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Southern California: Ground zero for fertility clinic shenanigans

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 25th, 2009

The world's most famous octuplets (think about that) were produced by the West Coast IVF Clinic in Beverly Hills. The fertility practice that's now advertising the "coming" availability of embryo screening for "gender, eye color, hair color and complexion" is headquartered in Los Angeles.

Using the embryo screening procedure known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) for sex selection is prohibited by law in some 35 countries. Like the transfer of more than two embryos into a woman under 35, it's also discouraged by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine [PDF]. The ASRM could put a bit of force behind its voluntary guidelines - suspending the membership of violators, for example - but there's no apparent evidence of it ever doing that.

Southern California isn't the only place where some fertility practices openly flout professional guidelines, but it does seem to be a center of questionable conduct. A few minutes of web searching turned up six clinics in the LA region (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) whose sites make it clear that they happily screen embryos for social sex selection.

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23andMe Gets Into the Breast Cancer Testing Business

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie on February 23rd, 2009

Recreational genetics leader and Google-backed 23andMe has added a new service. The company is now advertising that it is able to tell its customers whether they have BRCA cancer mutations that may significantly increase their chances for developing breast and ovarian cancer.

This development is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, Myriad Genetics holds the patent to BRCA gene tests and has vigorously defended its intellectual property - often to the detriment of individual patients. It is not immediately clear how 23andMe's BRCA screening service - which is being handled by Lab Corp - steers clear of violating this patent.

Secondly, 23andMe got into hot water last year with the California Department of Public Health for offering "clinical tests" directly to consumers without a doctor's oversight. While 23andMe ultimately received a license to continue to offer these services, its move into the BRCA testing business seems to belie its previous argument that it offers personal genetics information, not medical diagnoses. It will be interesting to see if these new services bring renewed attention from the State of California.

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The Neanderthal campaign

Posted by Pete Shanks on February 19th, 2009

Neanderthal skull

Nicholas Wade of the New York Times evidently thinks it would be really cool to recreate a Neanderthal by a combination of genetic modification and cloning. He wrote about it in November, and again last week. Presumably he thinks that this process would help answer some of the questions he raised in his controversial 2006 book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, which was panned in Nature for "equating correlation with causation and extrapolating from individual traits to group characteristics" and being "laden with Western-oriented value judgements."

Now it seems that his Times colleague, columnist/blogger John Tierney has joined this bizarre campaign. "Why not bring a Neanderthal to life?" he asks. Pausing briefly to sideswipe bioethicists as conference-planning, book-publishing, donor-alarming careerists, he concludes that he "can't see the problem."

If he wanted to provoke comments, he certainly succeeded -- there are 14 pages of them. A few support the idea, some joke about it, and most criticize it as scientifically illiterate, disgusting, narcissistic, irresponsible and heartless. As one wrote:

I can't recall ever reading a column about humans more lacking in humanity.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

More cloning, but still no stem cells

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 12th, 2009

Robert Lanza (Rick Friedman for The New York Times)

In the last two months, three teams of researchers have created human clonal embryos. Before them, only the researchers at the biotech company Stemagen had reported creating a human embryo via somatic cell nuclear transfer that appeared to be viable enough to potentially yield stem cells. However, none of the groups reported taking that step, and thus the current round of reports means little for that highly-touted endeavor.

Of course, somatic cell nuclear transfer requires human eggs. The Stemagen paper described how these were obtained, a process that we felt skirted California law. In contrast, none of the three recent papers mention where or how they got eggs, or how the women who provided them were treated. Were the women paid? Were they undergoing egg extraction for reproductive purposes, or just for research? How old were they? How were they recruited?

Two of the new papers (1, 2), both from Chinese teams, simply describe their successful method of creating the clonal embryos. The paper by the group led by Robert Lanza of the struggling biotech Advanced Cell Technology goes a step further. It compares the epigenomics of clonal embryos that were created using human eggs with those created using animal eggs, the latter of which has been proposed as an alternative to the former. This work indicated that the clonal embryos created using animal eggs (i.e., "cytoplasmic hybrid embryos") may not yield useful stem cells, as their epigenetic characteristics are significantly different from those created with human eggs.  

Some may conclude that women's eggs are therefore necessary for cloning-based stem cell research. Other stem cell scientists are moving away from cloning techniques altogether. Alan Trounson, president of the California stem cell research agency, seems pessimistic about its prospects:

Working with human embryos is also impractical because the high failure rate means it takes hundreds of eggs to create a single stem cell line, said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

"Most people are working on IPS cells (stem cells derived from skin) rather than nuclear transfer because it's so difficult to get human eggs," Trounson said.

"Their work is endorsing that we could use human eggs but I don't think it helps us, to be honest, in actually being able to do it because it doesn't show that it could be improved dramatically."

Trounson said human cloning can still be important in addressing some serious genetic diseases because it would allow for the manipulation of mitochondria, which run cell function and contain DNA.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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