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Stem Cells Enter the Presidential Election; Doublespeak Follows

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on September 16th, 2008

We continue to hope that stem cell research won't be used as a political football during this American election season, or at least that discussion about will be less polarized and misleading than in the past. To date, this hope hasn't been baseless: Both presidential nominees have said they will undo President Bush's restrictions on federal funding. But in the last week, we've seen some discouraging signs.

John McCain's campaign now appears to be trying to play both sides of the issue. On Friday, it released a new radio ad that touts McCain's support of stem cell research, but without mentioning his position on the use of embryos - a common tactic of opponents of embryonic stem cell research. In the past, McCain has supported the use of embryos, but his vice-presidential pick opposes it, and the official platform of the Republican Party takes a hard-line stance. McCain's ambiguous ad may allow him to appeal to centrists while maintaining enough "wiggle room" if he later wishes to change his position.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research who support Barack Obama quite reasonably want to draw attention to the Republican platform's extremism, and two senior fellows at the Democratic-supporting Center for American Progress highlight it in an op-ed in yesterday's Boston Globe. They cite two recent stem cell advances that relied on new techniques of cellular reprogramming, but go out of their way to attribute them to embryonic stem cells. While they describe the first as growing "out of insights into gene regulation and cell specialization gleaned in part from recent studies on embryonic stem cells," the second development is clearly mischaracterized as being from research with embryos, when it was not.

Hopefully these are not signs that the "stem cell wars" are about to flare up again. But if John McCain changes his position, either before or after the election, then that may be the case.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Watch for Falling Prices

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on September 15th, 2008

Google-backed startup 23andme has slashed prices for its genome scanning service in what appears to be an attempt to boost sales of a luxury item in the midst of an economic downturn. Compared to its competitors who charge over $1000 to scan a sample of genes in order to tell customers something about diseases or other traits they may be predisposed to, 23andme's new $399 price tag is a blue light special that is sure to heighten competition in the market for personal genomic services.

At the other end of the price spectrum, Cambridge-based Knowme has broken another barrier in the personal genomics market by being the first to offer full genome sequencing to any customer with $350,000 burning a hole in their pocket. Knowme's service is different in that it looks at almost all of the three billion base pairs that comprise a person's genome; companies like 23andme only sequence a fraction of this. And, some are already speculating that such full genome scans are the future of personal genomics whereby pricing is the only impediment.

Many people take the price reduction of partial genome scans and the first feasible availability of full genome sequencing as yet another marvelous example of innovation and the free market working wonders to improve our lives. But David P. Hamilton over at Bnet Business Network has a different take. Focusing on 23andme's price cut, Hamilton argues that it might actually signal the end of commercial personal genomics, not its "democratization" as 23andme argues. Hamilton points out that the problem is the business model:

The main point to remember is that personal-genomics companies don't intend to make money by selling the tests. Instead, their business generally depends on amassing a giant anonymized database of customer genetic information that can be mined for research studies by academic researchers or drug companies.
With many non-profit research centers already engaged in genome scanning, Hamilton goes on to note:
the real threat is that cheap SNP scanning will undermine the very research studies that companies like 23andMe and Navigenics planned to make their bread and butter. . . . Once reputable medical institutes get into the genomics-research game in a big way, research scientists aren't going to pay out significant fractions of their grants to get access to a commercial database when noncommercial databases - quite likely of higher quality - are more readily accessible.
It remains to be seen whether full genome scanning services like Knowme will face similar pressures. Nevertheless, the various commercial and research factors surrounding this race for cheap genomic sequencing highlights how we should look at the concerns raised by the personal genomics industry not simply as consumers, but as research subjects.

In the News This Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on September 12th, 2008

More evidence that Advanced Cell Technology is on the brink of collapse: It is closing its facility in Massachusetts, ­not renewing a lease in California, and its staff size is "way down" from the 48 it had recently.

Canadians may have been eating meat from cloned animals, producing using older techniques.

Technology Review profiles Knome's 350,000 full genome scan, and Nic Fleming of UK's The Times discovers that the "bargain" genome scan companies can yield contradictory results.

You can stay up-to-date with the latest news in reproductive and genetic technologies at our news wire web page or via its RSS feed.

Neo-con logic: Designer babies for all

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on September 10th, 2008

Neo-conservative pundit and former Bush speech writer David Frum, credited for having coined the phrase "axis of evil" to bolster extremist foreign policy, has another bright idea.

In the course of warning fellow conservatives to heed rapidly expanding inequality (not because it's unjust but because it might cost them votes), Frum suggests that his political compatriots tackle the problem by supporting inheritable genetic modification.

Frum begins by acknowledging that the genetic enhancement of future children and generations would be almost sure to further exacerbate inequality:

It is probable that the trend to inequality will grow even stronger in the years ahead, if new genetic techniques offer those with sufficient resources the possibility of enhancing the intelligence, health, beauty and strength of children in the womb.
But Frum, though worried that inequality is leading to "The Vanishing Republican Voter" (the title of the New York Times Magazine article in which his musings appear), is not deterred. Conservatives need not object to genetically super-endowed humans, he asserts. Relying on an idiosyncratic interpretation of statements by Pope John Paul II, he proposes that genetically manipulated children could be made "laudable" by arranging their availability to everyone.

Frum's fantasy vision of designer babies for all is shared by a few outliers, such as self-described transhumanist James Hughes. Just about everyone else who has ever commented on re-engineering humanity - skeptics and boosters; observers of the left, right, and center - conclude that it would all too likely create a future of new discrimination and deep social divides.

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