Monday 9 February 2015

Young musicians muscled off iTunes by Media Giant after posting song about cartoon character

Two young brothers who wrote a song slating Peppa Pig have been ordered to take it off iTunes by the cartoon’s licensee.

Joshua and Noah Lima, aged ten and eight, wrote the track (listen here) for their rock band Magician’s Nephew.

It included the lines: ‘Peppa Pig, I’m over you. I’m in Year Four. Peppa Pig, I just don’t love you any more.’

Days later the boys got a trademark infringement letter from Entertainment One claiming its cartoon’s image had been used without permission.

The media giant, with a turnover of more than £650 million a year, said that Peppa Pig was ‘valuable property’.

The brothers, from St Albans, Herts, have since removed the track from iTunes, where it was selling for 79p, but it is still available on YouTube and on their website.

The story which originally appeared in The Herts Advertiser last Thursday has now hit national newspapers with the Mail, Telegraph and Mirror all providing coverage.

The band Magician’s Nephew derives its name from the 1955 novel by CS Lewis, the first book in the Christian allegory 'The Chronicles of Narnia', since made into a popular film series.

The boys share vocals in the band, with Joshua on lead guitar and Noah on saxophone. The other members – Zac Pile, nine, on backing vocals, Keeran Richardson, 10, on rhythm guitar and Euan Campbell, 11, on keyboards – are schoolmates.

Two older members, 16-year-old Jesse Rist and 18-year-old Matthew Rist, help out on bass and drums.Earlier this year they raised £150 for the charity Home Start St Albans, which helps needy local families.

Noah and Josh started writing their own songs about three years ago with their piano teacher Chris Saunders, who motivated them to tap into their ability.

As a result the boys have now written 17 original songs and are in the process of recording their first album due to come out end of this year.

Their band’s first single ‘Ice-cream’ was released on their You Tube channel last year.

You can follow the band’s progress on their Facebook page and Twitter feed

Let’s hope they can find the necessary support to get their songs back on iTunes and enjoy the success they deserve.

Peppa Pig Lyrics

 My friends have lost their faith
They will scream it to your face
In the playground of our school
Peppa Pig is no longer cool!

We all bought your DVDs
You were the greatest on TV
We had so much joy
You were my favourite toy!

Peppa Pig, Peppa Pig
Why aren't you funny anymore?
Peppa Pig, Peppa Pig
You made us laugh so much before...
Peppa Pig, I'm over you I'm in Year Four
Peppa Pig, I just don't love you anymore...

I don't mean to be cruel
But you're not coming with me to school
The times we shared were fine
Now we need to draw the line

I know this must be hard
And I mean no disregard
Let's go our separate ways
You and me were just a phase!

Monday 2 February 2015

Three-parent embryos for mitochondrial disease – the five big questions MPs failed to answer

Today MPs in the House of Commons voted 382-128 to make Britain the first country in the world to offer controversial ‘three-parent’ fertility treatments to families who want to avoid passing on mitochondrial diseases to their children. 

Last week forty scientists from 14 countries urged the British legislature to approve the new laws allowing mitochondrial DNA transfer.

The stance of scientists created huge pressure for MPs who risked being labelled ‘ignorant’ or uncaring for objecting. But the question is not nearly as simple as it looks on first appearance. These new regulations are dangerous. No other country has officially legalised the techniques and no one can predict what the consequences for future children will be.

The Department of Health claimed widespread public support for the measure – despite its own consultation showing a majority (62%) actually oppose the plans. In addition a ComRes poll conducted in August 2014 found that only 18% of people support a change in the law to permit the creation of three-parent children through genetic modification.

There are about 50 known mitochondrial diseases (MCDs), which are passed on in genes coded by mitochondrial (as opposed to nuclear) DNA. They range hugely in severity, but for most there is presently no cure and little other than supportive treatment (see CMF briefing paper here and previous articles on the issue here).

It is therefore understandable that scientists and affected families want research into these two related ‘three-parent embryo’ techniques (pronuclear transfer (PNT) and maternal spindle transfer (MST)), to go ahead. But there are good reasons for caution.

Here are the five big questions MPs failed to answer today.

Is it necessary?

This is not about finding a cure. It is about preventing people with MCD being born. We need first to be clear that these new technologies, even if they are eventually shown to work, will do nothing for the thousands of people already suffering from mitochondrial disease or for those who will be born with it in the future. Parents will generally not even know that they run a risk of producing an affected baby until after the birth of the first. And it is very difficult to predict the severity of the disease in a given case. There is huge variation even within affected families.

Mitochondrial disorders are also relatively rare. Perhaps 1 in 200 children are born each year with abnormal mtDNA but only 1 in 10,000 are severely affected. It was suggested in 2001 that the proposed techniques, if they work, could 'save' around ten lives each year. 

Last week however a JME article upped these numbers to 150.  I'm not in a position to seriously dispute these figures as I don't have access to the patient data on which they are based.  

Nevertheless, to jump from 10 to 150 (via 20 and 80) is quite a jump and raises serious questions about creative accounting.  How were their original estimates so off the mark, if the new estimates are supposedly more reliable?  Moreover, there is a fair bit of extrapolation involved and the validity of this depends on the distribution of people with mutant mitochondrial DNA being evenly spread throughout the UK and also the USA.

Either way we are not talking about huge numbers here. There are also already some alternative solutions available for affected couples including adoption and IVF with egg donation.

Is it safe?

This is far from established. Each technique involves experimental reproductive cloning techniques (cell nuclear transfer) and germline genetic engineering, both highly controversial and potentially very dangerous. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California has argued  in an piece titled ‘A slippery slope to germline modification’ that were the United Kingdom to grant a regulatory go-ahead, it would unilaterally cross ‘a legal and ethical line’ observed by the entire international community that ‘genetic-engineering tools’ should not be used ‘to modify gametes or early embryos and so manipulate the characteristics of future children’.

Cloning by nuclear transfer has so far proved ineffective in humans and unsafe in other mammals with a large number of cloned individuals spontaneously aborting and many others suffering from physical abnormalities or limited lifespans. Also, any changes, or unpredicted genetic problems (mutations) will be passed to future generations. In general, the more manipulation needed, the higher the severity and frequency of problems in resulting embryos and fetuses.

Prof Stuart Newman's recent article in Huffington Post is a brilliant analysis of the way scientists have pulled the wool in misrepresenting the scientific facts to a gullible public and parliament (See also  Marcy Darnovsky's excellent open letter to MPs on safety issues).

Will it work?

There are reasons to be deeply sceptical about the grandiose claims being made by scientists and patient interest groups with vested interests. This technology uses similar ‘nuclear transfer’ techniques to those used in ‘therapeutic cloning’ for embryonic stem cells (which has thus far failed to deliver) and animal-human cytoplasmic hybrids (‘cybrids’). The wild claims made about the therapeutic properties of ‘cybrids’ by the biotechnology industry, research scientists, patient interest groups and science journalists duped parliament into legalising and licensing animal human hybrid research in 2008.

Few now will remember Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s empty promises in the Guardian on 18 May that year of ‘cybrids’ offering 'a profound opportunity to save and transform millions of lives' and his commitment to this research as 'an inherently moral endeavour that can save and improve the lives of thousands and over time millions of people'. That measure was supported in a heavily whipped vote as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, now the HFE Act. But ‘cybrids’ are now a farcical footnote in history. They have not worked and investors have voted with their feet. Ironically, it was in that same Act of Parliament, that provision for this new research was also made.

In In early 2009 it was said that there was no funding for cybrids in the UK and ironically only three research licences were granted: to Dr S Minger of King’s College London (R0180), to Prof Lyle Armstrong of University of Newcastle Upon Tyne (R179) and to Dr Justin St. John of the University of Warwick (R183).

What happened? Basically zilch! Dr St John emigrated to Australia (where such work is prohibited), Lyle Armstrong eventually switched to working with iPS cells (a more fruitful ethical alternative) and Stephen Minger left academia to work for GE Healthcare (where he promotes work with hES cells for drug screening but definitely does not work with interspecies combinations). 

This is hugely relevant for the three-parent embryo debate as 223 charities, egged on by the false promises of the scientific community, wrote to the Prime Minister in 2008 to get him to reverse his decision on hybrids and not stand in the way of disease treatments. Déjà vu?

Is it ethical?

No, there are actually huge ethical issues. A large number of human eggs will be needed for the research, involving ‘harvesting’ that is both risky and invasive for women donors. How many debt-laden students or desperate infertile women will be exploited and incentivised by being offered money or free IVF treatment in return for their eggs?

Egg donation is neither straightforward nor harmless. It involves using drugs to shut down the woman’s own ovaries, then stimulating them to produce multiple follicles then surgically extracting the resulting eggs. This all has significant health and ethical implications for the donor, including health risk to the donor from powerful hormonal treatments, injections, invasive surgery, and yet it is not for her own benefit.

study at the Newcastle Fertility Centre, reported in Human Fertility, found that more than 20 eggs were collected from at least one in seven patients, that 14.5% of these women were subsequently admitted to hospital and nearly all reported symptoms consistent with ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). We do know from a recent report that just under half of 864 reported clinical incidents between 2010-2012 were due to OHSS. And: ‘Each year approximately 60 instances of severe OHSS and 150 cases of moderate OHSS are reported to the HFEA.’

How many thousands of human embryos will be destroyed? If it ever works, what issues of identity confusion will arise in children with effectively three biological parents? What does preventing those with mitochondrial disease being born say about how we value people already living with the condition? Where will this selection end? Some mitochondrial diseases are much less serious than others. Once we have judged some affected babies not worthy of being conceived, where do we draw the line, and who should draw it?

Is the debate being handled responsibly?

No. The research scientists involved have huge financial, ideological and research-based vested interests and getting the regulatory changes and research grants to continue and extend their work is dependent on them being able to sell their case to funders, the public and decision-makers. Hence their desire for attention-grabbing media headlines and heart rending (but highly extreme and unusual) human interest stories that are often selective about what facts they present.

It must be tempting for politicians to make promises of ‘miracle cures’ in years to come which no one may remember. But I suspect it is much more about media hype than real hope.

This new push is being driven as much by prestige for government, research grants for scientists and profits for biotechnology company shareholders as anything else.

Cool heads required

MPs know there is widespread public opposition to growing genetically modified (GM) crops in the UK. How much more cautious should they be about allowing GM babies to be created?

These techniques are highly experimental, unproven, known to be very unsafe (bear in mind that children’s lives will be the experiment), ineffective, costly, a waste of public money, insufficiently understood, unnecessary (only potentially helping between 10 and 150 families a year) and will require large numbers of eggs to proceed, even for just a few families.

Genuine concerns about this new mitochondrial technology have been swept aside in Britain in the headlong rush to push the scientific boundaries.

Furthermore in many countries around and the world, and by commentators from both secular and faith based scientific backgrounds, Britain is viewed as a rogue state in this area of research.

This move is both premature and ill-conceived.

Fiona Bruce MP  laid a motion opposing the approval of the regulations which cuts to the chase and encapsulates the concerns beautifully. But sadly it was rejected.

“That this House declines to approve the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015 because many of the safety tests recommended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Expert Panel have yet to be performed and peer-reviewed and their results made public; because no other country in the world has legalised the proposed techniques for ethical reasons; because major international bodies including the United States Food and Drug Administration have expressed the view that not enough preclinical work has been done to ensure that the proposals are safe; because they permit the genetic modification of human embryos and oocytes; because these regulations permit human embryos to be created only to be destroyed; because there are unanswered questions regarding the legality of the regulations at both domestic and international level; and because this House should not be asked to approve regulations of such ethical significance without a fully informed debate and before the results of the above safety tests are available for consideration.”

MPs should have kept cool heads and instead concentrated on finding real treatments and providing better support for affected individuals and their families rather than spending limited health resources on unethical, risky and highly uncertain high tech solutions that will most likely never deliver.

I hope the Lords will subject this issue to more careful scrutiny when they consider it in a few weeks' time.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Stephen Fry’s eternal prospects are not looking good but it is not too late for him yet

Stephen Fry is a 57 year old English celebrity comedian, actor, writer, presenter, and gay rights activist. 

He has 8.6 million twitter followers, a personal fortune of $30 million (£20 million) and recently ‘married’ a 27 year old man

He is also, not surprisingly, a committed atheist and an outspoken critic of Christianity, Christian ethics and the church. 

By his own admission, he doesn’t like God much at all.

In fact this week in an interview for Irish television he denounced God as ‘utterly evil, capricious and monstrous’.

The video and full text of the interview can be viewed here but given Fry’s popularity the clip has had huge interest with over 2 million views on you tube even before it was broadcast.

Fry is asked by veteran Irish TV presenter Gay Byrne what he would say to God if he died and had to confront him.

In his imaginary conversation with God, Fry says he would tell him:

‘How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’

‘ I would say: “bone cancer in children? What’s that about?” Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?’

‘Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.’

‘It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.’

Fry’s insect illustration is not original but actually borrowed from fellow atheist and celebrity naturalist David Attenborough. But what are we to make of his outburst?

Let me offer some reflections.

The problem of evil - how an all knowing, omnipotent and benevolent God can allow evil and suffering – is not new but has exercised the greatest philosophical and theological minds for centuries. During this time the number of Christians on the planet has increased astronomically suggesting that most do not see it as an insuperable barrier to faith.

Attempted answers to the problem are called theodicies. I’ve tackled it before on these pages giving some of the major arguments – namely that we live in a fallen world, that God has given men and angels free will and that the mystery of suffering needs to be understood through the eyes of faith and in the light of the future. 

Fry’s argument is that certain kinds of evil – for example cancer and parasites in children – are not the consequence of direct human action and that therefore God must have caused them. If God exists, he ought to intervene either to prevent them or cure them. In fact Fry goes further than this to suggest that God ‘could easily have made a creation in which (they) didn’t exist’ and is therefore personally responsible for evil and suffering.

But in so doing he makes at least three incorrect assumptions.

First, Fry appears to assume that God created the universe with evil and suffering already in it. But the Bible teaches, and Christians believe, no such thing. God created the universe without evil and suffering, but also gave both angels and human beings free will either to accept or reject him. Many angels under the leadership of Satan, and all human beings, chose to rebel. As a consequence of this unilateral breaking of relationships the whole world changed and both evil and suffering entered it.

Whether it is human suffering as a result of natural disasters, wars, broken relationships, injuries or disease, all is a consequence of this cosmic rebellion. As the apostle Paul puts it – the whole creation is ‘in bondage to corruption’ and has been ‘groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now’. (Romans 8:19-22). God remains sovereign and uses suffering to achieve greater good – CS Lewis has called it his megaphone to rouse a deaf world – but he did not introduce the evil that led to it.

Second, Fry seems to assume that he is in a position to judge which suffering has been caused by God, and which suffering could be eradicated by him without destroying the human and angelic agents responsible for it. In fact none of us are in a position to know the answer to either of these questions. These are mysteries that are unfathomable for us as mere human beings.

When the biblical character Job loses his property, children and health as a result of hostile human interventions and seemingly natural disasters, and demands an explanation from God, he receives no answers. God simply asks him four chapters worth of unanswerable questions. God’s reasons are beyond Job’s ability to understand. He is instead expected to trust God on the basis of what he knows of his character, and to understand that all will be put right in time, either before or after Job’s death.

Again the apostle Paul: ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us… for we know that for those how love God all things work together for good’ (Romans 8:18, 28). And again, ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’. (1 Corinthians 2:9). God is going to put all things right and create a ‘new heaven and new earth’ where there shall be no death, no mourning, no crying nor pain (Revelation 21:1-4). 

Fry, judging by this video he recorded for the Humanist Association, also seems to assume that this life is all there is; and that Christians believe in a disembodied - as opposed to an embodied - existence in eternity. Both these beliefs run directly counter to the teaching, and indeed the bodily resurrection, of Jesus Christ. I'm afraid that I'm with Jesus here. 

Third, Fry seems not to understand why God doesn’t bring this intervention now. But the apostle Peter is very clear that ‘the Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9). Given that God’s promises are only for those who love him, and not for those who have chosen to persist in rebellion, his final intervention will mean only judgement and banishment for rebels. This is because evil and suffering cannot be eradicated without removing the angels and human beings who are personally responsible for it.

The story of the Bible is one of God working out a rescue plan, initially through his dealings with the Jewish people and finally through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in order to save human beings from judgement and restore them to a trusting and loving relationship with himself. As Paul made clear, God has overlooked ‘times of ignorance’ but ‘now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:30-31).

The apostle John summed this up in what is the best known verse in the Bible, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). But he then goes on to say in the very next verse, 'Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe in him is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.'

So in answer to Fry, God created the world without evil and suffering. These entered the world as a result of angelic and human rebellion. God has organised a rescue plan both to eradicate them and to rescue any human beings who respond in repentance (turning from their rebellion) and faith (trusting obedience). He has prepared a new world for them where everything will be perfect. He has made this possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who paid the price for our rebellion on our behalf (1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:3,4).

Christians are reformed rebels, who have responded to God’s command to repent and believe and as a result have received forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Now they await with great anticipation the new world that is coming. As a result they love God and are doing what they can to encourage others to follow suit.

Fry by his own admission does not love God. He is rather an unreformed rebel who has thus far refused to repent and believe. He may, like Job, have questions for God. Which of us doesn’t? But he should be careful making judgements when he is not in possession of all the facts. On the day of judgement it will not actually be Fry who is asking the questions, or making the judgement calls. He will be flat on his face before the creator of the universe, like the rest of us. He should therefore take more care in what he says and does.

We see the patience and mercy of God in the very fact that he allows the world to go on – with all its attendant evil and suffering – with unrepentant rebels like Fry (and the devil himself) still in it. Fry, like all unbelievers, still has an opportunity to turn, but the offer will not be there for ever.

As an actor Fry will understand that when an actor dies the play is over for them. Likewise Fry’s chance of redemption will end with his death, or Christ’s return, whichever comes sooner. And if he doesn’t take it, but persists in his rebellion, then he will be overthrown, completely, utterly and finally. 

It won’t be pleasant.

It may be too late for many but it’s not too late yet for Stephen Fry. Yes God is really that gracious and merciful.

I wonder what he will do? 

At this very moment his prospects don’t look good – but then every Christian will testify that theirs didn’t look good either, before they repented and believed.