Happy Mother’s Day to all the Moms!: Law, Science, Technology and Beagles

Angela Fralish, MJLST Guest Blogger

Beagles are well-known as a quintessential family dog because they love humans and listen to their owners (most of the time). What is less known, is that those same traits are the primary reasons they are used in 95% of canine medical experimentation. Although, beagles are not biologically comparable to humans, they are compliant people-pleasers, making them ideal subjects for scientific experiments.

This reality is a hard pill to swallow for animal lovers and scientists alike. To scientists, research beagles are a necessary evil decreasing the pain and suffering of humans. To advocates, beagles are victims of unspeakable cruelty.

One law bridges the divide between these opposing views to help the beagles. The Beagle Freedom Bill, created by the Beagle Freedom Project (BFP), forges a compromise between animal rights lawyers, scientists and medical technologists. The Bill asks that ”tax-payer funded laboratories offer up the “experimentally-spent” dogs and cats for public adoption through rescue organizations.” In other words, once the beagle is no longer used for research, the dog is given a home instead of euthanasia. Minnesota was the first state to sign the Bill into law in 2014, and since then, 5 more states have joined. Currently, 5 additional states are considering adopting this law as well.

In addition to legislative measures, the BFP has found other ways to help research beagles. They have created new technology such as the Cruelty-Cutter app which helps shoppers easily scan products for humane animal testing, and sued the USDA demanding restoration of scrubbed animal records. The Beagle Freedom Project is a leader in animal science law and a great example of how lawyers, scientists and technologists can work together for the greater good of both humans and animals.

Scientists are working to replace this “necessary evil” as well. According to Dr. Teresa Arora’s article Substitute of Animals in Drug Research: An Approach Towards Fulfillment of 4Rs, research methods are being developed that are “superior to using animals to learn about human disease or predict the safety of new drugs [and include] stem cells, microdosing, DNA chips, microfluidics chips, human tissue, new imaging technologies, and post-marketing drug surveillance.” There is even a Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at John Hopkins University and the NC3R in the UK.

For an employee of medical research looking to carve out meaning in their every day workweek, helping research animals through new collaborative measures is one way to answer the call. As a lawyer, scientists or technologist, you can help develop policy, arbitrate between groups, hold violators accountable, assist in medical technology development, vote for the Beagle Freedom Bill or adopt a research beagle. According to Congressman Earl Blumenauer, “members of Congress are realizing that protecting animals is not just the right thing to do, it’s also developing to become potent politically.” Congress will need help understanding the relationship between animal models and science in order to make improvements. That help will come from people who work in these fields on a daily basis.

The Beagle Freedom Bill highlights the plight of animals languishing in labs and promotes cruelty-free lifestyle choices everyone can make. Now that BFP has opened the door, it is time for all of us to show a little gratitude to the beagles for their sacrifice in advancing medical science such as chemotherapy and insulin. We can do this in our own unique ways, and although we can’t change the world for all beagles, for some beagles, we can change the world.

As Mahatma Ghandi stated, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I hope ours is one of progress.

A Different Kind of Egg For Easter: Scientific Proof of Fetal Pain and the Legal Right to Choose Abortion

Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger

On January 3, 2017 Congressman Trent Franks from Arizona suggested a major change in the law which could overturn precedent of more than 30 years. He introduced the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” which generally prohibits abortions after 20 weeks. Fueling this highly controversial legislation is a complex scientific and legal debate as to whether or not the fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, and if that proof should result in a change in the law.

Advocates on both sides of the Act include physicians, legislators, constitutional law experts, policy interest groups, philosophers and neuroscientists. Supporters of non-interference prior to viability advocate that proof of fetal pain is not substantiated. One the other side, fetal pain protestors argue that a fetus can in fact feel pain at 20 weeks, and abortions should be proscribed between after that time.

The Supreme Court ruled in watershed cases Roe v. Wade (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), that a woman’s right to elect an abortion prior to viability, which is usually 23 to 24 weeks, is a constitutionally protected “fundamental right.” Time and time again, the Supreme Court has upheld that precedent, and prevented the right to interfere with a woman’s choice prior to viability. However, new medical technology advances call the old law into question. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in Roe, medical science will reduce the point of viability and “Roe is clearly on a collision course with itself.”

Scientifically speaking, both parties have referenced the anatomical makeup for fetal pain to support their arguments. Studies show that the thalamus and pain sensor receptors, usually developed by 20 weeks, are used to process pain. The counter argument is that the anatomical capability to feel pain does not equate to actually feeling pain: fetuses at 20 weeks lack the necessary pain pathways, or physiological ability to communicate pain, even if the thalamus and receptors are available. Legislative findings of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act argue that fetuses at 20 weeks not only respond to touch, but also emit stress hormones and recoil at painful stimuli. Thus, some have concluded that fetuses are indeed “capable” of feeling pain and abortion should be proscribed at that time.

So where should the court draw the line? One past example of legislation related to medical uncertainty related to fetal pain was the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003. After much controversy, this act was upheld by Gonzalez v. Carhart  (2007) noting that “medical uncertainty does not foreclose the exercise of legislative power in the abortion context any more than it does in other contexts.” In this sense, Congressman Trent Franks’ bill could potentially pass, despite long held precedent, because the courts retain legislative power within the abortion context when there is medical uncertainty. However, much like the Partial Birth Abortion Act, if Congress passes this legislation, it will be up to the state courts and modern day legal advocates to reinforce or discredit it on a case-by-case basis.

Only time will tell how this intricately webbed science-law issue will play out. Judith Munson quoted as early as 1975 in her article Fetal Research: A View from Right to Life to Wrongful Birth, “The controversy has become a contest between the state of the art and the state of the law.” Constitutional lawyers, physicians and the general public certainly have their work cut out for them in understanding how medical science impacts the law. As O.D. Jones remarks, “Law and neuroscience seem strange bedfellows. But the engagement of law with neuroscientific evidence was inevitable.” This holds especially true in relation to mother chicks and decisions regarding their “eggs.”

Is there a Reasonable Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow?: Legal Ethics, Brain Stimulation and Neuroprosthetics

Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger

As expert bioethicist Dr. Walter Glannon remarks, “Interventions in the brain raise general ethical questions about weighing the potential benefit of altering neural circuits against the potential harm from neurophysiological and psychological sequelae.” Laws governing human subject research for these interventions mandate that “risks to subjects are reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits.” Modern brain technologies in neuroprosthetics make the harm/benefit analysis challenging because there are many unanswered questions surrounding neuroprosthetic implementation.

So what is a neuroprosthetic? Neuroprosthetic devices use electrode muscle and nerve stimulation to produce muscle contraction and restore motor function. Basically, since the brain controls the body, a device is put on the brain telling it to make the body work. Through neuroprosthetics devices, a person may restore movement by bypassing nervous system damage which allows greater independence in daily living. To someone whose dependence is caused by non-working body parts such as blindness, Parkinson’s or spinal cord paralysis, this technology holds great potential for a higher quality of life.

However, the use of a neuroprosthetic may involve negative side effects. Some are more behavioral such as gambling and addiction while others are biological like pain from overstimulation. For instance, Steffen K. Rosahl discusses how “relatives and friends sometimes complain of personality changes in the patient, ranging from transient confusion and bradyphrenia to euphoria or depression.” Further, implanting the device is not an exact science and if done incorrectly, a completely different result may occur such as loss of speech or other unknown changes. Research also indicates that an autonomy-capable neuroprosthetic can influence the brain if its actions go unchecked, making it a threat to the user and his or her surroundings. There are serious risks and concerns associated with the use of neurprosthetic technology.

The juncture of law, science and research is especially prevalent in modern neurological research. The cochlear implant is one such example. While the implant has allowed many children all over the world to hear for the first time, it has also led to shock and convulsions. In Sadler v. Advanced Bionics, Inc., the plaintiffs won a $7.25 million verdict in a negligence action when the manufacturer failed to adequately test or obtain approval for a new material in one of their implant designs. The unanswered legal questions in this case evolved around product recalls for implants, overcoming federal preemption, regulatory laws governing research submissions and product liability. Exactly how does a business recall an implant in someone’s brain!?

Clearly, legal-science partnerships are in high demand in advancing neurological research. Scientists need to understand the law and lawyers need to understand science. This principle is critically important when research institutions weigh the risks and benefits to subjects before that device ever hits the market. As Stephen Breyer, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stated, “In this age of science, we must build legal foundations that are sound in science as well as in law. Scientists have offered their help. We in the legal community should accept that offer.”

Would Monetary Compensation Incentivize You to Register as an Organ Donor?

Na An, MJLST Article Editor

In the United States, the number of patients on the waitlist for receiving organ donations is much greater than the limited number of supplies.  One person is added to the list every 10 minutes, while only 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organ donation.  As deceased individuals constitute about two thirds of organ donors, 22 patients die waiting for a transplant every day.  The organ shortage also devastates the qualify of life for more than 100,000 people, and costs national economy tens of billions of dollars every year.  It incentivizes international organized black markets and human trafficking.  The organ shortage has multiple reasons, chief among which is people’s unwillingness to register as donors.  Study has shown that 95% of U.S. adults support organ donation; yet, only 48% of them actually signed up as donors.  Additionally, hospital procedures and customs often allow a family’s objection to undermine the wish of an intended donor.

Currently, the organ donation system is regulated by state law, federal law, government agencies, and hospital procedures.  Each state maintains its own donor registry, mostly linked to the driver’s licensing process, and state laws vary in their donation education program.  The National Organ Transplant Act (Act) instituted the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to match donated organs with recipients on the waitlist.  The Act also prohibits the sale of organs.  While the legislatures and courts remain silent, hospital procedures dictate.  For example, hospitals will almost never retrieve organs without the family consent even when doing so would be against the wish of the deceased.  Complicating the issue further is the inherent human rights of the donor, his/her family, and the recipient.

Confronting these issues, Stephanie Zwerner, in her article “A Small Price to Pay: Incentivizing Cadaveric Organ Donation with Posthumous Payments,” proposed a national donor registry and incentivization system.  First, a national donor registry will replace state registries, and eliminate the interstate discrepancies and inefficiencies.  The national registry can be consolidated with OPTN for effective administration.  To improve the validity of donor intent documentation, the article proposed donor registration through health insurance application, registration to vote, or income tax reporting.  Unlike “check-the-box” in driver licensing, everyone will be given a chance to fully consider their decisions.  Families and hospitals would be more willing to respect the wishes of intended donors.

To further incentivize registration, the article proposed a single lump sum payment to the donor’s estate financed by the recipient’s health insurance provider upon the event of an executed cadaveric organ donation.  Monetary compensation for organ donation has been a controversial topic.  Not only it is illegal under federal statute, it has also been considered as the “commodification of human body parts” and an intrinsic evil.  It decreases respect for life and human body, and can lead to exploitation of people in dire economic circumstances.  Acknowledging these negative consequences, the author presented several benefits: increasing donations while decreasing familial objections, saving lives, relieving people on the waitlist for many years of suffering, reducing black markets and the economic burden on national economy.  Considering that one donor could potential save eight lives, the article argues that the benefits outweigh the negative implications.

The GIF That Keeps on Giving: The Problem of Dealing with Incidental Findings in Genetic Research.

 Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger

The ability to sequence a whole genome invites a tremendous opportunity to improve medical care in modern society. We are now able to prepare for, and may soon circumvent, genes carrying traits such as Alzheimer’s, breast cancer and embryonic abnormalities. These advancements hold great promise as well as suggest many new ways of looking at relationships in human subject research.

A 2008 National Institute of Health article, The Law of Incidental Findings in Human Subjects Research, discussed how modern technology has outpaced the capacity of human subject researchers to receive and interpret data responsibly. Disclosure of incidental findings, “data [results] gleaned from medical procedures or laboratory tests that were beyond the aims or goals of the particular laboratory test or medical procedure” is particularly challenging with new genetic testing. Non-paternity for example, which has been found in up to 30% of participants in some studies, result in researchers deciding how to tell participants that they are not biologically related to their parent or child. This finding could not only impact inheritance, custody and adoptions rights, but can also cause lifelong emotional harm. Modern researchers must be equipped to handle many new psychosocial and emotional variables. So where should a researcher look to determine the proper way to manage these “incidentalomas”?

Perspectives, expectations, and interests dictating policies governing incidental finding management are diverse and inconsistent. Some researchers advocate for an absolute ban on all findings of non-paternity because of the potential harm. Others argue that not revealing misattributed paternity result in a lifetime of living with inaccurate family health history. These scenarios can be difficult for all involved parties.

Legal responsibility of disclosure was indirectly addressed in Ande v.Rock in 2001 when the court held that parents did not have property rights to research results which identified spina bifida in their child. In 2016, an incidental finding of genetic mutation led a family to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion on a genetic incidental finding. The family was initially told that a gene mutation related to sudden cardiac death caused their 13-year-old son to die in his sleep, and the gene mutation was also identified in 20 family members. Mayo Clinic revealed the gene was misdiagnosed, but the decedent’s brother already had a defibrillator implanted and received two inappropriate shocks to his otherwise normal and healthy heart. Establishing guidance for the scope and limits of disclosure of incidental findings is a complex process.

Under 45 C.F.R. §§ 46.111 and 46.116, also known as the Common Rule, researchers in all human subject research must discuss any risks or benefits to participants during informed consent. However, there is debate over classification of incidental findings as a risk or benefit because liability can attach. Certainly the parents in Ande v. Rock would have viewed the researchers’ decision not to disclose positive test results for spina bifida as a risk or benefit that should have been discussed at the onset of their four-year involvement. On the other hand, as in the Mayo Clinic example above, is a misdiagnosed cardiac gene mutation a benefit or risk? The answers to these question is very subjective.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has suggested 17 ethical guidelines which include discussing risks and benefits of incidental finding disclosures with research participants. The Commission’s principles are the only guidelines currently addressing incidental findings. There is a desperate need for solid legal guidance when disclosing incidental findings. It is not an easy task, but the law needs to quickly firm-up a foundation for appropriate disclosure in incidental findings.

Copycats to Copycows: The Cloned Livestock Industry Emergence

Ryan Dowell, MJLST Staffer

In the two decades since Dolly, a comically named sheep, animal cloning has remained little more than fiction to the average person. Behind the scenes, however, the field has progressed tremendously.  Success rates today are estimated to be 70% or higher, compared to less than half a percent when cloning Dolly and her siblings. As the technique has been perfected, the obvious result has occurred: animal cloning has become a nascent industry.

Cloning has long been present in human society, in a form that many people may not recognize: plants. From simple home-garden cutting & replanting to industrial-scale cultivation from tissue samples; these techniques produce genetically identical individuals (i.e. clones) used as floral cultivars, tree planting, and especially foods. A large number of plants grown for human consumption are clones—which means that you, dear reader, have probably eaten a clone. Plant cloning has not encountered the same scrutiny as that with animals, perhaps due to its natural occurrence or millennia-long history of human use.

Dolly was merely the proverbial ‘dipping our toe into’ animal cloning. True to the writings of Michael Crichton (or the movies, if one so prefers), it didn’t take long for Jurassic Park-esque attempts to clone endangered and extinct animals. Cloning was not limited to such an idealistic use—a market emerged. Grieving pet owners could, at significant cost, get clones of their beloved pets. Despite the cost (still a five-digit price tag), a market for such services has continued to develop. Further demonstrating the human capacity for expensive animal-keeping hobbies, equine cloning has emerged as a means to “insure that prized horse and its unique qualities.” If one were to stop here, cloning seems to be a niche market for the wealthy.

The emerging cloning industry has not stopped at pets and exotic creatures. With the science complete and industrial production moving forward, livestock cloning is set to erupt in the coming years. A ‘cloning factory’ is opening in China. This factory is intended to produce not only pets and horses, but also prime beef cattle and drug-sniffing dogs. Following the same reasoning underlying farming’s predilection for plant clones, elimination of genetic variations could significantly improve farming techniques—maximizing yield, minimizing labor and resource inputs, matching strains to specific regions, and so on. In a world with mounting concern over the meat sustainability, improvements to production are key and cloning provides the means to significantly advance the field.

In many emerging fields, law and regulation react to the development and often impede progress. Fortunately, the issue of animal cloning has already been addressed—the FDA regulates the field & was essentially prescient. In 2008, the FDA released a guidance stating “meat and milk from cow, pig, and goat clones and the offspring of any animal clones are as safe as food we eat every day.” The FDA examined cloning (also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT), under the umbrella of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), which have long been utilized by farmers. The analysis noted that these animals would have essentially identical genetics to the source, unless reprogramming occurred (which can be done with other ARTs); that risk associated with the cloned animals is no different than the source organism. It was noted that cloned offspring have higher risk of adverse health issues early in life compared to offspring from other ARTs. However, none of these issues are unique to clones and other than early-life issues, clones are as healthy as non-clones. Livestock cloning has passed FDA scrutiny  and manufacturing infrastructure is in place; it is poised to develop rapidly.

Public opinions may prove to be the final hurdle for livestock cloning. If one tells a fruit-eater that he or she is eating a clone (or as a botanist might put it the ovary of a clone), the fruit-eater will likely be unaware of this fact and less than pleased that his or her enjoyment of that fruit has been disrupted by the interjection. Alternatively, a substantial portion of the population believes GMOs are not safe for them to consume, which is untrue (see herehere, here, here, and here). A similar scenario to either of these might present itself here: (1) everyone blissfully consumes food without the need for nitty-gritty detail of its origin (since there is no discernable or material difference), or (2) misinformation is allowed to spread and ‘poison the well.’ The deciding factor will likely be education; the current state of affairs presents the opportunity to preemptively educate the public on the FDA’s findings and regulations.

Livestock cloning is poised to expand rapidly in the future and now we face a crucial time in its acceptance: a public educated on the issue will be equipped to fairly determine whether such livestock should be consumed, without a torrent of pseudo-science obscuring the decision. The FDA has examined clones and found them to be nearly identical to non-clones (pun very much intended) in regards to human consumption.


Three’s a Crowd: Identifying the Shifting Parental Rights in Three-Parent Babies

Daniel Green, MJLST Staffer

Once again, science is spurring the law to adapt in ways it never could have predicted. A baby boy was recently born with genetic material of three different people. Aside from being born slightly premature, the now three-month-old child is very healthy. Even though three-parent techniques have been used before, this child marked the first healthy birth.

Given the obvious religious, safety, and ethical disputes behind such a medical procedure it may seem unclear as to why anyone would want to go through with it. The answer, however, avoids the arguments that the procedure is simply done to “play God” or for polyamorous relationships. The mother underwent the treatment to ensure both the happiness of parents and the health the child.

In this instance, the mother carried genetic defects identified to cause Leigh syndrome. This disorder which affects the brain resulted in the mother having had four pregnancy losses in addition to the death of two previous children at the ages of 8 months and 6 years. Leigh syndrome is caused by defects in a cells mitochondria, and the three-parent treatment was able to bypass the damaged mitochondrial DNA.

The process involves implanting the mother’s DNA into an egg from a donor. The egg has the donor’s main genetic DNA removed prior. The egg is then fertilized with sperm from the father. This process allows the DNA from the mother to pass down virtually unchanged since “mitochondrial DNA makes up less than 1% of the total cellular DNA.” However, small amounts of the donor’s mitochondrial DNA are still left throughout the child’s body.

The treatment was done in Mexico involving a team of fertility specialists from the United States and Great Britain. The procedure took place in Mexico since the treatment used has not yet been approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration, but this may not be the case for long due, in part, to recent successes. Another indicator of this possible change is that the treatment has already been approved in Britain.

Given this rapidly changing landscape, the law, in particular regarding parental rights, needs to somehow catch up quickly on an incredibly complex topic. As the donor parent will only be contributing 37 genes out of the total 22,000, it is likely that a donor’s right will be the most contested. Given the precedent already set forth, courts may adopt one of several strategies if and when three-parent babies are no longer barred in the United States.

  1. The donor parent has no legal claims: This would be similar to the mostly commonly accepted view concerning to sperm donors. In most states, if a sperm is donated through a licensed medical professional then the donor loses all legal claims to the child unless the parents are married. It seems logical that the treatment of an egg donor, in a three-parent situation, would be similar given what the term “donor” implies. Great Britain, which has already approved the three-parent treatment, has already adopted a stance similar to this. However, states are in contention regarding of parental rights and even custody of traditional style egg donors. Given the distribution of DNA it may be easier for a court to rule against the egg donor, but this is still very unclear.
  1. The donor parent has an equal claim to the child: California has already passed a version of a three-parent law, but this was mainly for same-sex couples who wish to have the donor on the birth certificate as well. However, the process leaves the door open for unintended parents, such as the donors, to assert claims over a child. In such a case, a court may find that, despite the objections of two parents, the donor has a right to be considered as a parent. Instances of this have already come up in traditional sperm and egg donation. Such conflicts could create a great degree of instability for the life of the child.
  1. The parties agree through a contract prior to the treatment as to what claims exist: The last apparent possibility is that parties may be able to contractually agree what their family is to look like. This would likely create the most amiable way to go about the process, but it is time-consuming and still may run into problems with the existing laws of certain states.

Clearly, there is no solid answer regarding three-parent babies even though three-parent birth certificates are already becoming more common in the United States. It seems like it is only a matter of time before three-parent babies are introduced into the culture as well. This leaves the question as to whether the law will be ready in time so as to hopefully create a circumstance that, whatever the family may look like, is best for the child.