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New Jersey ends stem cell dreams

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 24th, 2008

The planned 18-story NJ Stem Cell Institute would be in New Brunswick

The long-planned Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey died quietly last week - so quietly, in fact, that some of its prominent backers were caught unaware, reports the state's largest paper. The $270 million research center had been on the drawing board for four years, and the state had been vying to be a leader in the field well before that. The end of the Institute not only is the apparent end of New Jersey's endeavor, but may also signal the final decline of embryonic stem cell research as a relevant political issue.

Back in January 2004, New Jersey became the second state to pass a law promoting human embryonic stem cell research, explicitly stating which activities were legal. Another law a few months later created the Institute - still virtual at the time - and set aside millions of dollars for grants and work towards a building. By the end of 2005, New Jersey beat California to become the first state to actually issue embryonic stem cell research grants.

Yet how to scale up the program remained unclear. Acting Governor Richard Codey floated the idea of a $400 or even $500 million bond as early as January 2005, with $200 million to go towards the institute. A public survey confirmed widespread support at the time. There were even talks of enlarging the proposal to create a "biotech corridor" with Delaware and Pennsylvania. But any bond plan would require approval by both the legislature and the voters.

While the bonds stalled, Gov. Jon Corzine, who took office in January 2006, maintained a small grants program through line items in the state budget. Last October, Corzine and other politicians even posed for photos at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new institute, despite the lack of funds. By the time the bond issue got out of the legislature and to the voters as a ballot measure in November, the climate had shifted compared with 2004: California was well in the lead, pumping out tens of millions of dollars in grants, and New York was launching a half-billion dollar program. The exaggerated promises of stem cell-based cures were being modulated, and political effectiveness of embryonic stem cell research was waning. And the state's fiscal situation was worse than ever. The bond measure - by then at $450 million - failed by a wide margin.

After the bonds' failure, the Corzine administration continued to insist the institute would go forward. Now its been revealed that the plans were apparently put on ice months ago. Apparently, no one informed Rep. Frank Pallone, whose district includes the building site, and Sen. Robert Menendez, both of whom had continued to tout the project.

Kiwis consider sex selection

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 20th, 2008

In many ways, New Zealand has admirable oversight of human genetic and reproductive technologies. Its Human Assisted Reproduction Technology Act of 2004 prohibits reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification, and genetic selection is limited to preventing inheritable disorders. An independent bioethics council offers advice, a committee proposes detailed policy, and another committee regulates the fertility industry and must approve certain controversial practices. Violating the law is a punishable crime.

The Bioethics Council, known as toi te taiao, recently solicited input and released a report on genetic selection [PDF]. It recommends allowing prospective parents to use sex selection through PGD for family balancing.

While the fertility industry appears supportive, politicians are tepid and everyone else appears opposed. The New Zealand Herald - the nation's largest paper - found little support for the proposal from the "person on the street." The director of the leading academic bioethics group, Donald Evans of Otago University's Bioethics Centre, said that approving sex selection would be

winding the social clock back in New Zealand by at least a generation and a half.... There have been huge battles fought in New Zealand for gender equality - that is, refusing to value or dis-value a life in terms merely of its gender. Huge victories have been won. [Social sex selection would be] very much against the spirit of these important changes. So I'm very puzzled that the report says there is insufficient cultural, ethical or spiritual reason to prohibit this, when certainly New Zealand has been moving absolutely in the opposite direction for a generation and a half. Maybe their inquiries didn't come up with any further evidence but they certainly chose to ignore this crucial social evidence, which is characterised by our society becoming a more just society over these past 30 or 40 years.
The spokesman for Asperger's Syndrome NZ asserted that
Any hint of the heinous practice of sex selection being permitted will inevitably pave the way to genocide against communities with conditions that are preponderant in one gender or the other. It takes a rather thoughtless breed of eugenicists to recommend this thin-end-of-the-wedge approach to introducing what will end in tragedy if the recommendation is not killed off immediately.
The editorial page of the Marlborough Express asked, "If this plan becomes acceptable practice what will be the next step? The answer is too disturbing to contemplate."

Gene of the Week: American Exceptionalism

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 20th, 2008

Alexis de Tocqueville, an early student of American exceptionalism

In a column from a few weeks ago, conservative pundit Michael Medved asserted that various peculiar American cultural characteristics, including our economic success, are due to genetic differences. Citing two recent books, he claimed that  risk-taking among immigrants to America likely had a genetic component, one that is shared by their descendants here today. I've not read the books, but from my vantage point there are numerous significant flaws with this logic. Hypoid Logic covered many of the bases. At the very least, a cultural reinforcement of risk-taking seems an adequate and potentially superior explanation - particularly considering that a process like migration is unlikely to be a sufficient founder effect or population bottleneck for such a complex behavior.

But I can see the appeal of this logic to people such as Medved and Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Arms. It not only assuages successful Caucasians, whom many conservatives feel are the real victims of postmodernity. It even offers a guilt-free explanation of why dark-skinned people often remain poor. Thus, the current conditions for Native Americans and blacks are not due to the genocide or slavery carried out by the ancestors of contemporary American whites, but instead due to the absence of voluntary migration in their histories.

In the News this Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 20th, 2008

The Telegraph (UK) looks at IVF at thirty years, highlighting the rise in "soft" and "natural" egg extraction.

The California state government has requested that several consumer genetic testing companies cease offering their services to state residents.

A key venture capital firm has invested in a new company dedicated to deriving stem cells through reprogramming (i.e., iPS).

A gene therapy trials indicated progress for cancer patients.

You can stay up-to-date with the CGS newswire, also available via RSS.

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