Hunger strikers

We just got the news that Norwegian mass murderer and terrorist Anders Breivik has gone on hunger strike. One of his demands is a Playstation 3, also he demands a greater weekly allowance. Of course these are silly demands, but it’s interesting to reflect on we should deal with hunger strikers.

In many, if not most, countries authorities often resort to force-feeding in order to end the hunger strike. Or they do some concessions. We however believe that authorities should do neither of these actions.

Every person should have the right to protest in such manner he wish, as long he does not harm others by doing so. Authorities should only consider rational arguments, however, and if demonstrators have such arguments, that should be the basis of negotiations. Those demonstrators who lack such rational arguments, no engagement should be undertaken.

If a person with irrational and unacceptable demands would go on hunger strike, we should leave him alone, even if this would lead to his death. If aspirant-hunger strikers know that they’ll most likely die, many of them will not pursue such action. Besides if a person with full understanding of the risks of his actions, willingly decides to go on hunger strike, he should accept that risk.

A ghost heart?

Yesterday we discussed the idea of 3D-printed organs. Though that technology is developing fast, it’s still far from any practical applications. Another solution for the shortage of organs, would be xenotransplantation. However that approach has it’s own differences, namely the risk of (hyperacute) rejection. Genetically engineered pigs have been studied as a solution of this problem, but this only counters hyperacute rejection. A third option is to combine xenotransplantation with tissue engineering. In this process a pig organs is decellurized so that only the structure of that organ is left. Subsequently tissue from a patient are placed on this structure, and with as final result an organ which will not rejected by the recipient’s body.

TED Blog

Here’s a treat for Valentine’s Day (in addition to this playlist of TED Talks about love): Below, take a close-up look at a decellularized “ghost heart.” This heart can serve as a scaffold upon which to grow a working heart from human stem cells. Researchers at the Texas Heart Institute created it by stripping all the living cells from a pig heart with a soap solution, which bursts the cells and leaves only the protein structure behind. These scientists have successfully implanted tissue-engineered hearts into rats and pigs so far. They hope ultimately to create personalized human hearts and help relieve the shortage of donor organs. 

Behold, the "ghost heart." Image: Courtesy of RMR Labs, Texas Heart Institute Behold, the “ghost heart.” Image: Courtesy of RMR Labs, Texas Heart Institute

Read much more in the new TED Book Super Cells: Building With Biology, by Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim. It’s available for the Kindle, Nook, and through the

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Transdermal patches for a rational voluntary death?

James Park is one of our favourite contemporary philosophers, and like us he is a proponent of the right of people to decide on their own death. However, Park is seriously concerned about what he calls irrational suicide, that is people making an end to their life for futile reasons such losing a job or being rejected by their love, but if they had not chosen to die they would be able to recover from these setbacks and be able to live a happy life.

The problem, according to Park, is that most methods for voluntary death only require one decision: yes or no. And once the decision to commit suicide, a point of no return has been passed. It would be better in his opinion if people who want to die should use a method which would require multiple decisions. This would force people to consider whether their original desire for a voluntary death is actually what they want.

Park therefore proposes voluntary death by dehydration as a method for a rational voluntary death, i.e. the refusal of drinking water by a person with the intent of ending one’s life. Because death in this fashion is not instantaneous and require a period of at least several days, during which the person has to consistently to refuse water, this method precludes its use in an impulse suicide.

He then puts forward several arguments in favour of this method. First this method does not depend on doctors, and that it could be used by everyone. Also he states that no change of law is required, but this depends on the jurisdiction where one lives and in many countries doctors will put you on intensive care if you has lost your consciousness (but not yet your life) in this way.

But most important is his claim that this method is relatively painless. But this claim is highly questionable, and evidence suggests that voluntary dehydration does cause great suffering. But given that most people will agree with Park’s concern about irrational suicide, could we design a humane but slow method of voluntary death?

I think the answer might be found in transdermal patches. Unlike pills or potions, transdermal patches are designed to administer low doses of a drug to the body over a longer period of time. A well-known example of such devices are nicotine patches, but another example are contraceptive patches and there are several other applications.

What properties should the drug used in this type of transdermal patch have? First, the drug should be able to permeate through the skin into the blood stream. Second, the drug should have a long biological half-life, i.e. the rate in which the body removes this drug should be lower than the rate in which it is administered and hence enables a build-up of the drug in the body. Third, the drug should have a high lethal dose. This means that a large amount of drug should be present in the body before death will occur, this will prolong the time between the attachment of the patch and ultimate death.

A fourth but very important property would be that until the lethal threshold level is reached, the drug should have no or only minimal side effects. And as fifth and final property, is that if the patch is removed before the point of no return, total recovery is possible.

These properties together will ensure that the use of transdermal patches as a method for voluntary death, will not lead to irrational suicides.

In order to guarantee a responsible distribution of these patches, we propose that these devices will only be available through a thanatologist (a medical profession proposed by A. C. Grayling, specialized in euthanasia in order to free other medical personal from this practice). People should be certain that patches provided by licensed thanatologists are save and reliable. An additional benefit is that when a person requests a patch, the thanatologist can have a conversation with this person on why one wants put an end to his or her life, and whether this is the only solution.