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RIP: Stem Cells in Politics (2002-2008)

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 5th, 2008

The stem cell research initiative in Michigan passed yesterday by a 52 to 48 margin. Like 2006's initiative in Missouri, which passed with a similar percentage, its policy impact is much less than its proponents stated. Conducting research using embryonic stem cell lines has been permitted in Michigan all along. Now the state's scientists can derive lines themselves, which was previously prohibited.

This reality plays out in two contrasting quotes. The head of University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology, Sean Morrison, said of the result, "We expect in the short-term millions of new dollars of grants to come from the federal government and private foundations to support the expanded research." In contrast, business columnist Nathan Bomey says supporters "are certain to be confronted soon with the stark reality of Michigan's crumbling state budget and bleak economic situation. Sure, embryonic stem cell research is now legal, but who will fund it? Not the state."

Despite Morrison's claims, there will be no increased federal funding due to the passage of Michigan's stem cell proposal. Even when President-elect Obama removes the Bush restrictions, federal funds will be available only to work with embryonic stem cell lines, not to create new ones. Grants for the latter are restricted by the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which would be left in place by both the repeatedly-vetoed stem cell bill and Obama's platform.

But the real message from this election cycle is the end of embryonic stem cell research as a relevant political issue. It was huge in 2004, present but marginal in 2006, and seemed comatose with the 2007's failure of New Jersey's stem cell funding initiative. In this cycle, the topic made barely a peep.

Hopefully now work can proceed in concert with a level-headed conversation about the true potential of stem cell research and the real challenges posed by human reproductive and genetic biotechnologies.

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All the President’s Genes?

Posted by Pete Shanks on November 5th, 2008

The election of the 44th President of the United States is clearly an important moment in the evolution of the nation's attitude to skin color. However, just as we begin to discount the importance of certain superficial aspects of phenotype in the selection of candidates, some are proposing that we begin to judge them by genotype – even though we are a long way from being able to interpret "the possibilities revealed in their genes" with any confidence at all.

The Wall Street Journal recently examined the prospect of using personal genomics to evaluate the potential abilities of politicians. The Personal Genome Project’s George Church - who believes that in the age of genomic sequencing, the notion of privacy is something we should leave behind - claims: "It is not like we are collecting horoscope data or tea-leaf data. These are real facts, just as real as bank accounts and the influence of political action committees or family members."

But the interpretation of facts is far more critical than the facts themselves. Heck, even the arrangement of tea leaves is not exactly factual! What any particular collection of alleles mean is a very difficult question – so difficult that the Departments of Health in California and New York have complained about direct-to-consumer genetic tests precisely because consumers do not have the expertise needed to evaluate the data.

So how would we ever interpret a candidate’s gene scan? More than that, how would we make political judgments even if the genomic facts were more or less clear? President Lincoln may have had "the genetic condition Marfan Syndrome," which could perhaps have been predicted from a genome scan. Would we have been better off disqualifying him? Would the nation even exist if we had?

Certain medical conditions are important for the public to know – but even then, the case of FDR muddies the matter, does it not? Balancing the possibilities revealed by genomics – and statistical possibilities are all we are apt to find – is unlikely to be the best way to select a President. What is the gene for temperament? What is the gene for intelligence? There isn't such a “fact,” we all know that.

And sometimes what the genomic data suggest is just flat wrong. The same Wall Street Journal article cites an anemic woman who was surprised to discover that "she carried a gene for hemochromatosis, in which abnormally high levels of iron build up in the blood." Who you going to believe - the DNA print-out or your lying blood?

Too bad the newly minted Genetic Non-Discrimination Act doesn’t apply to voting.

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The Race Card in Michigan

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on November 3rd, 2008

From Willie Horton to Jeremiah Wright, the race card in political campaigns is as American as apple pie.  But some folks over in Michigan are taking this to new and indeed remarkable heights. As previously discussed on Biopolitical Times, Michigan’s Proposal 2 attempts to change the state constitution to permit the donation of leftover embryos from fertility treatments to scientific research.

Opponents of Proposal 2 tend to view embryos as an early form of human life and therefore see embryonic stem cell research as unethical human experimentation. To bolster their moral claim regarding the use of vulnerable subjects in scientific research, they are now comparing embryonic stem cell research to the Tuskegee experiment:

Update (Nov. 21): The video has been removed.

As my good friend Phil Leotardo would say, “apples and bowling balls, my friend.” There are certainly legitimate ethical concerns about the destruction of human embryos for research purposes. Even James Thomson, one of the leading pioneers in human embryonic stem cell research, told the New York Times “if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.” But, at the same time, there are also legitimate ethical reasons to allow this research to go forward.

It is difficult to see how the ethical tensions around human embryonic stem cell research are comparable to the universal consensus that it is morally abhorrent to exploit poor Southern Blacks by leaving them untreated with syphilis to simply observe how they die. Opponents of Proposal 2 certainly have a right to follow their own moral and ethical compasses. What’s less clear, however, is the ethics of using another group’s brutal oppression to promote their own political cause.

Synthetic Biology Debate

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 30th, 2008

The ETC Group's Jim Thomas is a key figure in the campaign to alert the public and civil society to the perils of synthetic biology, and lead author of Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology. On November 17 in San Francisco, he'll confront pioneering synbio practitioner and "open source biotechnology" proponent Drew Endy. The debate is sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, a private organization founded by a group of techno-enthusiastic deep-thinkers.

Not sure what synthetic biology really is? You're not alone. A recent poll by the Woodrow Wilson Center found that nearly nine in ten Americans say they know little or nothing at all about it. But when it was explained to them in focus groups, most said the risks outweigh the benefits.

The short definition of synthetic biology: building artificial life forms from scratch. The short version of the problem: "Genetic engineering on steroids" - with no societal debate or regulatory oversight. For lots more, check out the ETC Group website.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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