Researchers initiate cross-disciplinary bioethics symposium at IMBA

April 06, 2017

Inquisitiveness, academic freedom, and a pioneer spirit are what drive many scientists to answer previously unsolved questions, collect new findings, and sometimes even open up completely new fields of research. These fields include the first human brain organoid and the CRISPR/Cas9 “gene shears”, both developed in Vienna. Each has enormous potential for modern medicine. But biotechnological innovations lead to any number of questions and pose new challenges for our society.

Jürgen Knoblich and Christiane Druml at the Bioethics Symposium at IMBA. (c)IMBA/pov

Discussing societal aspects of bioscience
On 5 April 2017 at the bioethics symposium at the IMBA, the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, attendees discussed current bioethics issues such as the status quo in Austria and the EU, data sharing and biobanking, and fundamental questions in stem cell research.  Theological and sociopolitical aspects of the biosciences were also addressed and analyzed at the event, with scientists and members of the general public in attendance.

An invitation to cross-disciplinary dialog from organoid pioneer Knoblich
“Every researcher will be confronted more and more with ethical aspects of the biosciences. Especially when we work with “sensitive material”, i.e. human cell cultures, we as researchers have an enormous responsibility to society. It is important to recognize the values and concerns of society and to take critical voices seriously, so that we can make a positive contribution to defining the conditions for dealing responsibly with new technologies,” said Jürgen Knoblich, deputy scientific director of the IMBA and initiator of the bioethics symposium.

In 2013, Knoblich made headlines around the world with a model brain bred from stem cells. The so-called “brain organoids” have tremendous potential for research and modern medicine.  They allow complex processes of organ development and the onset of diseases to be studied directly in human tissue, and new substances and active ingredients to be tested far more quickly on human material. Recently he worked with Dutch parliamentarian Annelien Bredenoord and renowned stem cell researcher Hans Clevers to draft a first ethical guideline for organoids.

Current ethical challenges as seen in various disciplines
In her opening speech, Christiane Druml, chair of the Austrian Bioethics Commission and head of the UNESCO institute for bioethics at the Medical University of Vienna, gave a profound overview of the structures and contents of bioethics in Austria. She also welcomed the active engagement of the researchers for an open societal dialog.

In her fascinating talk, Sara Boers, physician and ethicist at the University of Utrecht, addressed ethical challenges of the emergent organoid technology, including patient concerns. The renowned “Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute” in Cambridge, which played a key role in the human genome project, was represented by ethical compliance specialist Carol Smee. She shared important insights on the regulatory mechanisms of iPS (induced pluripotent) stem cells practiced in the UK, and showed successful examples of public participation in research projects. Erich Griessler, expert for technoscience and societal transformation at the IHS (Institute of Higher Studies), presented current concepts and challenges in the field of “responsible research and innovation” (RRI).  Political scientist Johannes Starkbaum addressed current issues in the storage and handling of biosamples in so-called “biobanks”. He explained how genetic privacy and information to donors could influence the regulation of biobanks. Ulrich Körtner, theologian and ethicist, addressed the key question of how theological aspects can be incorporated into broad ethical and political discourse in a secular society.

Following the talks, Körtner participated in a panel discussion with Jürgen Knoblich, child neurologist and psychiatrist Martha Feucht, sociologist Eric Griessler, and science fiction author Marc Elsberg, whose current bestseller “Helix” points out possible social implications of new technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9.  One of the topics of debate was the general attitude of the public towards technological innovations, and how hopes and fears influence these attitudes. Physician Martha Feucht pointed out that children can benefit from new technologies such as organoids because they allow new treatments and medicines that can alleviate the suffering of children with severe neurological disorders such as epilepsy to be developed more quickly. 

Press photos:

About IMBA:
The IMBA – Institute of Molecular Biotechnology is one of the leading biomedical research institutes in Europe. It focuses on medically relevant issues in the fields of stem cell biology, RNA biology, molecular disease models, and genetics. The institute is located at the Vienna Biocenter, a dynamic conglomerate of universities, academic research, and biotechnology companies. The IMBA is a subsidiary of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the leading non-university research facility in Austria.

For questions, please contact:
Mag. Ines Méhu-Blantar
IMBA Communication
Dr. Bohr-Gasse 3, 1030 Vienna, Austria
Tel.: +43 664 808 47 3628

The Vienna Biocenter in the third district of Vienna has established itself as the premier location for life sciences in Central Europe and is a world-leading international bio-medical research center.


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