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"Racial alchemy" - for real?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 26th, 2009

On the heels of the explosive and fascinating saga of the IVF octuplets, Los Angeles has produced another controversial development in assisted reproductive technologies. And it is adding more fuel to the fire of calls for oversight.

Discussions of embryo screening  have often included references to, "What's next  -  eye and skin color?" Until now, such hypothesizing seemed distant. But the Wall Street Journal recently reported on advertisements from the Fertility Institutes of L.A., which tell parents that they will soon be able to select their future child’s "gender, eye color, hair color, and more."

What’s particularly striking is that the "more" referenced by the Fertility Institutes, led by Jeffrey Steinberg, includes selecting "complexion." While the Journal article notes that this is not presently available for "other ethnicities such as Asians or Africans because key pigmentation markers for those groups haven't yet been identified," the writing is on wall. In fact, such research is actively ongoing.

While I generally avoid the phrase, this is clearly another step down the proverbial slippery slope. PGD can be a critical tool in avoiding  the births of children with  serious disease, but these new applications are about breeding babies that suit aesthetic preferences based upon social prejudices. My colleague Osagie Obasogie brought up these points in a 2007 article in the New Scientist, "Racial Alchemy." And another fellow BP blogger, Marcy Darnovsky, captured the hazards well in the WSJ article: "If we're going to produce children who are claimed to be superior because of their particular genes, we risk introducing new sources of discrimination."

One of the prospective parents in an early use of PGD wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed put it differently: "Abusing that hard-won knowledge to capriciously choose hair color, eye color and other cosmetic traits in a baby is wrong and repugnant."

Profiting from social prejudice is not new. Here's an ad from India for a skin lightening cream:

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:

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