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Gene of the Week: Will You Vote?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 14th, 2007


As the nation's media lead voters through the lengthy presidential primary season, it's reassuring to know that reporters and pundits aren't the only ones casting the outcome as inevitable, even before voting has begun. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have now identified two specific genes that appear to contribute significantly to whether one votes or not [PDF].

HT to Kevin Drum.





When You Play With Dirt, You Get Dirty

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on December 13th, 2007


Slate’s Will Saletan has backed himself into a corner by coming to the defense of James Watson – the eccentric DNA pioneer who found himself pontificating on how Blacks’ separate evolutionary patterns conferred genes to them that depresses their intellects. Like any liberal-minded person, Saletan disavows white supremacy as an idea. But when it comes to cold hard data on race and intelligence, he becomes transfixed; any true effort at egalitarianism, he believes, must engage with reality rather than ignore it. This is the basis of Saletan’s exhaustive three-part series that tries to separate the empirical question of race and intelligence (vis a vis genome sequencing and IQ tests) from the inherent racism that gives legs to this conversation.

Suffice it to say that Saletan’s foray into the “hereditarian theory of intelligence” debate has been disastrous. (Those interested in seeing his argument taken apart piece by piece can click here and here.) Saletan has been rightly attacked for the racist nature of his commentary, but less attention has been paid to a similarly troubling aspect of his rant: advocating eugenics. After reciting rather weak data correlating certain genes with intelligence and misusing data from the International HapMap Project to ostensibly show that West Africans disproportionately lack the so-called “intelligence gene," Saletan passionately argues:

“Don't tell me those Nigerian babies aren't cognitively disadvantaged. Don't tell me it isn't genetic. Don't tell me it's God's will. And in the age of genetic modification, don't tell me we can't do anything about it.”

Saletan seems to be saying that not only are Blacks genetically inferior, but that they should be genetically modified in order to keep their genomes up with the Jones’. This twisted logic – made under the guise of leveling the genetic playing field – reveals the very real danger of a 21st century eugenics, where the explicit bias and state coercion that characterized last century’s eugenics is replaced by the soft bigotry of fetishizing technology as the remedy for all social ills.

Saletan’s arguments also show how this new eugenics, like the old, is likely to prey upon disadvantaged minorities – all while claiming to help them. For example, he notes that “2.2 percent of the project's Chinese-Japanese population samples, 5 percent of its European-American samples, and 10 percent of its Nigerian samples lack the [intelligence] gene.” Yet, he only proposes subjecting Nigerian children to genetic engineering and not the Whites who, by his own logic, are also “cognitively disadvantaged” in comparison to Asians.

Funny how that works.





LA Times Calls for Proposition 71 Overhaul

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 12th, 2007


Today, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times called for the California Legislature to modify Proposition 71, which created the state's stem cell research agency:

[T]he Legislature could help by reconfiguring the governing board, making it smaller and balancing it with a strong contingent of elected officials and consumer watchdogs. Any change will take a 70% vote, usually a political impossibility. But the problems are nagging enough, and the stakes high enough, that the Legislature must overcome party divisions to create a leaner, more accountable institution.

These are powerful words. Not only is the Times the state's most widely-circulated paper, but its editorial board strongly endorsed the 2004 initiative.





Biotech Stem Cell Spin

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 12th, 2007


Spin Cycle quilt by Miriam Nathan-Roberts

Like politicians, pundits, and advocates, biotech entrepreneurs are also contemplating how to react to the recent advances in deriving stem cells from ordinary skin cells - particularly if the developments make their products less appealing. NeoStem was an already dubious company, founded by a Long Island "bagel baron," which stores adult bone marrow stem cells for a mere $7,500 fee. As with some other start ups, this one attempts to capitalize on stem cell hype.

Fortunately, some observers are not mincing words. Thomas Murray of the Hastings Center said, "The kindest thing one can say about this kind of activity is that it may not harm anyone. There is, at best, a faint prospect that it will benefit anyone except the people collecting the fees." I doubt that is reassuring to its investors, who have sunk in more than $10 million only to watch the company's stock lose 80% of its value in the last year.

The company's founder is trying to make PR lemonade out of the scientific lemons which recently made his services even less relevant: "In our opinion ... [the recent findings are] helpful in the sense that it's important to be able to move the entire stem cell field forward."

That's also the motivation behind a press release sent by Cascade Life Sciences, whose only asset appears to be a license to use new primate cloning and stem cell techniques. While those briefly seemed like a critical development, induced pluripotent stem cells (IPs) are patient-specific cells, and have already been obtained from humans without the need for eggs or cloning. Not surprisingly, Cascade's press statement tries to ride coattails by using language that brings to mind IPs instead of cloning:

Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Ph.D., and Oregon Health & Science University have made a major breakthrough in the reprogramming of primate skin cells into stem cells....

Notably, both approaches are capable of generating pluripotent embryonic stem cells without the use or need for fertilized embryos as a starting material. [italics mine]

Calling somatic cell nuclear transfer a method of reprogramming skin cells without a fertilized embryo, while technically accurate, is quite a rhetorical stretch. But the statement even attempts to recast cloning-based stem cell research, which has largely been unsuccessful after years of work, as superior to IPs:

Not only do we no longer need embryos as a starting material, the technology appears to address the issue of transplant rejection in the therapeutic setting and, moreover, does not require the use of retroviral transvection of additional DNA, such as transgenes, oncogenes, etc., to create pluripotent stem cells

Obviously, pointing out the shortcomings of a more successful competitor does not make cloning-based stem cell treatments any closer to reality.





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