Friday, March 16, 2007

Neuroethics And Neurolaw or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Molecular Medicine

Dear SSDs:

Since, so far as I can tell, no one is reading this blog I'll keep it breif. In the next few days my intrepid webmaster John Kingston will post a recent article from the NY Times on the emerging field of neurolaw. For those of you who can't wait, the article is called:

The Brain on the Stand
How advances in neuroscience could transform our legal system.
It is in the NY Times MAGAZINE | March 11, 2007, and may be read/downloaded for free.

Since no one reads this blog, it is a bit difficult to see how this information will be helpful... but who knows, a new trend may emerge. Neurolaw is a minor manifestation of the global impact of Molecular Engineering (my term for nanotechnology) on medicine and health care. As such, the implications may be deduced from the nanomedicine piece I published in a year or two ago.

Because the impact of neurolaw will be relatively immediate and certainly makes for a fun discussion... we will cover Rosen's article in the April Science Salon. However, the global impact of Molecular Engineering on medicine and healthcare is not much fun to consider if one is a humanist. Simply put, the more we learn about the molecular operation of the human machine the more we can tinker. In the area of human consciousness, researchers tend to talk about circuits. So, if we isolate and map the neural circuit for a certain form of mental behavior, say depression, we can quantitate it and begin to use these quantative data for a number of purposes:

1. The good guys (and of course gals) can begin to develop therapies to alleviate the suffering caused by depression. Dr. Bill Marks, a definite good guy, will talk to us today about his work on the cutting edge of using deep brain electrical stimulation to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and possibly depression.

2. The bad guys (and gals) will use this information to develop strategies for manipulating the human emotional state for purposes other than the alleviation of pain and suffering. Using inverted medical symmetry, one could visualize the development of a bioweapon that plunges people into an irreversible suicidal depression. We could get 'our' enemies to kill themselves off without firing a shot. What a savings in terms of the defense budget! But then again, who gets to define the term enemy?

3. The post modern guys (and gals) won't worry about good and bad. They will just keep developing molecular tools to manipulate the various circuits. These tools will be used by atavistic modernists (and undoubtedly ultra-atavistic religious fanatics) to further various conditions of goodness or badness as they define these terms.

4. Finally, the lawyers will get hold of these data and use them to defend or prosecute people accused of various criminal activities. As Jeff Rosen describes in his article, brain tumors and other medical conditions affecting the functionality of our our primary organ of consciousness are already being used successfully as evidence in trials. This is just a slightly more complex version of DNA 'fingerprinting'. Soon we will have the molecular 'fingerprints' for a wide range of medical conditions. If enough molecules are involved we will not call the data a fingerprint, we will call the data a circuit or pathway... but the principle is the same.

I warned in my piece that the advent of molecular medicine means the end of any functional form of medical privacy. Soon, brain scanners will not only know our innermost thoughts, they will be able to manipulate them and, if necessary, put them on the witness stand. Perhaps we need an appendix to the 5th amendment that says our own bodies can't be compelled to testify against us. But then again, what about DNA fingerprints... to say nothing of the fingerprints that come from the end of our hands. When one steps in a trillion molecules, one is indeed on a a slippery slope!

Best of all, there is not a single thing you can do about it without becoming a scientifically informed citizen who participates actively in shaping the new laws that will emerge to regulate the products of molecular medicine. Since mind control techniques are the ultimate marketing tool, if you do decide to participate you will have to take on the MIRUC (Military-Industrial-Research University Complex... should be pronounced like murk). What do you think your chances are?

Cheers, AG

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Zen and the Art of Molecular Engineering

And now for something completely different.

It's always cool to start with quotes...

"It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them." J. Robert Oppenheimer

“I'm afraid nanotechnology is one of those fields that, no matter how exciting it gets in real life, will be very difficult to turn into a successful nonfiction book.” An email from a Senior Editor, at Random House to yours truly.

The gentle reader will soon understand why I started with these quotes. The first originates from a monumental figure who profoundly altered the course of 20th century history via the application of radical new science to the ancient practice of war. The second originates from someone who selects books for a 21st century multimedia giant to perpetuate the ancient practice of profitable commerce.

Oppenheimer synthesized a transcendent principle that governs the origin of knowledge. What it is possible for humans to discover about their world. The editor was giving an informed opinion about what the reading public is willing to discover about its world. Both quotes may be true. But unless the paradox inherent in the second is overcome we risk placing humanity, and even biology, in grave danger. To the reader I say it is a necessary truth that the profound implications of the nanotechnology revolution must be communicated to the general public.

The advent of the nanotechnology era (more correctly termed the ‘molecular engineering’ era) requires that philosophers of science elucidate a field whose unprecedented interdisciplinary nature spans practically the sum of all scientific discoveries and technical developments that preceded it. Philosophers of science (or someone!?) needs to explain to Homo sapiens, the toolmaker, why the ability to build with molecules is not just another tool but the ultimate tool with which to shape our physical world. Those of us who work in this field have an obligation to explain to the rest of society why nanobiotechnology – whose explicit goal is the atomic and molecular integration of living and nonliving materials – is far more than just a synonym for cyborg.

In this brief posting, I can only warn you that if the implications of molecular engineering are not openly debated in public, particular manifestations will be thrust upon us by the rush of discoveries fueled by a worldwide ‘race to the bottom’ involving untold billions and some of the finest minds in the finest labs and corporate board rooms on the planet.

For those who think such consequences must be far in the future, it is instructive to keep in mind that the first genetically engineered bacteria were released into the environment on April 24, 1987. That was only 15 years after the first rDNA molecule was engineered in a test tube. Fortunately, there was no catastrophe that day; the probability had always been vanishingly small. But while the debate about when and how to use GM crops continues, the cutting edge of technology has moved far beyond cloning. In the United States, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has catalyzed interdisciplinary creations that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago. Areas such as ‘Synthetic Biology’ and ‘Artificial Life’ are now bona fide academic disciplines. The Synthetic Biology Center at UC Berkeley explicitly states, “The defining goal of SynBERC is to make biology into an engineering discipline.” A recent publication in PNAS boldly states, “The implementation of the silicon-neuron-neuron-silicon circuit constitutes a proof-of-principle experiment for the development of neuroelectronic systems.” Nanobiotechnology has become the chemical crossroads where living and nonliving materials meet and fuse at the molecular level to create that which has never before existed. We are already fabricating hybrid devices that go far beyond genetic or any other known form of engineering. Protein to semiconductor, DNA to nanowire, we are building these ‘things’ right now. But what are these ‘things’ we are building?