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IEET > Rights > Life > Enablement > Innovation > Vision > Bioculture > Fellows > Linda Glenn

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Not Just a Pretty Face:  Legal and Ethical Issues in Regenerative Nanomedicine

Linda MacDonald Glenn
By Linda MacDonald Glenn
Health Innovations in Context

Posted: Nov 10, 2010

Revolutionary regeneration techniques will inevitably be used for enhancement.

Dr. Myriam Hivon,who works with the Interdisciplinary Health Research Group (GRIS) at the University of Montreal asked myself and Professor Hank Greely of Stanford to comment on issues in regeneration and enhancement.  She notes that we humans, for centuries, have used coffee to wake us up in the morning and alcohol (not mention other substances) to alter our consciousness.  More recently, we use drugs to improve our cognitive performances, surgery to rejuvenate our physical appearance.  Embryos are selected for their sought after characteristics;  all of these interventions aim at enhancement, a quest humans have always pursued. Indeed, humans have always sought for new means to become stronger or more intelligent. 

You can read the rest here.

Linda MacDonald Glenn is fellow of the IEET, and a bioethicist, healthcare educator, lecturer, consultant and attorney. Linda also serves as a Scholar of the Women’s Bioethics Project.
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excellent essay.

First, do no harm.

Enhancement technologies of the kind that will be available by the end of the decade, or early in the next decade will have one major advantage over the current crop. Based on current developmental trends, they will more than likely be REVERSABLE.

Stem cells are already being used for “enhancement” as a breast enlargement treatment, and with the sheer volume of “breakthroughs” occurring in the last two years, and the accelerating pace that they are happening with, it seems likely that stemcell based “nanomedical” robots are going to be developed, especially with the recent research being done in implanting electronic controls in bacteria. ( )

With computer controlled stemcells, and “cellvores” the emergence of a medical technology able to not only repair any form of damage done to the human body, but to reshape it at will, seems inevitable.

But, that same technology is likely to render the questions you ask in this blog somewhat less important, due to the fact that such a level of control enables reversibility. Another factor that will likely be mitigated enormously as well is cost. As stemcells are already being looked to as a negligible cost means to produce human blood for transfusions, the costs for more advanced stemcell treatments using controllable stemcells is also likely to be extremely low.

This makes it probable that medical treatments in the next decades will not only become far less complex (pre-programmed stemcells for almost any purpose available for routine medical issues, with on demand programmable ones for non-routine issues are likely to require only minimal training to use) but that costs will fall drastically, as a single culture could produce a continuous supply ( )

This means that the same number of doctors which are insufficient to current needs, and which produces that “inequity” of treatment availability is going to be able to oversee those far less common cases in which a doctor is vital, while routine medical issues will become a matter that could be handled by the patient themselves. Such issues as cancer and heart disease would cease to be major illnesses with directable stemcells able to selectively repair damaged heart tissue and blood vessals, or kill cancer cells anywhere in the body.

But it also means that “cosmetic” surgeries will also become “routine”, with stem cells “surgeons” able to reshape the body in predefined ways. Properly programmed, almost any “modification” to appearance seems possible, with any such modification being reversible with the same treatments.

So, with the likely technological abilities that we will gain with controllable stemcells, the real question is will the individual be allowed to make their own choices about how they wish to look, or what enhancements they wish to have, or will they be limited in the choices they are allowed to make? Will someone with low self esteem be allowed to make themselves “beautiful”? Will those who chose to look other than “human” be prevented from changing their forms?

Cost and availability are, in my opinion, the least important questions, as cost seem likely to be low, and availability seems likely to be high, what is more important is who gets to make the choices about how such tech is used, and whether it is by personal choice.

And the answers to those questions are contingent on the answers we as a society come up with to a far wider group of problems involving individual freedoms and collective responsibilities.

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