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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:

More of the Same

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie on October 24th, 2008

Last month, I posted on 23andme’s new low price for partial genome sequencing while fellow Biopolitical Times blogger Marcy Darnovsky commented on what she calls trickle down genomics: the use of celebrity spit parties and other marketing schemes featuring society’s elite that are designed to encourage the masses to take up recreational genetics.

While these developments seemed a bit quirky at the time, falling prices and celebrity endorsements are likely to be trends that are here to stay. Since these initial blog posts, Complete Genomics has announced that they will soon be able to map a person’s entire genome for $5,000 – a fraction of the current $350,000 price tag for full genome scanning.

Moreover, the trickle down approach has been taken up by the Personal Genomics Project (PGP), a new venture that the New York Times describes as “speed[ing] medical research by dispensing with the elaborate precautions traditionally taken to protect the privacy of human subjects.” The project hopes to have 100,000 volunteers make their genomes and other types of personal information publicly available – what the NYT describes as “from food preferences to television viewing habits” – to help genomic technologies become more accurate in linking genetic predispositions to social and health outcomes. Project organizers hope that by culling early volunteers from the well heeled – including commentator Esther Dyson and Harvard’s Steven Pinker – the privacy concerns connected with publicizing one’s genetic makeup will eventually seem frivolous.

Will this come to pass? And is this approach to privacy and genetics a good thing? 

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Appleyard on H+

Posted by Pete Shanks on October 22nd, 2008

How to Live Forever or Die Trying by Brian Appleyard

Brian Appleyard has also blogged about the "new" transhumanism and H+:

"In the midst of the current crisis, the idea of humans engineering paradise seems more risible than ever. (Or perhaps we can simply engineer out the gene set that created credit default swaps.)"

Appleyard is a long-time reporter for, among others, the London Sunday Times and author of many books including Brave New Worlds and How to Live Forever or Die Trying.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

H+ ≈ Humanity+ ≈ Humanity Plus ≈ WTA ≈ Extropy (etc.)

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