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A Double Standard for Stem Cells and PGD

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 11th, 2008

ACT's Michael Lanza

This week, Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company with a reputation for exaggeration, announced improvements in their technique for isolating stem cell lines from embryos in a nondestructive manner. Setting aside the reliability of their claims, the logic behind the rejection by the National Institutes of Health for the funding of ACT's method is both revealing and perplexing.

ACT's technique, first announced in August 2006, involves removing a single cell from an embryo at a very early stage. A stem cell line can be derived from the cell, and the embryo appears to remain viable, much like preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). The NIH, though, is not convinced that the embryo is not harmed, which is the standard to receive federal funding. And the only way to find out would be to implant these embryos, which according to the head of the NIH's task force, would be unethical.

But the implantation of embryos which have had a single cell removed for genetic testing is a not uncommon technique, in PGD. The statements by the NIH's Story Landis imply that PGD itself is unethical due to its uncertain health effects. If implantation of an embryo that has undergone single-cell biopsy is unethical, why has is been occurring for almost eighteen years?

Update: Brandon Keim at the Wired Science blog spoke with Landis, and provides some clarification.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

The More Things Change...

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 10th, 2008

The leading annual public opinion survey concerning biotechnology was recently released [PDF]. I anticipated the latest Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey more than usual this year, as it was the first (and so far, only) poll conducted after the announcement that researchers had made skin cells act like embryonic stem cells. But the deeper I dug into the data, the less relevance I found. For the most part, the results are very similar to last year's. One of the few news reports on the poll was forced to grasp at straws, claiming that while overall support for embryonic stem cell research remains steady, strong support is declining. Although I agree that embryonic stem cell research is waning as a political issue, even this relatively minor change was mostly evident in last year's results.

Yet this doesn't mean that the isolation of fully potent stem cells using neither embryos nor cloning will not affect public opinion. I concur with VCU's Thomas Huff, who believes that it will take some time before the public internalizes the new possibilities: "It's still a little early to get a full impact of how the public is understanding it and how they're reacting to it."

What's more, these results concern a political issue during a presidential (and congressional) election year, and public opinion and political rhetoric operate by different mechanisms. While the former has apparently changed little so far, the landscape of the latter has significantly shifted. A vocal proponent of embryonic stem cell research, for example, would be quickly disarmed by an opponent, who would assert that embryos are no longer needed. Regardless of the scientific truth behind such a rebuttal (and we at the Center believe that embryonic stem cell research should continue and Bush's restrictions should be lifted), it's not surprising that the only presidential candidates to mention stem cells in the six weeks since the announcement of the new stem cell method are those that oppose embryonic stem cell research. There's no reason to think this dynamic will change soon.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

60 Minutes on Ancestry Testing

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 8th, 2008

In a good piece of investigative journalism, 60 Minutes' Leslie Stahl reviewed a burgeoning cottage industry: genetic ancestry testing. In addition to a striking human interest story where a white man and black woman discover that they share a common ancestor, the segment also includes interviews with Rick Kittles - Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago and one of the founders of African Ancestry Inc. - and Stanford Law Professor Henry Greely.


Click here for video.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 27th, 2007

The California stem cell agency is preparing to give its first grants to for-profit entities. But instead of lining up, many businesses are claiming they'll stay away because too many strings are attached. This may be true, or the companies may be trying to game the system in hopes of more favorable terms. In any case, it does not justify removing the obligations that come with grants of taxpayer dollars.

The purpose of public funding of research isn't simply to give money away. It's to encourage desirable actions, such as medical research, that wouldn't have occurred in the absence of the public funds. If private funding is available, then the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) or the National Institutes of Health shouldn't lower their standards and crowd out private sector support. And nor should the funding agencies broaden what they are willing to fund just to get the money out they door.

But that is a real danger with the CIRM. Although there is likely not enough current stem cell research capacity in California to warrant $300 million in grants per year, there's no effective mechanism to prevent as much money going out the door as possible, regardless of the research's quality. The CIRM's governing board is dominated by representatives of grant recipients - from the public, nonprofit, and corporate sectors alike. The agency is not required to report to the Legislature to justify further appropriations. And if the board actually restrained funding, it could potentially be interpreted by the public as not fully doing its job.

On a related note, among the executives who provided negative comments about the grants in a recent newspaper article was the CEO of StemLifeLine. That's the company that's been roundly criticized not only on this blog, but by Lord Robert Winston -  the UK's leading fertility expert - as a "clear example of exploitation of the worries of couples about the fate of their children.... There is no scientific evidence to sustain the notion that this will be a useful procedure," by David Magnus as "essentially taking advantage of people's ignorance and fears to make a buck," and by Arthur Caplan as "a gimmick and many of the claims rest on hot air." In this case, the CIRM and California taxpayers shouldn't be losing any sleep over a lost opportunity.

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