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This Week in the News

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 11th, 2008

The Chairman of UK's National Stem Cell Network, Lord Patel, made some pessimistic statements about the prospects of stem cell research during that country's first National Stem Cell Research Conference.   

"But we have to be cautious," he said.   "It may not deliver therapy for anything. We may find that stem therapy is quite a risky business.

We had a lot of hype about gene therapy, and while we still use it in some cases it did not deliver the great promise we thought it would because of the side-effects. But the promise just now is great and we must continue with the stem cell science."

The over-the-counter availability of an at-home paternity test was expanded into thirty states, from an initial trial of three.

The Genetics and Public Policy Center published a commentary in Science criticizing some genetic tests, particularly those that are offered direct to the consumer and have potential (but unproven) implications for drug dosage and response. Brandon Keim reports at Wired.

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Medical Records Meet Personal Genomics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on April 10th, 2008

Over at Women's Bioethics Blog, Sue Trinidad calls our attention to an outrageous new biotech business venture:

Perlegen Sciences, a spinoff of Affymetrix and a "recognized leader in genomics" (by their own lights) recently signed a deal with an electronic medical records (EMR) company for rights to the medical data of 4 million patients. According to the Perlegen press release, the data will be mined for "genetic markers that could help predict patient response to certain treatments." Patients who meet defined criteria will be sought--through their personal physicians, no less--to obtain samples of their DNA.
Perlegen's press statement is at pains to assure that it
will only receive de-identified patient records, which can then be re-identified only by participating healthcare institutions in a HIPAA-compliant, IRB-approved manner.

Now imagine a company that wants a DNA sample but that doesn't have to go to all the trouble of re-identifying the person of interest, getting IRB approval, paying the doctor for access to the person. A company, say, like 23andMe or Navigenics.

Personal genomics, anyone?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Two Takes on iPS cells in Nature

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 10th, 2008

Since the November announcement that scientists derived stem cells that appear to have the power of those from embryos (but without embryo destruction), much hay has been made about the stem cell debates’ future. As I describe in a new short essay published at the Hasting Center's Bioethics Forum, many advocates of embryonic stem cell research have been remarkably skeptical, if not outright dismissive, of the  new technique’s potential, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Two articles – one in Nature and one in an offshoot journal - indicate the spectrum of response.

On the balanced end of the spectrum, journalist David Cyranoski assesses the prospects for iPS by examining “five things to know before jumping on the iPS bandwagon.”  His conclusions?

  • Anyone can do it: Fact (mostly)
  • Everyone can have their own custom-tailored cells: Fiction (unless you're rich)
  • The cures are on their way: Too soon to tell
  • Embryonic stem cells are the same as iPS cells: Fact (so far, anyway)
  • iPS cells have no ethical issues: Fiction (depends on what you want to do)

Notwithstanding the article’s snide title, Cyranoksi’s approach is critical yet balanced. In fact, I don't think anything this tough-but-fair, has ever been published in an outlet such as Nature or Science on cloning-based stem cell research, which is the primary rival to iPS.

Perhaps his most interesting point concerns iPS's  potential to derive patient-specific custom stem cell lines - the "personal biological repair kit" that's also the long-standing goal of cloning-based stem cell research. Cyranoski cites a neuroscientist who assert that patient-tailored iPS cell lines "would take a ridiculous amount of money" - at least several hundred thousand dollars. If that's that case, wouldn't such lines derived via cloning be at least as expensive? 

At the other end of the spectrum, Nature Reports: Stem Cells published a commentary by researcher Thomas P. Zwaka which goes so far as to imply that human stem cells have already been derived via cloning (here called somatic cell nuclear transfer). Discussing cell reprogramming (that is, iPS), he says that:

[I]n contrast to reprogramming by SCNT, the acquisition of pluripotency [by iPS] requires multiple days, and it is still unclear which sorts of cells can be reprogrammed. Not only does SCNT currently yield higher-quality pluripotent cells, it also possesses a significant advantage because it does not use genomic alteration to introduce reprogramming factors....

Suppose, though, that iPS cells can be generated without genetic manipulation. Many labs are pursuing this goal, and it could be achieved soon. Does this mean that SCNT can be discarded, that it should become a relic like mouth pipetting? Absolutely not! [emphasis mine]

Not only does the author fail to mention that human stem cells have yet to be derived from cloning, but he also skips over the two major risks posed by the technique: the need for numerous fresh human eggs, and the technical groundwork it would lay for human reproductive cloning.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Gene of the Week: the Ruthless Dictator Gene

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 9th, 2008

Nature opens a news article with this:

Could a gene be partly responsible for the behaviour of some of the worlds most infamous dictators?
Selfish dictators may owe their behaviour partly to their genes, according to a study that claims to have found a genetic link to ruthlessness. The study might help to explain the money-grabbing tendencies of those with a Machiavellian streak - from national dictators down to 'little Hitlers' found in workplaces the world over.

Reading the article a bit more deeply, one learns that the researchers based their conclusions on a well-known psychological game in which volunteers (in this case students) are given money, as well as the power to distribute it among other people. The researchers looked at a gene that had previously been linked to "pro-social" behaviors, and found a correlation. The students who kept the money for themselves instead of sharing it were more likely to have a shorter version of the gene.

Psychologists and economists have nicknamed this experimental situation the "Dictator Game." Although the researchers who used it in this study reference the name of the game in the title of their article, they phrase their observations in terms of the degree of "altruism" exhibited. But Nature's reporter casts the experiment as revealing a "ruthless dictator gene." In turn, that framing was adopted by various othernews outlets, using attention-grabbing titles like "Some are born despots" and "Dictatorship may lie in ones genes."

This case goes a step beyond the excessive simplification of much reporting of genetic associations, which too often touts the gene for happiness, aversion to foods, or propensity to vote. And it goes beyond typical misleading framings that, once established, dominate news coverage. In this case, a news article in one of the world's most respected scientific journal tells us that a genetic characteristic can lead to the worst of possible human behaviors. To the extent that this framing becomes adopted as truth, how will society react to the identification of the gene in individuals? Or in fetuses? Or during preimplantation genetic diagnosis?

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