make headlines. This time a company in the U.S. and one in China have received approval to use CRISPR to edit a patient’s blood cells and then re-inject them. (The U.S. trial is contingent upon FDA and local IRB approval.) This will provide immunotherapy against certain cancers. On a similar note, a Pew Research Center survey found that, in general, the U.S. public is worried about biomedical technologies including gene editing, and an even greater number are against using these technologies for enhancement.

“Mylan Offers Discount on EpiPen amid Wave of Criticism”

by Toni Clarke and Ransdell Pierson, Reuters, August 25, 2016

Mylan NV said on Thursday [August 25] it would reduce the out-of-pocket costs of its emergency EpiPen allergy injection for some patients amid a wave of criticism from lawmakers and the public over the product’s rapidly escalating price. (

Mylan NV has come under fire after increasing the price of the EpiPen from $100 to $600 in a move that appears to have been primarily as a means of enhancing their profit margin. This is just one of several high-profile examples of companies increasing the cost of life-saving drugs purported to enhance corporate profits. Another company, Gilead Sciences, has come under scrutiny for avoiding millions of dollars in taxes. Gilead is the maker of two hepatitis C drugs whose full courses cost $84,000 and $94,500.

“NIH Plans to Lift Funding Ban on Human-Animal Hybrids”

by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review, August 4, 2016

Should the U.S. government use tax dollars to fund scientists fusing human stem cells into early animal embryos in order to create “chimeras” that are part human and part pig? Or part mouse? The U.S. National Institutes of Health says the answer is yes. (

Last fall the NIH announced that they would not fund research involving the production of human/animal chimeras until they obtained more information. Private companies had already been engaging in this research. Now the NIH says that it will lift its current funding moratorium on human/animal chimeras, allowing for human pluripotent stem cells to be placed in animal embryos. One aim would be to create pigs with human organs to be used for organ donations that might avoid the risks and rejection issues associated with traditional xenotransplantation. The NIH intends to bar the use of primates, or allowing any chimeras to reproduce.

“Audacious Project Plans to Create Human Genomes from Scratch”

by Sharon Begley and Ike Swetlitz, STAT News, June 2, 2016

Scientists revealed on Thursday [June 2] that they plan to launch a project to synthesize human and other complete genomes from off-the-shelf parts, a prospect that ignited a storm of controversy last month when a closed door meeting to discuss such an undertaking was held. (

The Human Genome Project, completed in 2001, involved reading the nucleotides that make up DNA in the human genome. Since then, the cost of gene sequencing has decreased substantially. Now several scientists and entrepreneurs want to make a synthetic human genome. One of the goals is to drive down the cost of synthetic biology techniques. Their proposal was met with some resistance as some critics believe that the project is too expensive for the actual gains it will produce. Cost projections and stewardship issues aside, this initiative raises a host of other ethical considerations that have not been addressed.

“Zika Virus Transmission Risk During Olympics Is Low, CDC Says”

by Gillian Mohney, ABC News, July 13, 2016

The risk of Zika virus transmission during the upcoming Olympic games in Rio will be low due to colder weather, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today. (

“Olympic Drug Cops Will Scan for Genetically Modified Athletes”

by Eric Niiler, Wired, July 28, 2016

In fact, drug regulators are usually playing catch up to drug users. But next month at the Rio Olympics, officials will roll out a test for a doping method that athletes might not even be using yet—genetic manipulation of the body’s own cellular machinery, or gene doping. (

The Summer Olympics in Rio came and went with some bioethics controversies. One was the question of safety amidst Zika fears. Despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s assurances that it is safe to travel to Brazil, some athletes and spectators chose to abstain from traveling to Rio. The other controversy was whether athletes should be tested for gene doping. While many experts believe that athletes are probably not genetically enhancing themselves yet, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) says that this is the next step in doping and would like to be proactive in catching cheaters.

“Life Expectancy in Syria Fell by Six Years at Start of Civil War”

by Haroon Siddique, The Guardian, August 24, 2016

Worst affected was Syria, where men and women were expected to live to 75 and 80 respectively in 2010, but 69 and 75 by 2013. Infant deaths in the country rose by 9.1% over the same period, in stark contrast to the average 6% yearly decline in the decade to 2010, according to the study. (

“The Virtual Surgeons of Syria”

by Avi Asher-Schapiro, The Atlantic, August 24, 2016

Throughout Syria, more than 500,000 people are now under siege. The vast majority are penned in by pro-government fighters, their survival hinging on the medical know-how of the doctors, nurses, or medical students who happen to be trapped with them. In clinics like the one in Madaya, medical expertise is increasingly hard to come by, and remote medicine is often the only way patients with complex ailments can receive a semblance of care. (

Disaster ethics is an area of bioethics that deals with the unique ethical questions that occur in war-torn areas or places hit by a natural or human-made disaster. One of the biggest problems in the context of Syria’s civil war is the destruction and collapse of the medical infrastructure. This war-torn country has been left with few hospitals, scant medical supplies, and only a small contingent of doctors. One study showed that Syria’s overall life expectancy decreased in only three years’ time—between 2010 to 2013. Experts say the numbers are likely much worse now. Medical workers in Syria have turned to virtual assistance from physicians and surgeons abroad, but must do so at the risk of being caught by insurgents.