Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / August 21, 2014

Health and technology in life sciences

We are seeing developments in biotechnology that seem futuristic, such as computing systems at clinical testing stages used as ‘sensitive…

We are seeing developments in biotechnology that seem futuristic, such as computing systems at clinical testing stages used as ‘sensitive interaction partners’ for the elderly that help to provide care in response to individual needs. Such developments raise a range of questions. To what extent should humans use technology to enhance life? And how can these technologies be governed to uphold social, ethical and legal standards?

Over the past 5 years, STOA has been involved in work about the health and life sciences, examining how to improve our understanding of health and disease, the state of research infrastructures in the life sciences, and the role technology can play in these areas. STOA is the Science and Technology Options Assessment body,which provides independent scientific advice to the European Parliament.

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STOA’s 2012 study, ‘Making perfect life’, focused on the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive sciences, identifying two ‘megatrends’ as these fields are brought together. On the one hand, biology is becoming technology: as scientists look at living organisms in mechanical terms, they are using engineering and technology to intervene in life. On the other, technology is becoming biology: insights from the life sciences are inspiring engineering and scientists are creating lifelike artificial objects. An example of this convergence is deep brain stimulation. Electrodes can be implanted deep in the brain to alter brain activity. This can treat the tremor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but requires surgery and can have serious physical and psychological side effects, such as infection or changes in perception.

The study recommended, first, a broader bioethics debate that went beyond the life sciences to include nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and the cognitive sciences. Second, it recommended forward-looking biopolitics, to ensure that new and changing practices were monitored and regulated.

In a workshop on 26 April 2012, entitled ‘Human Enhancement – The ethical issues’, STOA held a bioethical discussion related to biotechnology used in humans. The workshop discussed the findings of the studies on ‘Human Enhancement’ (2009) and ‘Making Perfect Life’ with representatives from major religious communities. Those present agreed that humans should not simply be seen as biological machines. But views were more diverse on the subject of how far medicine should go: from the Orthodox position that treating pain could be seen as inappropriate, to the idea that science and research were a duty in Judaism.

Alongside this work on biotechnology, STOA has focused on health issues, particularly on the future direction of research in the life sciences and the associated need for improved collaboration between scientists and policy-makers to meet healthcare challenges.

Many patients feel that the most significant impact of a mental or neurological condition is the societal stigma attached, rather than the effects of their disease. This response arose from the STOA workshop on 23 April 2013, which asked, ‘What does it mean to have a brain disorder?’. The workshop also emphasised the burden on the elderly and the lack of attention paid to children affected by brain disorders. These conclusions were reaffirmed in a letter to the editor of The Lancet Neurology in June 2013.

Digestive and liver diseases lack public and political attention. This was the reason behind a STOA workshop, ‘Research on Digestive and Liver Diseases: a Priority for Europe’, held on 18 September 2012 in collaboration with United European Gastroenterology. The conclusions were published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology in August 2013. Gastrointestinal and liver tumours make up about 30% of total EU cancer deaths. Gastrointestinal diseases are the cause of more than a third of acute hospital admissions. Co-ordination of research at a European level and sufficient funding are essential. However, action is impeded by the barriers between scientists and policy-makers, who have different mentalities and speak different languages. STOA’s work seeks to help remove these obstacles between the worlds of science and policy.


Study-related workshops

Ad hoc events

List of publications

Quaglio GL, Karapiperis T, Van Woensel L, Arnold E, McDaid D.

McDaid D, Quaglio GL, Correia de Campos A, Dario C, Van Woensel L, Karapiperis T, Reeves A.

Quaglio GL, Karapiperis T, Di Luca M, de Campos AC, Dan B.

Stockbrugger R, Quaglio GL, O’Morain C, Rubig P, Manns M.

Quaglio GL, Demotes-Mainard J, Loddenkemper R.

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