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Stem Cell Research in New Jersey: The Beginning of the End of Hype?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 7th, 2007

Yesterday, New Jersey became the third state in four years to present its voters a ballot question on embryonic stem cell research. But unlike the citizens of California and Missouri, those of the Garden State rejected theirs, which proposed $450 million in bonds to expand the existing state funding program. Most analyses in the media assert that it was rejected for fiscal, not moral, reasons. Though the evidence remains inconclusive, if this is true, it is noteworthy.

Unlike those of the other two states, the New Jersey ballot question [PDF] originated in the state Legislature and consequently mobilized less on-the-ground support. For example, the website of the state's Citizens Coalition for Cures barely mentions the ballot question.

Furthermore, the public debate - both pro and con - focused much more on the economics than in the previous debates. The state debt, which now stands at $33.5 billion, has been a top issue in recent years. Plus New Jersey is already in the stem cell business. The legislature has already allocated $150 million to construct stem cell research facilities, and allocated another $10 million for research grants.

What's more, New Jersey voters have been historically friendly to ballot initiatives. This one, and one other on the same ballot, became the first to fail in seventeen years. That other was an anti-tax measure, which also would have increased the public debt.

Finally, polls have indicated that state residents support a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy by a 2 to 1 margin. Thus, factors other than the moral status of the embryo must have greatly contributed to the 53% vote against Public Question 2.

Three years ago, in California, the economic cost of the $3 billion Proposition 71 was merely a minor part of the public debate, overshadowed by the promises from the state's top researchers of treatments and the now-prerequisite images of hopeful children in wheelchairs. Missouri's ballot initiative of last year didn't set aside any public funds; it merely enshrined the legality of the work in the state constitution. Despite the efforts of the advocates there to shift debate to purported economic benefits, the issue remained a moral one to most voters, particularly opponents. Missouri's Amendment 2 barely succeeded only after an enormously expensive campaign by its supporters. Also that year, congressional candidates who were vocally supportive of embryonic stem cell research did not fare particularly better than Democrats as a whole. Perhaps the sheen and hype of imminent cures is beginning to wear off of embryonic stem cell research.

Conflicts of Interest at the National Academies' Committee on Conflicts of Interest

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 6th, 2007

The National Academies, a set of four nonprofit organizations closely affiliated with the federal government, are held in high regard and often touted as providing the "gold standard" in objective scientific advice. But critics such as the Integrity in Science project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest assert that conflicts of interest are a major problem on the Academies' advisory committees. For example, a 2006 CSPI report [PDF] concluded that "Nearly one out of every five scientists appointed to an NAS panel has direct financial ties to companies or industry groups with a direct stake in the outcome of that study."

So perhaps it shouldn't have been too surprising that when the Institute of Medicine, one of the Academies, established a panel of experts to create guidelines for managing conflicts of interest in all aspects of medicine (education, practice, and research), a sizable portion had conflicts of interest. These conflicted members were provided waivers, which are given out with regularity and apparent ease. In response to criticisms such as those from CSPI, the IOM merely added two members, albeit two experienced in critiquing conflicts of interest in medicine. 

Irony? Tragedy? Farce?

The committee wraps up its first two-day meeting today.

Colbert and Venter: Satire maven meets synth bio king

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 1st, 2007

Celebrity scientist-entrepreneur Craig Venter appeared this week on The Colbert Report to explain that his company is creating synthetic life to solve the energy crisis and save the world – and to plug his new autobiography, A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life.

A few excerpts from the Venter-Colbert banter (roughly transcribed):

Colbert: You decoded your own genome, not somebody else’s…was there any marker there that proves that you’re some sort of narcissistic egomaniac?

Venter: I think that goes with the territory.

Colbert: What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Venter: We’re far more different from each other than we thought even a few years ago…We don’t all have the same genes, we have major differences. As an individualist, I find that very encouraging.

Colbert: You’re the largest private genomic lab in the world. You’re making patents of different genetic discoveries.

Venter: The only thing we’re patenting is what we’re doing with synthetic biology.

Colbert: Oh, you’re only patenting creating life, that’s all? Is the government controlling you at all or could you be creating a race of mutants who are going to take over eventually. Can you create heat with your gaze? (Laughter)….Tell people what you do.

Venter: We’re trying make a synthetic chromosome…now we can go from digital information to make DNA and lead to new life forms to come up with new energy sources.

Colbert: Are you going to be so rich that you’re gonna make Bill Gates look like Warren Buffet? If this takes off, if genetic engineering becomes a commercial thing, you’re the king, right? You’ll own everything, if you live long enough – which you will, because you’ll never die, because you’ll engineer your head onto a robo skeleton or something like that.

Hat tip to Gillian Madill, now Genetic Technologies Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, formerly top-notch intern at CGS.

Just like the Marines

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 1st, 2007

photo by Andrew Huff

A Chicago fertility clinic is advertising for egg "donors" with a take-off on the longstanding recruiting campaign by the U.S. Marine Corps. The ads have been spotted in the Chicago transit system's elevated trains.

Writing in Atrium, [pdf file] a report of the Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program, Gretchen Case points out that the posters appropriate both the Marines' tag line and their imagery: young, attractive, ethnically diverse people standing in V formation. Case argues that there are indeed similarities between the young men often sent out in the first wave of a military offensive and the young women being recruited for their eggs:

Both military service and motherhood are often considered sacrosanct and crucial roles, but only particular kinds of bodies can perform these roles. The limited supply of appropriate bodies leads to a need for persuasion….If you join us, you become a hero.

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