The manufacturer of French morning-after pill NorLevo has announced that the drug is ineffective in women who weigh more than 80 kilograms. The statement was made at a press conference on Tuesday, and comes in the wake of a 2011 study into the one of the drug's active ingredients, levonorgestrel. The study found that contraceptives with levonorgestrel as an active ingredient failed to contracept in women over 80kgs, and that the effectiveness of the drug decreased dramatically after 75kgs.
Frederique Welgryn of HRA Pharma, the company supplying NorLevo, said that the results of the study conducted by the Edinburgh University in 2011 were "quite surprising", and the last few years have seen "a lot of discussions" about contraceptives' efficacy in overweight or obese patients.
The information on drug packaging is being substantially revised. From next year it will feature a new leaflet warning women about the weight limits of the drug.
Dr Kenneth Chambarae, of Brussels' Free University, told CNN that the privilege of euthanasia would only be extended to competent minors who are suffering unbearable physical pain from a serious physical illness without prospect of improvement. Their option would be different from adults, who can request it if they are suffering psychologically.
Dr Chambarae says that the debate is fundamentally about creating an equal playing field for euthanasia. He expects very few children to choose euthanasia, but they should not be discriminated against in law.
In neighbouring Netherlands euthanasia for children as young as 12 is already permitted, although only five cases have been recorded since 2002 (not including infants). But the Belgian law would improve this by removing any reference to the age of the child.
There is still life in most famous bioethics article of all time, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” This was 2012 article in the February issue of Journal of Medical Ethics by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, two Italian bioethicists working in Australia. First reported as a BioEdge scoop, the news quickly ran around the world in newspapers, blogs, radio and TV.
The reaction was overwhelmingly hostile. Minerva, the corresponding author, says that she received more than 200 hate mails and death threats over the next six months. It was one of the most stressful times of her life. More importantly, she warns, the poisonous reaction was an ominous sign of the danger posed by internet-fuelled bullies to academic freedom.
Something, she writes in the latest issue of Bioethics, has to be done. “If academics find themselves increasingly involved in media uproars, and become more reluctant to write what they really think, this is ultimately harmful to society as a whole.”
Her solution is to go ninja: to fight for bold new ideas masked in anonymity. In other words, controversial articles should be or could be published anonymously in academic journals. This would have two benefits.
First, peace of mind. She writes plaintively that “Our productivity decreased for the weeks following the publication of the paper, while we were worn down by the hate emails and requests for interviews from journalists. More generally, thinking and writing are activities that require a minimal level of tranquillity, something we certainly lacked in those weeks.” Anonymity would preserve the bliss of solitude.
Second, debate would be livelier. “Giving academics the option to publish their research anonymously or under a pseudonym will give them the opportunity to develop new ideas, to challenge old biases, to solve old and new problems and to make the world a place where prejudice, ignorance and irrationality are challenged and, hopefully, defeated.”
Iain Brassington, writing on the JME blog, was sympathetic with the ideas in her original article but not with her latest brainstorm: “The proposal would be, in other words, unworkable, and undesirable. It’d stultify academia, not guarantee its freedom.”
A survey in Annals of Oncology claims that regulations in many countries to stem drug misuse leave cancer patients without access to opioid medicines for managing cancer pain.
National governments must take urgent action to improve access to these medicines, say the authors. "When one considers that effective treatments are cheap and available, untreated cancer pain and its horrendous consequences for patients and their families is a scandal of global proportions," says Nathan Cherny, an Israeli doctor who is the lead author of the report.
While there are problems with the supply of these medicines in many countries, the main problem is over-regulation that makes it difficult for healthcare professionals to prescribe and administer them for legitimate medical use, the authors say.
"This is a tragedy born out of good intentions," says Cherny. "When opioids are over-regulated, the precautionary measures to prevent abuse and diversion are excessive and impair the ability of healthcare systems to relieve real suffering. The GOPI study has uncovered over-regulation in much of the developing world."
Reporters for the journal Science have documented a thriving Chinese black market in articles and authorship in reputable scientific journals. “People are sparing no expense in order to get published,” says the former vice-president of Peking University Third Hospital.
“The options [says Science] include not just paying for an author's slot on a paper written by other scientists but also self-plagiarizing by translating a paper already published in Chinese and resubmitting it in English; hiring a ghost-writer to compose a paper from faked or independently gathered data; or simply buying a paper from an online catalogue of manuscripts—often with a guarantee of publication.”
Publish or perish has particular urgency in China. The gold standard is publication in indexed journals in English. “The number of papers a researcher has published in SCI-ranked journals over a 5-year period is often the deciding factor in promotions—and typically only papers on which the candidate is a first author or corresponding author count.”
As a result, shady agencies which act as brokers for data and ghost-writing have mushroomed. Science even found one website with a banner reading, “"IT'S UNBELIEVABLE: YOU CAN PUBLISH SCI PAPERS WITHOUT DOING EXPERIMENTS."
The president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Wei Yang, says in an editorial in Science that this black market is dismaying, but that things are definitely improving. “The development of good science in China should accomplish three goals: to produce original breakthroughs, to advance understanding from discoveries made elsewhere, and to gain global influence. None of this can happen until the scientific enterprise is healthy and credible.”
Strict materialism is hardly a new idea but there are few scientists who are more daring about taking it to its logical conclusions than Patricia Churchland, professor emerita at University of California, San Diego. In her latest book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, she argues yet another time that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains.
New Scientist recently interviewed her and asked some challenging questions. Here are a few excerpts:
The implications of neuroscience do not unsettle her: “It takes some getting used to, but I'm not freaked out by it. I certainly understand the ambivalence people have. On one hand, they're fascinated because it helps explain their mother's Alzheimer's, but on the other, they think, 'Gosh, the love that I feel for my child is really just neural chemistry' Well, actually, yes, it is. But that doesn't bother me.”
Philosophical objections are little more than turf wars: “Many philosophers think, hey, we thought we were going to have all the answers, and now you guys are wading in and telling us what knowledge is I think there's fear of a territorial kind, and rightly so.”
So, we are our brains? “True, we don't have adequate explanations yet, and it's important not to overstate where things are. But that's where the evidence is pointing. Everything we're learning in neuroscience points us in that direction.”
What about the meaning of life? “Neuroscience doesn't provide a story about how to live a life. But I think that understanding something about the nature of the brain encourages us to be sensible.”
The ethics of creating autonomous and intelligent robots used to be a purely speculative question. But with the development of drones, self-navigated cruise missiles and self-directing armoured vehicles, robot scientists realise that they must build ethical behaviour into their machines.
At the recent Atlanta Humanoids 2013 conference, the world's largest annual gathering of roboticists, Ronald C. Arkin of Georgia Institute of Technology urged colleagues to be aware of the capabilities of their creations: "these kinds of technologies you are developing may have uses in places you may not have fully envisioned."
Arkin’s talk was entitled ‘How NOT to Build a Terminator’.
"If you would like to create a Terminator, then I would contend: Keep doing what you are doing, because you are creating component technologies for such a device," he said. "There is a big world out there, and this world is listening to the consequences of what we are creating."
Gill Pratt of DARPA agreed with Arkin, saying, "with dual use being everywhere, it really doesn’t matter. If you’re designing a robot for health care, for instance, the autonomy it needs is actually in excess of what you would need for a disaster response robot."
Arkin and Pratt are not alone in their concerns. At a UN-sponsored meeting in Geneva earlier this month parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CWC) agreed to reconvene in May to discuss the future of "autonomous weapons".
In line with two other jurisdictions, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, the new law removes abortion up to 16 weeks from the criminal code and effectively allows abortion on demand up to birth. There is no cooling off period and no mandated independent counselling.
State Health Minister Michelle O’Byrne said it was the proudest moment of her political career: "It brings our laws into the 21st century, into line with community expectations and the overwhelming majority of medical, legal and human rights opinion."
However, the bill also contains unprecedented and draconian provisions for opponents of abortion. Originally objecting doctors were to be required to refer patients to a willing doctor. This was provision was softened. Now they are compelled to give patients information about abortion options – which some doctors will still regard as unethical cooperation.
The new law also imposes Australia’s first “bubble zones” around abortion clinics. Within a radius of 150 metres a range of activities is prohibited and can attract a financial penalty or imprisonment. Diana Hutchinson, a Hobart lawyer, pointed out that “the Committee inquiring into these new laws did not report any evidence that protests have actually occurred outside any Tasmanian abortion clinic. The Committee also did not evaluate any peer-reviewed published evidence that there are impacts on women seeking an abortion from hearing or seeing protests.”
“Never again will we allow substandard care, cruelty or neglect to go unnoticed,” said Prime Minister David Cameron. “This is not about a hospital worker who makes a mistake, but specific cases where a patient has been neglected or ill-treated. This offence will make clear that neglect is unacceptable and those who do so will feel the full force of the law.”
Other new penalties include fines from hospitals that try to cover up mistakes, and the suspension or striking off of doctors and nurses who hide serious errors. Every patient will also have an allocated nurse or doctor, with names posted above their beds.
The laws are based on expert recommendations following the Mid-Staffordshire NHS trust scandal.
Much ink has been spilt in debates about human-animal hybrids. Many ethicists argue from a shared intuition of repugnance that we should not create chimeras. But what about creating hybrid organs to enhance the functioning of the human body? Do arguments about chimeras still apply?
This question is increasingly relevant with the rapid development of synthetic biology.
Using 3D printing, A British artist has produced prototypes of "frankenstein-esque hybrid organs" that could hypothetically solve a variety of serious human health problems. Agatha Haines from the Royal College of Art 3D-printed organs utilizing advantageous features of rattlesnakes, leeches, and electric eels.
Using the electrolyte cells from an electric eel, Haines created an 'organic defibrillator' (she dubbed it Electrostabilis Cardium). If this hybrid organ recognized signs of cardiac failure, it could deliver a shock of 600 volts to restart the heart.
Another organ, featuring muscles from a rattlesnake, could be implanted into patients with cystic fibrosis to release mucus from their respiratory system and dispel it through their digestive system.