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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:

Will the UN revisit cloning?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 29th, 2008

An ethics panel affiliated with the United Nations is currently examining whether the UN's nonbinding statement against human cloning [PDF] remains adequate. Today is the second part of a two-day meeting in Paris of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As in most debates around human cloning, what's at stake is what to do with cloning-based stem cell research (a.k.a. therapeutic cloning or SCNT) while trying to prohibit reproductive cloning.

Back in 2002, France and Germany launched an effort towards an international prohibition against reproductive cloning. Even though both nations ban cloning-based stem cell research domestically, their proposal remained silent on that practice in order to garner broad support. Within a couple years, however, the process reached stalemate due to the intervention of the United States, whose conservative Bush administration countered with a ban on all cloning. An unsatisfying and vague nonbinding compromise was passed in 2005, that called on nations "to prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life." This statement, which passed with only a plurality, could be interpreted as either endorsing or rejecting cloning-based stem cell research.

In subsequent years, two key circumstances have changed. First, new methods of cellular reprogramming are quickly achieving the goals of cloning-based stem cell research, which itself has seen little progress. Second, a new US presidential administration will take office in January, with the safe bet on Barack Obama. His position on cloning-based stem cell research remains unstated, but his desire for greater international cooperation is clear.

How are these changes playing out in Paris? According to a press release, the IBC is leaning towards a binding international prohibition on reproductive cloning, and a requirement for consistent and effective regulation of cloning-based stem cell research where it is permitted. If such an agreement can be achieved, it would be a welcome development.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

UK Grants All the Scientists' Wishes

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 29th, 2008

After two years of wrangling and reports, the bill to overhaul the United Kingdom's oversight of assisted reproduction and embryo research has finally passed. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008 [PDF bill, and final amendments] grants researchers essentially all that they asked for, and then some. 

One green light is for the high-profile issue of using animal eggs in human cloning-based stem cell research, a process that creates "cytoplasmic hybrids." Researchers will also be permitted to fertilize a human egg with animal sperm or vice-versa, forming "true hybrids," despite the fact that no one has produced a reason to actually do this.  And thanks to a last-minute amendment, stem cell scientists will also be able to create clonal embryos from tissues of people - including the dead - who did not give their explicit consent for this procedure. 

Perhaps most importantly, the revised Act now explicitly permits the genetic modification of human embryos for research, under license (although these were permitted under an ad hoc license last year. Correction, Nov. 6: So such license has been issued.)

For more information, see the background research of David King of Human Genetics Alert (1, 2 [PDF], 3 [PDF], 4 [PDF])

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Another November, Another Stem Cell Ballot Measure

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 28th, 2008

For the fourth time in five years, there's an embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) initiative on a state ballot. Michigan's proposal, unlike California's $3 billion and 13,000 word behemoth, is modest. "Proposal 2" would merely remove the state's ban on the derivation of embryonic stem cell lines. It would not commit any public funds and would maintain the state's prohibition on cloning-based stem cell research. Michigan's current policy is among the nation's most restrictive, and is out of line with its socially moderate-to-liberal population. Unlike past state measures, this one clearly warrants passage. But unfortunately, once again, both sides are engaging in dangerous hyperbole.

The backers of Proposal 2 include the typical coalition of biotech, patients and families, pro-choice, and economic development groups. They pull the heartstrings with personal stories of people with diseases that may be treated. (See, for example, the press release titled "Paralyzed 19-year-old asks voters to back Prop 2.") But the actual use of potential embryonic stem cell therapies is currently legal in the state, as is research using cell lines derived elsewhere. Thus, the claims that removing the state's restrictions via Proposal 2 would make treatments much closer and greatly reduce health care costs [PDF] - especially for residents of Michigan - is tenuous. Furthermore, Proposal 2 is unlikely to boost the state's beleaguered economy. It's unlikely to pave the way for a significant influx of biotechnology jobs, as human embryonic stem cell research remains a tiny fraction of the biotech sector, which in turn is concentrated on the coasts.

Proposal 2's opponents are limited to supporters of the moral status of embryo, and are largely religious. They start with a good argument, but citing a passage in the proposal Proposal 2 that would prevent future state policies from infringing upon beneficial ESCR. But its other clauses, particularly those which cite the primacy of federal law and the current prohibition on cloning, would prevent potential abuses.

But a recent move by these opponents, who oppose stem cell research that destroys human embryos, is unacceptable. A new advertisement compares ESCR to the notorious Tuskegee study, in which poor black men with syphilis were observed for years without treatment. Not only is this offensive, but it is unwise. Such extreme posturing will not win the undecided middle, and will likely alienate its members.

The most recent public opinion poll favors Proposal 2, but is within the margin of error.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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