Mark Post, professor of Vascular Physiology, starts the evening off. He tells of his cultivated meat burger: a hamburger that is cultivated in a lab, made from stem cells from a cow. Host Eva de Valk, journalist and alumna from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, admits that she won’t be at the front of the queue to try it. “I feel a certain distaste.” The audience, which could vote via a poll, does not share that sentiment: 77 per cent would eat a cultivated meat burger.
Post gives a satisfied nod. “In 2011, we held a survey for the first time; since then, acceptance has continued to grow.” A familiar phenomenon, says Katleen Gabriels, assistant professor of Philosophy. “Human nature is not fixed. What we used to think scary, we now find normal. A good example is IVF. When the first IVF baby was born in 1978, 18 per cent of the people accepted it as ‘normal’. A couple of years later, that was already 53 per cent and now the tables have completely turned. We feel it is immoral – within certain limits such as age – to refuse IVF.”
According to Lisa Brüggen, professor of Financial Services, another factor that plays a part is that people often at first can’t imagine a new development. “There is a famous quote by car designer Henry Ford: if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’. We reason from what we know.” She advises Post that when the cultivated meat burger is on the market, to hand out free samples in the supermarket. “That will entice people to try it out. Only then will they be able to pass judgement.”
The second speaker of the evening is Rogier Veltrop, PhD candidate within research institute in the field of cardiovascular diseases CARIM and a member of the biochemical research group. In 2015, he had to undergo a heart transplant because of a life-threatening progressive genetic heart disease. After his rehabilitation, he decided to quit his research into SARS, to do the master’s of Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine at the UM, and now to do a PhD in heart cells. “When a heart patient has blood drawn at the hospital, we take certain cells from it and use them to produce stem cells. You can change a stem cell into whatever you want. In our case: heart cells. We have now managed to get these cells to beat. With these, we hope to be able to understand heart disease better. It is difficult to remove tissue from patients. You can do one, maybe even two biopsies of the heart. This way we have an unlimited number of cells to study.”
Can you cure people with this, De Valk asks? “Eventually, yes. For example, you could replace these cells – which come from the patient – by putting them back when the heart is damaged. I have to take medication to prevent my body from rejecting the new organ. That would no longer be necessary. They have already put cells back into humans in Japan and China, we are now waiting on the results of those studies.”
Of course, something like this has to be regulated. David Townend, professor of Metamedica, makes three distinctions: ownership, accessibility and risk. “The law works if it throws up sufficient barriers in order to thoroughly evaluate the risks, but to allow development to continue.” The Netherlands and the European Union are rather strict, say Post and Veltrop, but both are happy with this. Post: “I don’t want to accidentally kill someone by giving them a hamburger.” “You have to walk before you can run,” Veltrop adds. “On the other hand, there are patients who need treatment now, not tomorrow or the day after or in a year’s time. That is the balance that needs to be found.”
Townend also feels it is important that accessibility of a new technology is monitored. “If the cultivated meat burger is to be available in supermarkets, does that mean in every supermarket, everywhere in the world? These days, it is often: if you can’t pay, you don’t get to play. Take a good look at who benefits from a development. Bring the right people to the table, it must be more diverse and inclusive.”
Gabriels agrees: “Have laymen and experts from various areas come together. When the COVID-19 App was being developed, for example, ethical experts were constantly monitoring the process. They watched how privacy was being dealt with. Look at the effects of technology, how much impact is it going to have and monitor it constantly.”