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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.

A Science Debate?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 24th, 2007

A group of science advocates are circulating a public statement calling for a presidential candidate debate on science and technology. Considering that one of the serious contenders for the leader of the world's most powerful nation does not believe in evolution, I share their desire that the next president not only understands but actually agrees with basic scientific tenets. But the framing of the issue thus far does not make me optimistic that the right questions would be asked.

Much of the emergent "pro-science" political movement seems to mistake differing beliefs for bad science. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, disbelievers in evolution, and backers of Terry Schiavo's life support generally reached their positions through deeply-held - and often religious - worldviews, not by relying on faulty data or poorly-designed experiments. Granted, once in this position, these believers often highlighted distorted pseudo-science, such as David Prentice's list of the dozens of cures from adult stem cells. The real substance of the disagreements are ethical, philosophical, or religious. The question that is often implied by science advocates - Are you for or against science? - is not only ridiculous, but it misses the point. The unfortunate result of this approach is the casting of science as a polarized, all-or-nothing issue.

Regardless, a debate on science and technology policy would be a welcome development. From a political perspective, it would put candidates who rely on a reactionary base in a difficult position. And from a policy perspective, questions about the appropriate oversight of science are deeply relevant. For example, would the candidates support the return of the Office of Technology Assessment? How would they consider the precautionary principle in the face of powerful new and untested technologies? Do the candidates agree with a current senator, "that science ought to be unfettered?" Or do some research methods and technological applications, due to potentials for the exploitation of vulnerable groups or large-scale unforeseeable consequences, warrant effective societal oversight?

Unfortunately, when science is framed in such a partisan manner, these questions are likely to go unasked.


Yamanaka: Non-scientists Should Oversee Stem Cell Research

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 17th, 2007

In a new interview [subscription required], Shinya Yamanaka - probably the leading researcher in the reprogramming of somatic cells for pluripotency - touched on the need for oversight of stem cell research. Perhaps most importantly, he emphasized that non-scientists need to take the lead in deciding what's acceptable:

Q: Who do you think should be responsible for deciding what is ethically acceptable?

These are very difficult decisions, and I think that society should make them. It should not be scientists. They can find it difficult to think like the person on the street, and instead may see it simply as a good opportunity. We scientists can be involved in the decision-making process, but I think unless society is comfortable with the therapy it should not go ahead.
He claimed that the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells produced from cell reprogramming are less problematic than those from embryos, but not entirely free from concern:
I'm not sure whether we should try to make eggs from male iPS cells and vice versa. In theory, two men could use this technology to have a baby, because you could take skin cells and use them to make an egg.
He's previously noted that somatic cell reprogramming could be used to derive egg and sperm from the same person, which could then be fused. Note that the result would not be a clone. The person's genes are re-sorted during the formation of the gametes. So, for example, if the original individual is heterozygous for a particular gene, the offspring could be heterozygous, dominant homozygous, or recessive homozygous.

Finally, Yamanaka is relatively optimistic that somatic cell reprogramming will allow stem cell scientists to leave cloning behind them:
There is still the problem with retroviruses to overcome. If we cannot do this then there will still be a need for cloning. However, I think it will be possible.

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