January 15, 2015 (Vol. 35, No. 2)

Foster Critical Thinking Skills to Give Biotech a Fighting Chance in Ongoing Social Debates

Biotech innovation has always been accompanied by a wide range of views as to its desirability—dreams of realizing the most starry-eyed hype; reasonable expectations of solving particular problems; legitimate concerns regarding safety issues; preconceived notions against the technology; and ethical, moral, and religious concerns.

Hype occurs on two levels, and in this regard biotechnology is similar to other technologies. One level consists of those scientists, clearly a minority, who predict that breakthrough findings will be reported by them or others relatively soon, when in fact such findings won’t happen until years later. The other level includes those entrepreneurs, management teams, and professional investors who prematurely tout the commercialization of industry-transforming solutions.

At the other end of the perception spectrum are those individuals who will not take advantage of biotechnology-related solutions for religious reasons. For example, at the low-tech end, Jehovah’s Witnesses will not accept transfusions of whole blood, red cells, white cells, platelets, or plasma because they believe blood is sacred and must not be transferred from one human to another. Likewise, practicing Shintoists will not accept organ transplants if the organs originate from deceased donors, because they believe that the body after death is impure and dangerous.

Ethical and moral concerns are clearly more widespread. There are substantial numbers of people who are against animal experimentation in basic research and animal testing in preclinical drug development, even though such use of animals could result in new medicines for humans. They believe that permitting animals to suffer so as to reduce future human suffering is not acceptable, regardless that humans possess more advanced mental capabilities. Then there are many who oppose embryonic stem cell research, because the embryo is killed to harvest the stem cells.

However, such religious, moral, and ethical concerns represent what I would call technology-variant social issues. In other words, as the technology evolves, the concerns may fade away.

J. Leslie Glick, Ph.D.

Technology-Variant Social Issues

Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research don’t necessarily oppose research with stem cells derived from full-term human placentas or with induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs), which are generated from adult cells.

With respect to those who would refuse organ transplants, their objections would probably disappear if someday the various organs were fabricated from IPSCs derived from the patients’ own skin cells and subjected to 3D bioprinting technology. As for those who oppose animal testing in preclinical drug development, that issue would become a nonissue if, one day, in vitro systems and modeling and simulation software were to obviate the need to rely on experimental animals.

Technology-Invariant Social Issues

What should be of more immediate concern to the biotech community are those who oppose biotechnology because of preconceived notions that to a large extent result in what might be termed technology-invariant social issues. In other words, these critics believe that the technology is ultimately harmful to society and should be banned. It does not matter whether carefully executed double-blind studies indicate that the technology would be overwhelmingly beneficial to society. Unfortunately, there are people with strongly held beliefs that will twist the facts to fit their preconceived notions.

An example of this is the opposition by many to foods obtained from genetically modified (GM) crops, whose yields can be much higher than those of non-GM counterparts. While such crops are increasingly produced throughout the world, there are large pockets of resistance against them, despite the lack of credible scientific evidence supporting such resistance. Thus, there are supermarkets that not only sell just organic foods but also provide literature decrying the production and consumption of GM foods and lobby for the banning of GM crops. This past November, voters in Maui County in Hawaii and in Humboldt County in California approved moratoriums on cultivation of GM crops.

Another example is the opposition of many parents to vaccinating their children. Again, despite the lack of credible evidence supporting their position, there are parents who believe their children may develop autism as a result of being vaccinated. Then there are other parents who don’t believe their children need to be vaccinated against chickenpox, diphtheria, measles, mumps, or whooping cough. These parents, who argue that they have never seen children with such diseases, don’t understand that such childhood diseases are less common than they once were because of the widespread practice of vaccination.

The relatively recent human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has also encountered parental resistance for a variety of nonscientific reasons. Even though HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer, there are parents who believe their children should not be vaccinated because it will promote promiscuity or, worse, cause mental retardation or the onset of rare diseases

Future Controversies

In the future, other technology-invariant social issues will arise once gene therapy becomes an accepted tool in healthcare delivery. For example, somatic cell gene therapy will no doubt be opposed by critics who will argue, without real evidence, that viral vectors will cause various diseases or that donor genes will cause cancer. Critics will also raise their voices if it is suggested that people who suffer from lethal hereditary disorders could benefit from a combination of germline gene therapy and in vitro fertilization. Such critics would be unimpressed by arguments that the combination treatment could result in progeny free of the lethal hereditary disorder, and who in turn would produce normal germ cells.

Contrary to what the naysayers will say, such a procedure does not qualify as a genetic enhancement; it is simply a cure for a disease. And the cure would prevent the disease from being spread to one’s offspring.

So, how does the biotech community deal with technology-invariant social issues? First, we must continually lay out all the facts and convince reasonable people—hopefully the majority—that the actual benefits far outweigh the hypothetical risks. More broadly, we need to understand why people fit the facts to support their preconceived notions. We then may become part of a movement that helps foster a future generation composed of more critically thinking individuals.

How does one develop critical thinking? One could develop it at home or, supposedly, at school. Alas, the word “supposedly” may be all too apt. Perhaps the K–12 educational system needs to be seriously overhauled. The disproportionate focus on standardized testing results only in teaching to the test, not critical thinking. Perhaps it is time to let the professionals—the teachers—run the schools, do away with the overemphasis on tests, and instead foster the development of critical thinking skills.

J. Leslie Glick, Ph.D. ([email protected]), is an independent corporate management advisor.

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