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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.

Jensen on CIRM; Klein on Clinical Trials

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 12th, 2007

The premier observer of the California stem cell research agency, David Jensen of the California Stem Cell Report, has published an in-depth review of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Noting the third anniversary of the passage of Proposition 71 in Sunday's Sacramento Bee, he highlighted a number of points that we at the Center have consistently argued: unfulfilled promises, conflicts of interests, lack of transparency, and the "polarizing" nature of CIRM board chair Robert Klein:

But by other standards, including its own strategic plan, the institute doesn't measure up. The money is not flowing as fast as called for. Rosy campaign promises of cures and an economic boom still await fulfillment. Built-in conflicts of interests pervade the institute's activities. A penchant for closed-door grant reviews and secrecy screens much of the institute's most important decisions from public view. And, more than once, calls have arisen for the resignation of its chairman, Robert Klein, a man who triggers both admiration and animosity....

The institute, however, is controlled by men and women accustomed to operating outside of the public eye with few of the restraints that even local school board members face. Many come from the culture of science, where the motto sometimes seems to be: "Trust us. We are the experts."

But given the built-in conflicts at the agency, more sunshine is needed - if only to help avoid a scandal that could set back stem cell research efforts nationally and cast a pall over this creative governmental experiment.

As part of his research for the retrospective, Jensen posted in his blog a statement from Robert Klein, California's "stem cell czar." In it, Klein argues that "the board and the agency need to launch a major public information program, including a specific focus on the upcoming human embryonic stem cell clinical trials."

He's probably referring to the announcements by the two leading private embryonic stem cell research firms, Geron and Advanced Cell Technology, which recently touted their plans to move forward with trials next year.

Klein should be careful to hang too much on the statements of Geron and ACT. The former has been giving us the "clinical trials next year" line for four years running. And the latter has a history of exaggerating its achievements, likely in order to maintain investment.

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