The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

July 2, 2007



A major advance in the developing field of synthetic biology...


First Artificial Life ‘Within Months’



Craig Venter likened the process to "changing a Macintosh computer into a PC by inserting a new piece of software"

“Scientists could create the first new form of artificial life within months after a landmark breakthrough in which they turned one bacterium into another.


“In a development that has triggered unease and excitement in equal measure, scientists in the US took the whole genetic makeup—or genome—of a bacterial cell and transplanted it into a closely related species.


“This then began to grow and multiply in the lab, turning into the first species in the process.


“The team that carried out the first ‘species transplant’ says it plans within months to do the same thing with a synthetic genome made from scratch in the laboratory.


“If that experiment worked, it would mark the creation of a synthetic life form....”


Telegraph – June 29, 2007


Editor’s Note:  For more information on synthetic biology, a field of research that is already raising major ethical and legal questions, the website Synthetic Biology is a good place to start.  For an overview and assessment of synthetic biology, the Spring 2006 issue of The New Atlantis contains a very useful article by Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas, “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology.”




Please forward this e-mail to anyone who might be interested in staying abreast of the rapidly changing developments in biotechnology and the related area of bioethics.  For more information on The Humanitas Project, contact Michael Poore, Executive Director, at 931-239-8735 or .  Or visit The Humanitas Project web site at



The bug battles have begun:  ethics, safety, regulations, patents, open source research...


Patenting Pandora’s Bug — Goodbye, Dolly...Hello, Synthia!


J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World’s First-Ever Human-Made Life Form


ETC Group Will Challenge Patents on “Synthia” — Original Syn Organism Created in Laboratory



“Ten years after Dolly the cloned sheep made her stunning debut, the J. Craig Venter Institute is applying for a patent on a new biological bombshell – the world’s first-ever human-made species.


“The novel bacterium is made entirely with synthetic DNA in the laboratory. The Venter Institute – named for its founder and CEO, J. Craig Venter, the scientist who led the private sector race to map the Human Genome – is applying for worldwide patents on what they refer to as ‘Mycoplasma laboratorium.’ In the tradition of ‘Dolly,’ ETC has nicknamed this synthetic organism (or ‘syn’) ‘Synthia.’


“‘Synthia may not be as cuddly as a cloned lamb, but we believe this is a much bigger deal,’ explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a civil society organization that is calling on the world’s patent offices to reject the applications. ‘These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic life forms. Will Venter’s company become the “Microbesoft” of synthetic biology?’ asks Jim Thomas.


“‘For the first time, God has competition,’ adds Pat Mooney of ETC Group. ‘Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn’t even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life,’ said Mooney....”


The ETC Group – June 7, 2007


Would we be better people if we had no bad memories?


Scientists Find Drug to Banish Bad Memories



“It failed to bring Jim Carrey happiness in the award-winning film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but scientists have now developed a way to block and even delete unwanted memories from people’s brains.


“Researchers have found they can use drugs to wipe away single, specific memories while leaving other memories intact. By injecting an amnesia drug at the right time, when a subject was recalling a particular thought, neuro-scientists discovered they could disrupt the way the memory is stored and even make it disappear.


“The research has, however, sparked concern among parliamentary advisers who insist that new regulations are now needed to control the use of the drugs to prevent them becoming used by healthy people as a ‘quick fix’.


“But the US scientists behind the research insist that amnesia drugs could be invaluable in treating patients with psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress....”


Telegraph – July 1, 2007


The importance of patience in diagnosing persistent vegetative state...


Jesse Ramirez Conscious, Moved To Rehab Facility



“Had the wishes of a heavily conflicted wife been carried forth, Jesse Ramirez would likely be dead.


“Instead after nearly a month in a coma following an automobile accident, Jesse has regained consciousness and is being transferred to a rehabilitation facility. According to several of Jesse’s friends and his court appointed guardian, he is conscious, shaking his head and answering yes and no questions.


“Jesse and Rebecca Ramirez of Chandler, Arizona, met when as high school students and married in 1988 after Rebecca became pregnant with the first of their three children.  At 36, Jesse works for the U.S. Postal Service while Rebecca, 33, is a correctional officer for the Arizona Department of Corrections.


“On May 30, as the couple was traveling in their SUV, they were arguing over a man’s phone number that Jesse had discovered in his wife’s cell phone and suddenly, the SUV began fishtailing, according to a witness, rolled over and crashed, ejecting both Jesse and Rebecca.  Police say that she told them she was in fear of her life before the accident and had unhooked her seat belt, preparing to jump from the moving vehicle. According to Jesse’s family, based on statements made by Rebecca, she had grabbed the steering wheel and Jesse lost control of the vehicle....”


North Country Gazette – June 27 , 2007


“Up to half of patients in an acute vegetative state regain some level of consciousness...”


High Rate of Misdiagnosis in Patients in an Acute Vegetative State


New studies underline the importance of extreme caution in any decision to limit the life chances of patients during the acute phase of a vegetative state.



“Around a quarter of patients in an acute vegetative state when they are first admitted to hospital have a good chance of recovering a significant proportion of their faculties, and up to a half will regain some level of consciousness, researchers from Belgium found out. Another study shows that around 40% of patients were wrongly diagnosed as in a vegetative state, when they in fact registered the awareness levels of minimal consciousness. Comparing past studies on this issue shows that the level of misdiagnosis has not decreased in the last 15 years. These studies should foster debate about appropriate standards of care for these patients, and about end of life limitations, experts said at the European Neurological Society Meeting in Rhodes (Greece).


“The profoundly difficult moral and medical issues associated with patients in a vegetative state have been recently highlighted by the case of Terri Schiavo in the United States. Experts disagreed on the right response to her condition. With her eyes wide open, the characteristic that distinguishes the vegetative state from coma, it was clearly impossible for some of her family members to believe she was unconscious. Doctors addressing the 17th Meeting of the European Neurological Society from June 16 to 20 in Rhodes (Greece) stress however that the vegetative state in a significant proportion of patients admitted to intensive care may be transitory, and that there is a wide range of possible recovery scenarios, depending on the type of brain injury. A complementary study shows that assessment by medical teams of a patient’s actual state of consciousness continues to be surrounded by confusion and false diagnosis, experts reported at the ENS Meeting....”


News-Medical.Net – June 20, 2007


The brain-computer interface—coming soon to a living room or Honda near you!


Brain Device Moves Objects by Thought



Brain Waves, Activate!

AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

Brain Waves, Activate!

“Forget the clicker: A new technology in Japan could let you control electronic devices without lifting a finger simply by reading brain activity.


“The ‘brain-machine interface’ developed by Hitachi Inc. analyzes slight changes in the brain’s blood flow and translates brain motion into electric signals....


“Underlying Hitachi’s brain-machine interface is a technology called optical topography, which sends a small amount of infrared light through the brain’s surface to map out changes in blood flow.


“Although brain-machine interface technology has traditionally focused on medical uses, makers like Hitachi and Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. have been racing to refine the technology for commercial application....”


Discovery News/The Associated Press – June 22, 2007


The continuing battle against Alzheimer’s...


Vaccine Shows Promise for Treating Alzheimer’s


Results of early tests find drug reduces brain deposits that lead to disorder



“An experimental vaccine is showing promise against Alzheimer’s disease, reducing brain deposits that are blamed for the disorder.


“The deposits have been cut by between 15.5 percent and 38.5 percent in mice, with no major side effects, researchers said Monday in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


“Tests of the DNA-based vaccine are under way in monkeys, and if those are successful, testing in people could begin, perhaps within three years, said lead researcher Yoh Matsumoto of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Neuroscience in Japan....”


MSNBC/The Associated Press – June 12, 2007


Turning a natural process into a surgical procedure...why?


C Is for Caution: C-sections on the Rise


Or it may be for convenience, critics say. The surgery, once risky, now is used in about a third of U.S. births.



Maria Barroso, 23, with Kristyna, 2, and Matthew, 1, at home in Queens, N.Y. When she first got pregnant, Barroso was toldthat "many plus-size women can't have a baby naturally." She wound up with a cesarean she thinks could have been avoided.

Maria Barroso, 23, with Kristyna, 2, and Matthew, 1, at home in Queens, N.Y. She wound up with a cesarean she thinks could have been avoided.

“For a peek into the future of childbirth, look to Puerto Rico.


“Nearly half of all babies born in the U.S. protectorate are delivered by cutting open their mothers’ abdomens.


“On the mainland, the cesarean section rate is not as high, but it has been climbing for a decade. In 2005, almost a third of the nation’s 4.1 million births were surgical.


“New Jersey, which tops the charts with a 36.3 percent cesarean rate, had a few northern hospitals that matched Puerto Rico’s 47.7 percent rate. Pennsylvania, at 28.8 percent, was far behind, but some individual hospitals were not. Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood hit 41 percent.


“No one can explain why the United States keeps shattering its own cesarean records. Many experts say there is no ‘ideal’ cesarean rate, but there is also no evidence that a vast, growing segment of the female population wants or needs major abdominal surgery to give birth. And while a dramatic decline in maternal deaths coincided with higher rates of cesarean, that trend ended 20 years ago. Today, ill effects such as life-threatening placental problems are being linked to C-sections.


“Yet natural delivery is not enjoying a rebirth....”


The Philadelphia Inquirer – June 10, 2007


The secular case that humans are not unique in the created order...


Making Manimals

by William Saletan



“If you’ve been laughing at those Neanderthal presidential candidates who still don’t believe in evolution, it’s time to sober up. Every serious scientist knows we evolved from animals. The question now is whether to put our DNA and theirs back together.


“We’ve been transplanting baboon hearts, pig valves and other animal parts into people for decades. We’ve derived stem cells by inserting human genomes into rabbit eggs. We’ve created mice that have human prostate glands. We’ve made sheep that have half-human livers. Last week, Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences reported that scientists have created ‘thousands of examples of transgenic animals’ carrying human DNA. According to the report, ‘the introduction of human gene sequences into mouse cells in vitro is a technique now practiced in virtually every biomedical research institution across the world.’


“Why have we done this? To save lives. If you can’t get a human heart valve, a pig valve will do. If you can’t get human eggs to clone embryos for stem cell research, rabbit eggs will do. If you can’t use people as guinea pigs in gruesome but necessary experiments on human tissue, guinea pigs will do. All you have to do is put—or grow—the human tissue in the guinea pigs. You’re free to inflict any disease or drug on a human system, as long as that human system lives in an animal....”


The Washington Post – June 24, 2007    (Free registration required)


Worth considering...


The Illusion of Moral Neutrality

by J. Budziszewski



“...[I]f all the virtues depend on one another, then tolerance cannot be taught unless all the rest are taught as well. We cannot compensate for the collapse of all our virtues by teaching tolerance and letting the rest go by, as some educators and social critics seem to think; the only cure for moral collapse is moral renewal, on all fronts simultaneously.


“That is a hard adage. For even with crushed wheels, the simultaneous straightening of every spoke is hardly thinkable. With crushed souls—which is what we all are—we’ve no idea how our own efforts might bring it to pass. More than education, we need redemption. For virtues are complicated things: complex dispositions of character, deeply ingrained ‘habits,’ by which one calls upon all of his passions and capacities of mind in just those ways that aid, prompt, focus, inform, and execute his moral choices instead of clouding them, misleading them, or obstructing their execution. This means that virtues cannot be imparted just by encouraging certain feelings or developing certain capacities; feelings and capacities are instruments of the virtues, not their realization.


“What adds to the difficulty is that virtues are much more than readiness to follow the rules. There are, of course, some rules that are true in all circumstances. Murder is always wrong. But virtues are more like a fitness to distinguish true rules from false, and to choose rightly even where there are no rules or where the rules are no more than rules of thumb and seem to contradict each other. To be sure, if rules are applied judiciously, they can help to restrain the most obvious evils. And this in turn is bound to help in the nurture of virtue. But virtue cannot, as we have said, be taught simply by means of an exhaustive list of rules. Not only would such a list be endless, but the vicious would rebel before we even reached the second page....”



“The Illusion of Moral Neutrality” was published in the August/September 1993 edition of First Things.  J. Budziszewski is professor of philosophy and government at the University of Texas, Austin.  Two of his more recent books are The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (2000) and What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence Publishing, 2003).




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