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Six tough biotech challenges for the 21st century

Credit: Getty

Credit: Getty

June 15, 2018   3 mins

The 21st century looks like it’s only about technology. But behind every tech development lies a human issue. Tech is the human race’s biggest and boldest adventure. We should hardly be surprised if it also raises our most difficult questions.

Back in the 20thcentury, developments in science and tech were raising some interesting ethical challenges. So we came up with ‘bioethics’ to thrash out the questions those advances, such as test-tube babies, research on embryos, cloning and surrogacy, were posing. Just because we could do something, did it mean we should?

You need a lot of people in the room to have those conversations. Ethics people, yes. And philosophy people, theology people. People from law, and public policy, and technology, and science, and the humanities. Because issues like these don’t slot into one category or even several. They span the fields of human understanding.

‘Bioethics’ brings them all together, so we’ve had bioethics groups – national and international – seeking solutions. Can we find consensus? What’s fair? Are human rights at stake? Are there limits to what scientists should be able to do – and commercial organisations able to sell?

It’s probably fair to say that they haven’t made all that much progress, possibly because these issues were, really, only on the fringes of our day to day existence.1

But nearly two decades into the 21st century and the gear has changed;  developments in science and technology have accelerated from the outskirts right into the everyday. Issue after issue concerns all of us. And suddenly we can’t talk about technology without it raising questions about the human condition, to find out who we really are. Perhaps our tech adventure is really a human adventure.

Just look at what’s on the agenda and tell me it isn’t.


For decades scientists have struggled to make changes in the human genome. Dramatically, CRISPR technology makes this possible, even easy. Curing genetic diseases, and making ‘improvements’ to humans is within our grasp. Perhaps for every generation to come. And it’s even not the kind of tech that needs huge labs and investment. ‘Garage biotech’ beckons.


Should we bring brains back to life? It’s possible, with pigs. But what about humans? Researcher Nenad Sestan says: “Hypothetically, somebody takes this technology, makes it better, and restores someone’s [brain] activity. That is restoring a human being. If that person has memory, I would be freaking out completely.”


We are all living longer, and there’s a serious argument that lifespans could get a lot longer. How much longer? The implications are enormous. We already have leaders in their 70s and 80s. What if the dictators decided they wanted to stay around for another hundred years, if they could? And what about employment, if no one retires?


Scientists have been working on wombs outside the body for many years. As the Hofstra University health blog puts it: “Scientists grapple with …two ethical issues. First, a clear connection occurs between mother and child in the womb that cannot be replicated by an artificial womb. The bonding intensifies a mother’s protective nature, and develops the child’s attachment to its mother. Second, artificial wombs may open a Pandora’s Box of population control and manipulation that can continue without restraint.”


The idea of freezing someone when they die, and re-animating them once we know how to cure whatever it is they died of, seems simple! Yet freezing is not simple, as every cook knows. However, cryonics is getting better, step by step. What if the wealthy were able to freeze themselves and come back later.


As successive technologies are rolled out, the pressure to make sure our children are not merely healthy but smart and in every way congenial to their parents will only grow. Nick Kristoff has written in the New York Times, “My guess is that germ-line gene therapy will arrive a bit further down the road, initially to fix ‘bad genes’ that cause disease, and then moving on to enhance intelligence and performance.”

These developments have consequences that will affect all of us. There are choices we will need to make as individuals and wider questions to be resolved in law for all of us. As both the Council of Europe and UNESCO have made clear, these are issues of human rights. At the moment, though, politics is fixated with Brexit and social care and trade and immigration.

But what if the really big issues of the 21stcentury are something quite different?

  1.  There’s one international treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (written by the Council of Europe), which the UK has declined to sign. There’s the grand-sounding Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (written by UNESCO), which like the European Convention takes human rights as the starting-point. Unlike the Convention, the Universal Declaration is not legally binding. On the other hand, it was affirmed by every country on the planet. So it offers the world a common perspective.

Nigel Cameron writes about technology, society, and the future. In 2007 he founded the Washington think tank The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His most recent book is Will Robots Take Your Job?


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