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WARF and Thomson Go for Patents with New Stem Cell Developments

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 20th, 2007

James Thomson

The Internet is humming with details and interpretations of today's big news in stem cell research: Two teams have successfully reprogrammed human somatic cells to "dedifferentiate" into a pluripotent state. If this pans out, the new method will produce not only pluripotent stem cells without the destruction of embryos, but also disease-specific stem cells without eggs or cloning. Clearly, this will dramatically alter the political and scientific landscape.

The key points have been made in our press statement, other ­blogs, and the numerous media accounts. One small item, though, caught my eye. Among the daily print media, only Malcolm Ritter at the Associated Press noted that the technology transfer organization of the University of Wisconsin, where one of the two teams is based, is requesting patents for the new method. You may recall that this researcher, James Thomson, and the tech transfer office, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, filed broadly-worded patents when he was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells almost ten years ago. Now, those patents are widely criticized by other scientists as stifling research and are the subjected of a Patent and Trade Office review, which had been requested by public-interest critics.

It would be unfortunate if the implementation of the new discoveries, which have the potential to beak the political and ethical logjams of both embryonic and cloning-based stem cell research, were to be hindered by such a patent.Given the amount of critical attention that the Thomson/WARF patents have received, it will be interesting to see how observers, particularly other stem cell scientists, react to the new filing. A key question that remains unclear is whether Yamanaka, who appears to be the pioneer in the field, will join on the patent application.

Goodbye Dolly?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 17th, 2007

There's very big news today in the stem cell world.

Scottish researcher Ian Wilmut told the UK Telegraph yesterday that he "decided a few weeks ago not to pursue nuclear transfer." In other words, the man who came to fame by producing the world's first cloned mammal - and who is sitting on one of two licenses to clone human embryos that the British government has issued - is giving up on cloning techniques in stem cell research.

Wilmut says he now believes that pluripotent stem cells can be more efficiently produced by a technique involving the direct reprogramming of ordinary body cells, which Japanese researchers led by Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University accomplished in mice earlier this year. The creation of these reprogrammed cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, requires no eggs or embryos.

Wilmut's surprise move could shift both the scientific and the political debates about stem cell research. If direct reprogramming continues to show success - and Wilmut says he has "no doubt that in the long term" it will - the argument for research cloning will be seriously weakened, and it will be even less justifiable to ask women to undergo risky and invasive egg retrieval procedures to provide research materials. What's more, we may soon see the end of embryonic stem cell research as a wedge issue in U.S. politics.

The Telegraph's science writer said that Wilmut's announcement "will send shockwaves through the scientific establishment." An editorial in the paper predicted that it "could mark the end of the road for the [cloning] technique, on which vast sums of money have been spent to little effect."

Don't count your eggs

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 16th, 2007

Most news stories about the first successful derivation of stem cells from cloned primate embryos have cited the researchers' account that it took 304 eggs from 14 rhesus macaque monkeys to produce one normal stem cell line. Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his colleagues at the Oregon National Primate Research Center acknowledge that this means "a lot more work before this would be useful for humans…especially given how hard human eggs are to come by."

Now the Xinhua News Agency is reporting that Mitalipov's team has been trying to achieve reproductive cloning in primates for nearly a decade, and in the process has used not 300 eggs - but 15,000 of them.

Will Genetic Engineering Save Us From Ourselves?

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on November 14th, 2007

As a child, Tom and Jerry was by far my favorite show. For reasons still unknown to me, I identified with Jerry, the rambunctious little mouse, who always found a way to balance his fear of Tom with an unabashed irreverence for the dominance nature conferred to cats. Jerry did this by simply outwitting him.

But research published last­ week in Nature suggests that science might now have a way to disrupt this cat-and-mouse game. Japanese researchers have used genetic engineering to produce mice with altered olfactory senses. This obscures their ability to pick up on cat odors that instinctively suggest danger, allowing these mice to cozy up comfortably with their newfound feline friends without trepidation.

This research is being reported as a remarkable step forward for neuroscience, and a possible entryway from which to understand how genetic predispositions bridge the relationship between nature and nurture. And - no surprise - journalists and researchers alike are now pontificating on this research's impact for other mammals, including humans.

This brings me back to a recent article from New Scientist looking at the biological and evolutionary factors predisposing humans towards racial bias and other forms of bigotry. The idea here is that humans are hardwired for group-based conflict; racism and other prejudices are not aberrant outcomes of our otherwise egalitarian sensibilities, but are rather a natural byproduct of our cognitive architecture, over which we have little control. The take-home from this article and the research supporting it is that just as mice are biologically primed to distrust cats, so too are humans primed to dislike those who seem different from them.

The troubling convergence between this research and the increasingly popular biospin on prejudice's cognitive and evolutionary roots is that bias is seen as a technological hurdle that science can help individuals surmount rather than an irrational group behavior that can only be resolved through a commitment to equitable social practices. Watching cats and mice snuggle might be cute. But biotechnology can do very little to address the deep institutional and social barriers that have been erected through centuries of group based domination.

Engineering fear out of mice is one thing. Getting people to give up the privileges that comes from bias is quite another.

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