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Synbio researcher: Synthetic human genome could be used in cloning by 2014

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 24th, 2008

Dozens of news articles (1, 2, 3, 4) are reporting on today's publication in Science of another step toward the creation of artificial life.

According to Wired News, J. Craig Venter, president of the J. Craig Venter Institute where scientists performed the study, said in a teleconference today, "We consider this the second in our three-step process to create the first synthetic organism…What remains now that we have this complete synthetic chromosome…is to boot this up in a cell."

Also reported by Wired are remarks by synthetic biologist Christopher Voigt, who explains that plans call for researchers to "scale up from the simplest organisms to the most complex: human beings." Voigt estimates "that a synthetic human genome - which could be used in human cloning research - could be created by 2014."

In response, the ETC Group renewed its call for a moratorium on the release and commercialization of synthetic organisms. From its press statement:

Venter is claiming bragging rights to the world's longest length of synthetic DNA, but size isn't everything. The important question is not 'how long?' but 'how wise?'

While synthetic biology is speeding ahead in the lab and in the marketplace, societal debate and regulatory oversight is stalled and there has been no meaningful or inclusive discussion on how to govern synthetic biology in a safe and just way. In the absence of democratic oversight profiteering industrialists are tinkering with the building blocks of life for their own private gain. We regard that as unacceptable.

Financial analysts' advice on California stem cell research

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 24th, 2008

Citing the Golden State's $14-billion budget shortfall, an editorial in Investor's Business Daily invites Californians to "revisit their decision to borrow $3 billion for a research effort driven more by politics than science" and to "save themselves a good deal of money by winding the program down."

Yes, the financial pundits are talking about Proposition 71, the 2004 stem cell research initiative. They quote Biopolitical Times blogger and CGS stem cell policy expert Jesse Reynolds, who "says he doubts if Proposition 71 would pass if it were on the ballot today." The editorial continues:

The proposition succeeded, Reynolds says, "because of the political shine of embryonic stem cell research . . . It was like a magic bullet aimed at Washington."

700 and Counting

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 22nd, 2008

Over the holiday season, in between re-runs of A Charlie Brown Christmas and minute-by-minute updates on where to find a Nintendo Wii, Big Pharma gave the Black community an odd stocking stuffer that received surprisingly little attention: a report by the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying and trade organization (PhRMA) noting that nearly 700 medications are in clinical development to treat diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans.

It's important to point out that these medicines are not necessarily slated to become the next BiDil, i.e. drugs bearing a race specific label to suggest that they are somehow genetically tailored for only one group. Many of the drugs on PhRMA's list may benefit broader classes of patients beyond those who are Black.

But, given that the story behind BiDil's FDA approval represents how companies can push a failed drug through FDA approval using a questionable clinical trial design and the even more questionable theory that genes are largely responsible for racial disparities, PhRMA's approach should give us some pause. Someone more cynical than I might think that PhRMA is using this report to lay the foundation for race specificity to become the fallback plan whenever a drug's FDA approval for the general population falters.

The economics of this approach might make sense at first as it might help companies recoup the millions of dollars lost when a drug fails to reach market. But FDA approval of race-specific medicines doesn't always mean that communities of color are interested in taking them. Just ask any of the 70 staff members recently laid off from NitroMed after the company decided that BiDil's sales are so slow that it's no longer worth marketing the drug.

Making Waves, Practicing Wisdom

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 21st, 2008

Today is the publication date of Charlie Halpern's engaging memoir, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom. The book recounts Charlie's work as a pioneer of public-interest law, founder of several innovative organizations, head of a progressive philanthropic foundation, and student of Buddhist spirituality.

In addition to all that, Charlie has over the past several years lent his considerable legal talents and political wisdom to the issues raised by the new human biotechnologies. He was a key participant in opposition mounted by CGS and other public-interest groups to the 2004 ballot measure that established the California stem cell agency, and in subsequent efforts to bring some modicum of oversight and accountability to the program. Charlie testified about its flaws to the California legislature, was quoted in dozens of media accounts in national and state newspapers, and submitted numerous letters and petitions to the agency's governing board, including one in February 2005 with Former US Secretary of Health Philip Lee. Many of his letters are included in a compilation of documents on the CGS website.

Making Waves, which features forewords by Robert Reich and the Dalai Lama, includes an eloquent call for bringing "wisdom of a high order" to the urgent new challenges involving science, religion, justice and the human future:

We are at a point where no humans have ever been before, capable of taking over the evolution of the human species, designing the traits of babies, and altering the genetic package that children carry forward into life…If ever there has been a cluster of issues that demands the highest level of attention and care - wisdom of a high order - this is it. Instead, it is being treated like a political football, with Republicans playing to the fundamentalists and many Democrats mindlessly championing the unfettered discretion of scientists to do whatever experiments interest them, regardless of their social consequences.

The recent spate of books demonizing all religions, in the name of science and reason, seem to be calculated to heighten polarization and decrease the likelihood that wisdom will enter the discussion. It would be a tragedy if the voices of wisdom aren't heard on these matters.

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