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More cloning, but still no stem cells

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 12th, 2009

Robert Lanza (Rick Friedman for The New York Times)

In the last two months, three teams of researchers have created human clonal embryos. Before them, only the researchers at the biotech company Stemagen had reported creating a human embryo via somatic cell nuclear transfer that appeared to be viable enough to potentially yield stem cells. However, none of the groups reported taking that step, and thus the current round of reports means little for that highly-touted endeavor.

Of course, somatic cell nuclear transfer requires human eggs. The Stemagen paper described how these were obtained, a process that we felt skirted California law. In contrast, none of the three recent papers mention where or how they got eggs, or how the women who provided them were treated. Were the women paid? Were they undergoing egg extraction for reproductive purposes, or just for research? How old were they? How were they recruited?

Two of the new papers (1, 2), both from Chinese teams, simply describe their successful method of creating the clonal embryos. The paper by the group led by Robert Lanza of the struggling biotech Advanced Cell Technology goes a step further. It compares the epigenomics of clonal embryos that were created using human eggs with those created using animal eggs, the latter of which has been proposed as an alternative to the former. This work indicated that the clonal embryos created using animal eggs (i.e., "cytoplasmic hybrid embryos") may not yield useful stem cells, as their epigenetic characteristics are significantly different from those created with human eggs.  

Some may conclude that women's eggs are therefore necessary for cloning-based stem cell research. Other stem cell scientists are moving away from cloning techniques altogether. Alan Trounson, president of the California stem cell research agency, seems pessimistic about its prospects:

Working with human embryos is also impractical because the high failure rate means it takes hundreds of eggs to create a single stem cell line, said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

"Most people are working on IPS cells (stem cells derived from skin) rather than nuclear transfer because it's so difficult to get human eggs," Trounson said.

"Their work is endorsing that we could use human eggs but I don't think it helps us, to be honest, in actually being able to do it because it doesn't show that it could be improved dramatically."

Trounson said human cloning can still be important in addressing some serious genetic diseases because it would allow for the manipulation of mitochondria, which run cell function and contain DNA.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Feminist scholars address reproductive technologies

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 11th, 2009

An upcoming conference will focus on the global social, economic and political repercussions of new forms of reproduction. "The Politics of Reproduction: New Technologies of Life" will take place on February 28 at New York City's Barnard Center for Research on Women.

The conference organizers write:

These new technologies have created a "baby business" that is largely unregulated and that raises a number of important social and ethical questions.

Do these new technologies place women and children at risk? Should there be limits on how reproductive technologies are used? How should we respond ethically to the ability of these technologies to test for genetic illnesses? And how can we ensure that marginalized individuals, for example, people with disabilities, women of color, and low-income women, have equal access to these new technologies and adoption practices?

More reactions to the octuplets

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 10th, 2009

So much has already been said about the dramatic recent birth of octuplets by IVF that I will just add a few more quotes to my recent compilation:

Ellen Goodman, syndicated columnist:

Fertility doctors don't say no - nor should they - to single or gay patients or those who already have children.... But shouldn't there be limits?...

And - here we get to the heart of this case - it turns out there are no laws in this country limiting the number of embryos that can be implanted in one womb....

Meanwhile, a reproductive business that generates so much controversy has produced a remarkable consensus. Infertility treatment for an unemployed, single mother of six? Eight embryos in one womb? There must be a proper word in the medical literature to describe this achievement. I think the word is "nuts."
Los Angeles Times editorial:
Society must guard against judging who is allowed to have children. A doctor cannot refuse to provide fertility treatment to a lesbian, as the state Supreme Court rightly ruled, because of his own moral objections. Nor is marital status or wealth a fair criterion for calculating someone's fitness to be a parent; nor, for that matter, how many children they want to have, as long as they can provide the necessary care. The rearing of children is a personal decision, unless there is mistreatment.

That's different from the medical considerations that should have played a part in the octuplets case. Doctors have an obligation to weigh the health risks to both mother and child -- and those are considerable with so-called high-multiple births. The guidelines set down by medical organizations affect whether insurance will cover a procedure, but carry little force otherwise. Clearly, the field of fertility treatment needs more than guidelines.
Kate Ott, blogger at RH Reality Check:
We urgently need a public dialogue - involving physicians, theologians, ethicists, clergy, health advocates and the scientific community - that responds to the social, religious and medical issues raised by the use of ARTs.  We need to assess individual choice within a larger social context, so that we do not divorce moral choices from moral responsibilities to one's self, family or the larger community.   In other words, the moral questions not only involve the individual -- health risk to self and potential child(ren), ability to care for child(ren), religious belief/teaching, partner's desires, and personal motive.  But there are social justice issues we as a community must weigh -- medical effectiveness, cost, and equal access.  We also must consider how ARTs reinforce biological children as superior and women as valued only for childbearing.  
Art Caplan, bioethicist:
If the medical profession is unwilling or unable to police its own, then government needs to get involved. We already have rules governing who can get involved with adoption and foster care. Shouldn't these minimal requirements be extended to fertility treatment? And shouldn't some limit be set on how many embryos can be implanted at one time, along with some rules about what to do with embryos that no one wants to use?

Other nations, such as Britain, keep a regulatory eye on reproductive technologies and those who wish to use them, knowing their use can put kids at risk in ways that nature never envisioned. We owe the same to children born here. 

Pamela Madsen, executive director of the American Fertility Association:

Would the choices that this woman made be my choice on how to live? No. Do I support her right to have the family that she wants to have? Yes, I do.”

James Grifo,past president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technologies:

Legislation about how to practice medicine threatens doctor-patient relations and has unintended consequences that may be worse than the actual problem. We live in a country that doesn’t regulate family size. If we were to decree a proper number, who would decide?

Religious leaders confront reproductive technologies

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 9th, 2009

The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing has just issued an "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies."

The letter notes that "[f]or centuries, religious communities have provided direction, discernment and doctrine on issues of fertility, childbearing and family formation." However, it continues, there now exists

a relative silence when the issues shift to infertility and assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). The rapid growth of ARTs has outpaced religious and ethical discernment.
The letter raises issues about the safety, effectiveness and accessibility of reproductive technologies, and invites religious leaders to "engage in public discourse about the social and ethical issues involved in ARTs and speak out against ART practices that violate human rights and dignity."

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