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Bioethics for Profit?

Posted by Pete Shanks on October 14th, 2008

Dollars & Rod of Asclepius

Glenn McGee "has turned his Bioethics Education Network LLC [BENE] into a for-profit operation." Is there a significant difference between "behaving more and more like for-profit companies" and actually being one?

BENE is based electronically at, which says it is the "home to the bioethics education network and home to the editorial offices of, The American Journal of Bioethics [AJOB],, and the largest collection of bioethics video in the world." (The suffix ".org" generally implies non-commercial use but that is not mandatory.)

AJOB is published by Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Health Sciences (T&F), itself a subsidiary of Informa PLC. The current AJOB front page copyright notice, which is out of date (it refers to 2005 and one of McGee's former employers), assigns the copyright to "Taylor & Francis Group & bioethics education network."

T&F is a huge business, to which AJOB is presumably unimportant. But AJOB is certainly important to McGee, in whose name the "" and "" domains are registered, and who left his last position under questionable circumstances earlier this year. A cursory web search suggests that BENE itself had turnover of less than $10,000 in Fiscal 2007, but McGee told the local Business Review that he was "trying to build what will become at least a $500,000 business in Albany" and that it might become so big he would have to move to New York City. Presumably this turnover would essentially be from AJOB, though the report is not absolutely clear and he talks of "developing a research division."

McGee has a history of strong statements about practical ethics, and indeed complained that Advanced Cell Technology was "protecting their intellectual property interest rather than the public interest" after he resigned from their Ethics Board. "Under AJOB's policy," he has said, "editorial conflicts of interest as well as peer reviewer conflicts of interest, including mandatory disclosure of all sources of income by all members of the editorial staff, are regularly subject to review."

The question now becomes: disclosure to whom, for review by whom, and how and why?

Does anyone else think that there is something strange about an explicitly for-profit bioethics operation, especially one that is so closely linked to a prominent journal? Could a push for profits lead to slanted publications? Would it increase the likelihood of conflicts of interest? Or at least of the appearance of conflicts of interest?

"Bioethic$" has been criticized before for close ties to industry. (PENN Medicine, which includes the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics where McGee once ran AJOB, describes itself unblushingly as "a $2.7 billion enterprise.") This is particularly important since one of the driving forces for the development of bioethics over the last generation has been the clearly perceived need for a check against potential abuses in medical research, precisely because it can lead to highly profitable enterprises.

Compensation in itself is normal, whether in cash or (for interns) in experience. But at what point does profitability become a problem? Is McGee crossing an ethical line here?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Bringing in the Heavy Artillery

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on October 10th, 2008

In the midst of heated campaigns regarding a Michigan state ballot measure on whether the state should allow researchers to derive embryonic stem cells from leftover IVF embryos, PhRMA seems to have entered the fray. The lobbying organization released a report late last month noting, “America’s pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies – including several located in Michigan – are testing a record 633 new biotech medicines.”

Even though PhRMA has not made a habit out of taking positions on past state stem cell initiatives and has generally kept a distance from hESCR, it seems like they are trying to tip the scales in Michigan. Not only did PhRMA choose Detroit as the place to release the report, but they also made sure to include multiple Michigan specific quotes and references in the press release to frame biotechnology as a medical and possibly economic boon for the state.

On top of this, the Associate Press reports that former president Bill Clinton is scheduled to appear at a Michigan fundraiser to support Proposal 2. It will be interesting if these influential figures – and the dollars that follow them – will have an effect in November.

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How Many Embryos Are Left Over?

Posted by Pete Shanks on October 8th, 2008

Embryo freezing

The Los Angeles Times series on frozen embryos (discussed yesterday) says that "almost 500,000" embryos are in freezers. That's consistent with a 2003 RAND study, which estimated "nearly 400,000." But how many become available each year?

No one seems to know. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) do not publish data on embryo creation or disposal. Still, we can use the data available to suggest very roughly how many potentially viable unused embryos are either stored or destroyed each year in the course of fertility treatment.


  1. Only eggs from women under 35 are considered (for quality reasons).
  2. Fifteen eggs are generated in a successful cycle (the middle of this range).
  3. Half the recovered eggs are fertilized (a guess).


  1. 41,302 women under 35 underwent a cycle of hormone treatment in the U.S in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available.
  2. 92% had eggs successfully retrieved = 37,998 women.
  3. An average of 2.4 embryos were transferred per woman under 35.


284,985 embryos were created, and 91,195 transferred. Thus a gross total of 193,790 embryos were left over. But far fewer are available.

A full 63% of the women who started cycles in 2005 did not achieve a successful live birth, so the RAND estimate that 88.2% were reserved for "future family building" seems plausible. Indeed, if we accept their conclusion that only 2.8% of frozen embryos are actually available for research, the annual number would be only 5,426.

This is absolutely a back-of-the-envelope calculation. A conscious effort to encourage donation might raise it, as would higher egg retrieval and fertilization rates. But it's hard to see more than 20,000 a year being available nationally.

Of course, when Harvard cannot find ten in two years, even 5,000 sounds like a large number.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Leftover embryo quandaries

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 7th, 2008

A set of three articles in Monday’s Los Angeles Times discusses the often difficult dilemma faced by people who have frozen embryos that they don’t want to use for their own reproductive purposes. Their options: discard them; give them to someone else who wants to try an IVF pregnancy; or donate them for research, usually to derive stem cells.

Though these decisions are of course deeply personal, they are also – especially in the U.S. – intensely political. Typically, the hot button that's implicated is abortion rights. But there are other issues involved as well, and these non-abortion matters often go unnoticed.

The LA Times report on donating embryos for research is a case in point. It does a good job exploring the obstacles faced by people who want to give their embryos to researchers – “piles of paperwork,” getting the consent of third parties whose gametes created the embryo, and the like. Another difficulty, the article says, is that many IVF clinics don’t have close connections to researchers; the implicit suggestion is that these sorts of ties should be encouraged.

Here’s where some additional consideration is warranted, in order to minimize conflicts of interest that could adversely affect people using IVF services. Doctors' first responsibility should be to their patients, not to their research – and unfortunately, violations of this principle are all too common.

In the California stem cell arena, we’ve already seen a case that raises eyebrows. Recently, two medical professionals at an IVF clinic were co-authors of a scientific paper [PDF] about the first successfully cloned human embryos. The doctors at The Reproductive Sciences Center actually report to the head of the biotech company conducting the research, Stemagen Corporation.

What this means is that these doctors, who may well have been responsible for determining the dosages of hormones received by the women who provided the eggs for the cloning technique, had a significant interest in the positive outcome of the research.

As with other kinds of conflicts of interest, the problem goes beyond the integrity of anyone’s conduct or the virtuosity of intentions. The fact of this matter was that the more eggs retrieved, the better the chances of the research's success and the researchers' plum byline.

This particular sort of conflict of interest is more worrisome when the biological material in question is eggs, rather than embryos. Embryos aren’t as scarce as eggs; and whereas eggs must be used very soon after they’re extracted, embryos are almost never available for many months (until the parents have completed their family or given up).

Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the need to ease the way for people who wish to donate their unused embryos for research, the potential for conflicts of interest should not be overlooked.

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