Pushing Scientific Boundaries: How far is too far?

Science is nothing if not controversial. From Galileo through Darwin to modern day researchers; certain scientists have always challenged the dogma of the era and often faced persecution because of it. These scientists usually kept up their ‘heretical’ beliefs because they were sure they were right and, in some famous examples, they were eventually vindicated.

But how does controversy affect modern-day science? We have now reached a stage where almost nothing seems impossible. We are able to do things that would have seemed outrageous a century ago: flying through the air on a regular basis, transplanting hands and faces and curing cancer, to name a few. A lot of scientific breakthroughs are made when people push the ethical boundaries of their time, but at what point must we say “that is enough, this has gone too far”? As each scientific taboo is broken and assimilated into modern day research, will there ever be a time where we push too far? Even if we do, will future generations use these once-controversial techniques as freely as we now accept that the earth revolves around the sun?

634px-Day-old_miceOne problem faced when deciding whether or not a techniques morally acceptable is the notion that moral and ethical values vary significantly from person to person. For example, in October 2012, it was reported that scientists were able to create healthy baby mice from stem cells. This led to speculation that in the future infertile women may be able to give birth to healthy babies made from their own stem cells. When the article was reported in the Guardian, the comments below the report were divided. Some thought it was a great breakthrough which should be applauded for the sophistication of the science alone. Others were excited about the prospect of ending the misery of infertility. Some people, however, were more cautious. Arguments against the technique included the opinion that, in an already overpopulated world, should we really be celebrating something that could make that problem worse? Others feared the scientists were “playing God” and were scared at the thought of them having so much control over life itself. This research may have started as a simple question of determining whether such a technique was possible, or from a desire to help infertile women but has now entered a minefield of divided opinion and controversy.

One scientist who is no stranger to controversy is John Craig Venter. Venter, a genome specialist based in the USA, hit the headlines in 2010 when his team created the first synthetic organism. Venter and his colleagues created a bacterial genome entirely from synthetic DNA, they nicknamed the resulting organism Synthia. Synthia acted much like a normal bacterium, replicating and passing the synthetic DNA on to her offspring. Whilst Venter was praised in many scientific corners for this remarkable achievement, there were others who voiced concerns about his work. Venter defended his creation by pointing out a number of beneficial tasks it could accomplish: for example capturing and removing excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or generating an alternative fuel source.

ev.owaInterestingly, sometimes the amount of controversy generated around a discovery depends on the person who made it. Venter has previously made himself unpopular with the scientific community by turning the project to sequence the human genome into a race. He has also made moves into patenting (particularly of the synthetic genome he created), ensuring that in the future he will have full control over how Synthia may be used and will reap any financial rewards attached to this. This has angered many scientists who believe that discoveries should not be owned by any one individual and that they should also not be exploited for profit. Venter’s millionaire lifestyle and self-aggrandising quotes (for example apparently insinuating that he deserves a Nobel Prize) have also rubbed fellow scientists up the wrong way. This behaviour may mean that people are generally mistrustful of Venter’s motives and therefore make his discoveries controversial. Did he make Synthia because he truly wanted to help technology and the environment? Did he do it just because he could? Or because he knew it would get him publicity? Did he make it with the idea of patenting? Or is it a case of “all of the above”?

However, is Venter any different from controversial figures of the past, some of whom we now consider to be the greatest scientific minds of all time? Do we need these maverick scientists to push forward discoveries that others are too afraid to make? If Venter hadn’t turned it into a race, the human genome project would not have been finished earlier than planned. There’s certainly no denying that, whatever you think of his methods, Venter has made remarkable achievements in his career. On the other hand, do we need these boundaries pushed? How much should science interfere with nature? Is it this type of behaviour which makes scientists appear immoral or power-hungry in the minds of the public?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. It would be nice to say that science can keep behind the moral horizon and still move forwards, but that’s not the way the world works. We need mavericks and controversial figures to push scientific discoveries into the next era and, as I stated before, what is controversial at first may become normal several years later.

800px-Neandertala_homo,_modelo_en_Neand-muzeoFor my part, I’m wary of scientists who do something which they know is controversial simply because it is possible for it to be done. I call this the “Jurassic Park mentality”: doing something for no better reason than ‘because you can’. Now, before you protest that Jurassic Park is fictional, remember that sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction. Take for example the Harvard Professor who wants a surrogate mother for a Neanderthal baby. I always like to think that research should have some greater purpose which will ultimately prove beneficial. However, I’m not sure how a Neanderthal baby would be even remotely beneficial to anything or anyone.

Although, it’s true that we can’t always tell how research will be used in the future. Sometimes little or less controversial discoveries can become part of something much bigger, and there’s no way of knowing how your research may be used by other people. Just ask Albert Einstein, whose work on atomic theory went on to aid development of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Perhaps it’s best to think of it this way: when you start pushing at the boundaries of what will be considered controversial or even downright immoral, maybe that’s the time to step back and think “What will the point of this be? Will this be helpful to humanity or the planet or the universe or am I just doing for publicity, fame, glory or just because it is possible?” And if your answer comes into the latter part of that question, then maybe you should at least carefully assess the possibility of someone getting eaten by a rampaging dinosaur before you continue.

Post by: Louise Walker

Could ‘smart’ drugs make us more productive?

“Performance-enhancing drugs” is a phrase we’re used to hearing in the context of sport. But what if the drugs in question were aimed at improving our mental ability? Smart drugs, or ‘nootropics’, have been widely hailed as the steroids of the academic world. However, like steroids, concerns are now being raised over healthy students using prescription drugs to enhance their concentration and memory, thus gaining an advantage over their peers. Commentators argue that this advantage is unfair, since it is only available to students who can afford and are willing to risk side-effects of such drugs.

However, beyond the exam hall, there may be a legitimate market for these ‘smart’ drugs. Perhaps improving concentration in shift workers or anyone with a stressful or demanding job. But what ‘smart’ drugs are currently available, how do they work and are they safe for long term use?


A little internet research (and there are some quite alarming websites devoted to the subject!) brings up Piracetam as the original and perhaps most popular ‘smart’ drug. Piracetam has a wide range of clinical applications, stretching from treatment of epilepsy and movement disorders to use as a cognitive enhancer (mainly in elderly people suffering from memory disorders). Aside from its regular clinical applications, it has also been found to improve reading in dyslexics and to protect the brain against the damaging effects of alcoholism. Despite its application as a cognitive enhancer in elderly patients, there are few controlled studies investigating the drug’s ability to enhance mental performance in young healthy adults. The evidence which does exist, mostly points towards a modest improvement in memory and attention across a range of tasks. But how does it work?

Piracetam affects the membrane which surrounds our cells, both in the brain and the rest of the body. This membrane is not static, instead it acts like a fluid allowing proteins within the membrane to ‘float’ around. In neurones, the main job of these proteins is to transmit and receive chemical signals. As we age, the fluidity of our cell membranes is lost therefore affecting the proteins’ ability to communicate. Piracetam is thought to restore membrane fluidity, thus restoring neural communication. Indeed, Piracetam has been found to increase transmission of information in the hippocampus (a part of the brain essential for learning and memory). Studies have also found that it increases the amount of oxygen available to brain cells, this is thought to be the mechanism by which it protects neurones from alcohol-induced damage.

Some users of Piracetam also report increased creative drive. Writers, musicians and other creative people have reported that Piracetam improved their work and encouraged experimentation; however it cannot be ruled out that this is merely a placebo effect. Some people believe that the “light bulb” moment of creativity, when a stunningly original idea hits you (not something this writer is particularly familiar with…) could occur at times when there is greater connectivity between the two hemispheres of the brain. Piracetam is thought to increase transmission of signals moving between hemispheres across the Corpus Callusom (the nerve bundle that links the two hemispheres) so, in theory, this could increase creative output.

Although side effects of Piracetam are thought to be mild, the drug has yet to be studied for long term side effects in healthy adults. Therefore, the use of Piracetam as a nootropic agent may represent an unwarranted risk for a relatively small reward.


Another drug commonly used by students is the ADHD drug Methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin. This drug is usually prescribed to children diagnosed with ADHD to improve their concentration and motivation. However, it works just as well in healthy individuals, leading to its use among students as a ‘brain-booster’. It is estimated that in some American universities around 25% of students take Ritalin to improve their concentration. The ethicist John Harris has argued that if the drug is safe enough to be given to children for a non-life-threatening condition, it is safe enough to be used by adults to improve concentration. Although this argument may be sound, there is still much controversy over the very widespread prescription of Ritalin. Indeed, it can have side effects on the cardiovascular system which, in a small number of cases, resulted in sudden death. It has also been linked with psychosis, depression and anxiety. Therefore, although the drug is considered relatively safe for short-term use (as it is currently prescribed) chronic use may prove unsafe.

Methylphenidate is a stimulant that works in the same way as cocaine; however, it has a much slower method of action and if taken as prescribed, it does not generate the same feeling of euphoria as cocaine. The drug blocks transporters on neurons which would usually remove excess dopamine, meaning that brain dopamine levels increase. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with an important role in the brain’s reward and motivation system, indeed it is by manipulating this system that Ritalin is thought to work. However, due to its parallels with cocaine and associated scope for abuse, Ritalin is a class B drug in the UK; meaning that possession without prescription can carry a maximum five year prison sentence.

These drugs certainly have an important role to play in improving the lives of patients and treating the illnesses they were developed to treat. However, to consider these as ‘smart’ drugs for the healthy seems a little crass. It is likely that as nootropics become more refined and perhaps marketed toward healthy individuals, we will see their use become more widespread, but for now the risk to long-term health probably outweigh the rewards. So, I believe that in this case the old adage, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” holds true.

Post by: Claire Scofield

Love is in the air: Why Sperm love the smell of flowers and how this could be used as a fertility aid

Flowers have long been prized for their natural beauty and almost guarantee a positive reception when given as a romantic gift. However, it appears that the chemical responsible for floral smells (‘bourgeonal’) is also linked with love and romance in an intriguing and unexpected way.

As humans our sense of smell is predominantly used to enrich and inform our experience of the world around us. This can be both pleasurable (i.e. smelling a flower) or functional allowing us to avoid har800px-Bouquet_de_roses_rosesm (i.e. smelling to find whether or not food is safe to eat). In most animals smell serves a similar function. However, many animals have the added ability to detect chemical signals known as pheromones. Many species use sex pheromones to drive reproductive behaviour; sometimes relying on such signals to communicate important information about an individuals reproductive state or sexual potency.

The existence of an equivalent pheromone detection system in humans is highly disputed. This is mainly because the genes responsible for making pheromone detectors in humans are inactive, meaning pheromone receptors are not produced in the human nose. Furthermore, humans do not possess the organ (the vomeronasal organ) used to detect these ‘sex signals’. But does this mean that odor plays no role in the way we reproduce?

We experience smell through a series of specialised proteins known as ‘odor receptors’ (ORs). Although we normally associate these receptors with the nose, a healthy body of evidence has now identified these smell detecting proteins in many other areas of the body. Most bizarrely, they appear to exist in sperm cells! So, several questions come to mind; why do sperm need to smell, what can they smell, and could this be how we use smell for sexual communication?

It appears that certain ORs, found both in the nose and in sperm cells, respond to the floral compound ‘bourgeonal’ – the smell we associate with flowers. Therefore it would seem that male reproductive cells can smell flowers! This leads to an obvious question: What functional importance does the ability to detect floral odors play in sperm cell physiology and human reproduction?

The answer to this question may seem even stranger: Research suggests that the presence of floral scent detectors in sperm may be used to help them navigate towards an egg.

Sperm_stainedSperm are motile cells that move via the presence of a ‘tail’. They may move towards the egg via a process known as chemotaxis; where cells direct their movement based on the relative concentration of chemicals around them. Experimental evidence has identified that sperm cell movement is directed towards areas of high concentrations of bourgeonal. Does this therefore suggest that, contrary to popular belief, eggs do not wait passively for the sperm to arrive but in fact produce floral chemicals that in turn attract the sperm to them? This would indicate that human female reproductive cells have acquired the capacity to produce chemical attractants, which may function to increase the probability of successful fertilisation by sperm. Interestingly, the ability for sperm cells to smell can also physically influence their swimming behaviour. It is known that the the swimming speed of sperm can be defined by the presence of particular chemicals. The presence of floral chemicals increase swimming speeds and directed movements. So, in a particularly remarkable fashion, it appears that sperm cells can detect floral odours and use these for navigation.

This research may soon radically transformed the way we understand sperm-egg communication, inferring that female eggs may produce floral odors which attract sperm for fertilisation. Most importantly, such research could provide the basis for novel strategies in the manipulation of human reproduction, offering advances in contraception and fertility treatments.

Infertility is often caused by a deficit in the number and quality of sperm; so bourgeonal could be used in IVF to enhance the swimming ability and targeting of sperm cells to eggs. Furthermore, the development of a drug which can block bourgeonal compounds could be used as an alternative to hormone manipulation strategies, as a new and effective contraceptive. However, the future of this research ultimately lies in the identification of a female-produced floral ‘scent’, which would provide the first empirical evidence for the use of pheromone sex signals in human reproduction.

Post by: Isabelle Abbey-Vital


Body donation: ‘life’after death

Mortui Prosumus Vitae

Even in death do we serve life’

After one of my many trips past our University’s dissecting room, I couldn’t help but think of all the bodies which lay inside; waiting to meet their fate at the hands of our medical students. This got me wondering – how did those individuals go about donating their bodies and what will they be used for?

The donation of a body, or pa786px-Mortui_prosumus_vitae_-_Bremgartenfriedhofrts of a body to science is a concept that many are familiar with, but in fact it is often poorly understood. Indeed, the topic is not often spoken about which, when you think about it, makes sense since those who donate their bodies are not around afterwards to talk about the experience.

However, after trawling the internet for information I came across a fair amount, including several websites detailing the various levels of body donation. It’s interesting to note that, along with whole body donation, there are many ways to contribute to science without offering your entire body both in life and after death:

At the lowest end of the scale, individuals can volunteer for scientific experiments, most commonly performing psychological tests or receiving brain scans. Following these procedures the body is (generally!) returned intact.

At the next level you can volunteer for a more invasive and intensive experiment such as trials for drug treatments, with a significant risk to the individual.

The third level, partial temporary donation, involves donation of a physical aspect of your body that is not permanently missed, such as blood.

The penultimate level involves permanent donation of a part of your physical body, most commonly organs. This type of donation usually occurs post-humously when an organ may be donated to another individual in a transplant procedure, or used for medical research.

Finally, the ultimate scientific contribution, complete body donation.

The_Anatomy_LessonHowever, this was not always the case. Indeed, although the bodies used by our current medical students were generously donated with prior consent, at the beginning of the 19th century, bodies used for teaching were usually those of criminals put to death for their crimes. As the study of surgery and anatomy began to explode, alongside a dramatic decrease in the number of executions, there developed a huge demand for bodies that exceeded supply. At this time in Edinburgh, demand was exploited by the infamous William Burke and Hare who were known to have killed more than 20 people before selling the bodies to anatomists. The success of this lucrative ‘business’ was short-lived when their plan was exposed, leading to creation and introduction of the original 1832 Anatomy Act.

At least in the UK, body donation is a tightly regulated process with many strict legal requirements. Regulation is necessary in order to secure a body for donation, since human tissues can be hazardous and may pose a risk to those who come into contact with it. The Human Tissue Authority (HTA) are the regulatory body in charge of controlling the use of organs and body materials. The Human Tissue Act (2004) requires that a written and witnessed consent to anatomical dissection is given prior to death and a copy left in your will. Donations needs to be in a relatively ‘normal and healthy’ state and individuals must not have died from any communicable disease but from natural causes. Bodies are usually required to be whole with no amputations or transplants given during life.

After donation, the body is embalmed in formaldehyde in order to stop the decomposition process and preserve the tissue. They are also pumped with phenol to prevent the growth of mould. The body is then transferred to a fridge for 3 months to allow the formalin to work (changing proteins in the body and halting degradation).

Donated tissue can be used for several purposes including: teaching, furthering research into human health and anatomical examination or educational displays (such as in museums). Therefore, the donation of tissue is vitally important to society.

The Royal College of Surgeons predicts that there will soon be a shortage of body donations which could threaten teaching and medical research. In 2008 there were approximately 45,000 trainee doctors and surgeons, but only 600 bodies were donated to medical schools for teaching. A number that the RCS predict will continue to fall as fewer people are made aware of this vital practice. The College predicts that the UK medical schools will need around 1,000 bodies each year to maintain sufficient teaching levels, but predict a 30% shortage in 2012.

800px-Body_Worlds_Exhibit_San_Diego_2009I was first made aware of body donation after visiting the Body Worlds exhibition in Manchester several years ago. I found myself faced with an intriguing collection of various human and animal forms partially dissected to expose their internal anatomy. The bodies were posed into various forms and positions, with the purpose of educating the lay person about the human body. Some displays also highlighted how disease affects the body, leading to better health awareness. The exhibition exploits a process known as plastination, invented in 1977 by German anatomist Gunther Von Hagen. Bodies are preserved by replacement of bodily fluids with a polymer to preserve tissues and cause rigidity. This also allows the body to be displayed in a desired position. This may be viewed as an extreme way of raising awareness, and it is one that has created its fair share of controversy. It cannot be denied that body donation is an important process, one which certainly requires greater public attention.

As a lasting thought:

By donating your body, you will be doing everything possible as a layman to improve doctors’ level of training. You will be passing the medical care given to you, which started with the treatment your mother received before you were born, on to future generations.’ GUNTHER VON HAGEN.

Post by: Sam Lawrence