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DNA Databases Run Amok

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 11th, 2008

Genetic forensics may assist in solving crimes, but the too-common assumption of the technique's infallibility makes it prone to implementation errors. In just a few months, California will expand its DNA database, by collecting samples from anyone arrested - but not necessarily convicted - of a felony. And it's already begun to use "familial matching." But before the Golden State moves ahead, its leaders should look to the challenges and controversies of other nations. 

In Australia, police must now review every crime seemingly solved using "genetic fingerprinting" - that's 7000 cases - after significant mistakes handling and testing samples in a recent case. And in the United Kingdom, which has the world's largest DNA database and has even considered expanding it to all residents, recent research by the Liberal Democratic party revealed that private companies have been allowed access for research purposes. Police officers, who have contributed their DNA voluntarily, were offered - and took - the opportunity to be excluded from the for-profit research. But most contributors neither have their consent nor had the opportunity to withdraw.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Whither stem cell funding?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 7th, 2008

Is funding for stem cell companies drying up? Perhaps it depends who, and when, you ask. The Scientist's NewsBlog reports that the imminent demise of Advanced Cell Technology is just one piece of evidence that the field is not yet well developed enough to justify investment in for-profit firms. Two financial analysts cited in the post believe that while stem cell research, including that which uses embryos, has potential in the long run, "there is a relatively long road ahead of us to prove and develop these therapeutics."

Similarly, in the California stem cell research agency's first round of grants open to for-profits, all requests from such companies were denied.

But a few days after The Scientist's blog post, BioSpace reported that a new $225 million venture capital fund is being established to fund stem cell companies exclusively. This comes on the heels of a high-profile investment by the trend-setting Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers into a new firm specializing in induced pluripotent stem cells, a potential alternative to those from embryos. Perhaps not coincidentally, the managing partner of the new fund is a neighbor of Robert Klein, California's stem cell czar, in posh Portola Valley.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Breadline or egg line?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 6th, 2008

A short article carried by dozens of TV news sites describes a surge in the number of women who want to sell their eggs or carry surrogate pregnancies. "There's no reason to think that suddenly there's 30 percent more people who have suddenly had this inner feeling to help out people. And what's changed? It’s the economy," said Dr. Edward Marut of the Fertility Centers of Illinois.

But other fertility docs are less willing to admit the obvious. Dr. Bruce Shapiro, of the Fertility Center of Las Vegas, is still “hop[ing] the economy is not the main reason.” But then, Dr. Shapiro also seems to be in denial about what the egg retrieval procedure entails: “He said the side effects of donation usually include some aches and cramps, similar to those of a woman's period.”

And for more from La-La-Land, check out the sound track on Doc Shapiro’s website.

(But maybe it's me who's in denial - I thought muzak jingles like this were only used to sell shampoo and Viagra.)

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Questioning the Commerce of Conception

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 6th, 2008

Late last month, Biopolitical Times contributor Pete Shanks noted several supporters of assisted reproduction who took the occasion of IVF's 30th anniversary to assert that the industry urgently needs some rules. Since then, a number of additional liberal voices have raised questions about what Barnard president Debora Spar calls "the commerce of conception."

  • In an article about the marketing of egg freezing, the National Women's Health Network's Kiesha McCurtis argues that the practice is "far from ready for mainstream use by otherwise healthy women." McCurtis lists the risks of egg extraction, observes that it offers "large profit margins for egg banks and specialized fertility clinics," and concludes that "[a]dvocates of egg freezing use alarming statistics in a misleading fashion to encourage women to create unnecessary back-up plans based on an ineffective, expensive, and unproven technology."

[Nota bene: The National Women's Health Network is one of the few women's health organizations that does not accept financial support from pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies or medical device manufacturers.]

  • A blog post on RH Reality Check by Jennifer Rogers begins with her appreciation that because of IVF technology, "the clock is not ticking as loudly for me as it was for my mother." She then enumerates several examples of what she calls "a whole new set of concerns" captured by her question, "What are the ethical, moral, legal and financial impacts of this field?"

  • Over at Huffington Post, Melissa Lafsky reacts to the glibness on display when the libertarian magazine Reason convened a panel of women to talk about selling their eggs in a Manhattan bar. From Lafsky's piece, titled "Selling Your Eggs: No Big Deal?"

"The room went silent when one woman admitted the gynecologist performing the surgery had told her, 'Whatever they're paying you, it's not enough," because the risks were so high…More than one listener flinched as the speakers described having needles stuck through their vaginas into their uteruses, to aspirate their eggs and package them off to conceive a child that the women had (possibly illegally) contracted away their right to ever see or contact. All for somewhere between $10,000 to $30,000. But the panelists? They just smiled and cracked another joke."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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