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From cellular reprogramming to human genetic modification

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 30th, 2009

Amander Clark, whose lab performed the research

A team of stem cell researchers has produced precursors to gametes from induced pluripotent stem (or iPS) cells, which in turn are reprogrammed from normal body cells. The health blog of the Los Angeles Times reports on an upcoming scientific paper from a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.

My colleague Marcy Darnovsky has previously expressed concerns (1 [PDF], 2) about artificial gametes, particularly around safety issues and the promotion to gays and lesbians of extreme - and risky - methods of assisted reproduction. This latest development raises another: While iPS cells may resolve quandaries about embryo destruction and egg acquisition, they could also be a path towards human genetic modification. Under the present technology, in fact, iPS cells are produced via genetic modification. Of course, any proposals to create babies through artificial gametes, especially with the current genetic modification and viral vector methods, are a long way off. But when, and if, they come, let's hope that policies to prevent potential abuses are in place.

[HT to AJOB Blog.]

Gene of the Week: Popularity

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 29th, 2009

Scientific American leads an article, headlined "Do our genes make us popular?," with

Always the last one picked for kickball? Never get invites to the hottest parties? Blame Mom and Dad.

That's right, a new study says genes may influence whether or not you're popular.

That's just one of at least 156 news articles on the research.

Previous "genes of the week" on Biopolitical Times:

War Against the Weak – The Documentary

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 27th, 2009

Edwin Black’s award-winning book on the history and modern implications of the American Eugenics Movement is about to hit the silver screen. War Against the Weak the movie had its World Premiere over the weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The book offers a chilling and remarkably accessible look at the American eugenics movement by examining its origins and the cultural, political, and institutional practices that fostered its popularity in the early to mid 20th century. The filmmakers offer the following synopsis:

In the first three decades of the 20th Century, American corporate philanthropy, combined with the efforts of the scientific, academic and political elite, created the pseudoscience eugenics, and institutionalized race politics as national policy. The goal was to create a superior, white, Nordic race and obliterate virtually everyone else.

Under the Nazis, American eugenic principles were applied without restraint, careening out of control into the Reich's infamous genocide. American eugenicists openly supported Germany's program, with both financial and intellectual capital. Once WWII began, Nazi eugenics turned from mass sterilization and euthanasia to genocidal murder. War Against the Weak explores this complex relationship between American eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust.

While this documentary exploration of the history of eugenics is incredibly important and should make a profound contribution in educating the public, one can only hope that the filmmakers do not minimize one of the strongest points made by Black in his book: that many of the concerns raised by past attempts to breed better humans may be presenting themselves today through developments in reproductive and genetic technologies.  Too often we lose this context.

Always falling behind

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 23rd, 2009

We regularly hear - particularly during election years - that not only is stem cell research essential to the economy of the future, but that America is falling behind due to former President Bush's funding restriction (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). But a new report concludes that the US still has the edge.

US institutes have become the dominant force in stem-cell research.... This they have achieved by creating significant critical mass by forming consortia of existing university and hospital departments without the need for time-consuming recruitment.

Of course, while this fact is likely true, this report must be taken with the same grain of salt as previous ones. After all, it was commissioned by one of the UK's leading stem cell research consortia, performed by a consulting group with heavy links to members of that consortium, and leaked to the Times Higher Education magazine, which used the headline "UK's reputation as world leader in stem-cell research challenged."

This is becoming something of a pattern: Advocates and researchers on each side of the pond attributing the potential loss of biotech (and thus economic) supremacy to some policy they dislike. In the UK, scientists recently argued that any limit on using stem cell techniques to create animal-human hybrids would be a severe blow to British science. (The practice that was approved after much political turmoil; then when particular projects were rejected for funding on scientific grounds, scientists resumed their dire warnings.) 

Here in the US, scientists have rightly criticized the Bush restriction on federal funding of stem cell research. When President Obama lifts this, will a new policy bogeyman be named?

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