Biopolitical News of the Year 2012

Posted by Pete Shanks on December 20th, 2012


This was quite a year for reproductive and genetic technologies, and many of the biggest stories will certainly have sequels. Among the most significant topics were:

  • Artificial gametes and cloning
  • Inheritable genetic modification
  • Prenatal, newborn and other genetic testing
  • The fertility industry
  • Commercial surrogacy
  • Egg “donation” / egg freezing
  • Eugenics as policy
  • Forensic DNA / DNA databases
  • Stem cells: therapies and scandals
  • Synthetic biology and the bioeconomy

Artificial gametes and cloning

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, for cloning a frog and discovering how to reprogram adult cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, respectively. Scientists are still expanding on these breakthroughs.

Mitinori Saitou and colleagues in Kyoto created mice by using sperm and eggs grown from iPS cells, though supplied ovaries were also needed, at least for the time being. This sparked immediate speculation about human applications, as did an earlier Chinese technique of generating sperm. In Korea, there was a push to remove restrictions on human research cloning, and eventually reproductive cloning. Korean animal cloning also garnered free publicity via reality TV.

Inheritable genetic modification

Scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University combined sperm with the nuclear DNA from one egg and the mitochondrial DNA from another to generate blastocysts (and embryonic stem cells). If carried to term, these would be “3-parent babies” and, the scientists acknowledge, constitute human germline modification, also known as inheritable genetic modification (IGM). The team produced live monkeys using this method in 2009, and are pushing the US Food and Drug Administration to approve human clinical trials, although all human germline interventions have previously been considered off limits by scientists around the world and more than 40 countries have passed laws against it. In the UK, the HFEA has started a public consultation about allowing similar mitochondrial replacement techniques.

General advocacy of IGM was on the rise this year: various proponents advocated it as an alternative to geoengineering, a military technique, a routine application for making better children, or even a moral duty to create “designer babies.” Critical discussion of the “eugenic impulse” also broadened, while some (particularly several proponents of synthetic biology) tried perversely to reclaim it as a positive, even ethical, desire.

Prenatal, newborn and other genetic testing

The direct-to-consumer (DTC) gene testing industry attracted some new investment, and controversially began considering whole-genome sequencing, particularly for babies. The development of private databases that can be sold for research use began to draw more attention, especially since promises of anonymity seemed increasingly implausible.

Non-invasive prenatal diagnostic (NIPD) testing, which analyzes fetal DNA circulating in the mother's blood, was shown to be feasible, raising eugenic concerns and complex ethical issues. The marketing of such tests, and the ideology behind them, was questioned in detail on this blog (1, 2, 3).

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