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A Literal Reductionist?

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 31st, 2008

Michael Rae
Michael Rae

Michael Rae thinks he is starving himself to life. He's six feet tall and weighs 115 pounds. He believes that calorie restriction will extend his life by 5 to 15 years, long enough (he hopes) for regenerative medicine to advance enough to make him immortal. Yes, he works with immortality crank Aubrey de Grey. And yes, even Rae admits that this is "crude, weak medicine."

He might want to check out Michael Pollan's excellent "In Defense of Food" which includes a withering assault on "nutritionism" and reductionist science in general, coupled with a strong defense of the wisdom of the ages (aka Mom). Pollan's advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Or maybe refusing to eat makes life seem longer.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Gene Doping Hits the Headlines

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 29th, 2008

Olympic Rings

The Beijing Olympics open at the end of next week, and right on cue come a whole bunch of reports of undetectable gene doping. "I predict multiple people will win in Beijing who have been gene-doped," says an American swim coach. It's "the next big thing," says gene therapy expert Ted Friedmann. This may be an April fool's hoax, but this is serious advocacy of gene doping, and this is very close to throwing in the towel and accepting it.

Friends of the Earth has just taken a lead on the issue, writing to all the major U.S. pro sports organizations asking them to ban gene doping. "Altering one's genetic makeup to impact athletic performance is unacceptable," said Gillian Madill (formerly of CGS, now genetic technologies campaigner at FoE). "Gene doping is cheating, and it's dangerous." See their factsheet, and the sample letter (pdf).

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), originally set up by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has been on the case since at least 2002, when it held a conference on "Genetic Enhancement of Athletic Performance." From the WADA Code (pdf): "The non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to enhance athletic performance, is prohibited." 192 countries and 570 sports organizations have signed the Copenhagen Declaration on Anti-Doping in Sport (pdf), which endorses the WADA Code.

However, many national governments could not legally be bound by the WADA Code, so UNESCO set up an International Convention against Doping in Sport in 2005. Thus far, 87 nations have officially signed up -- not yet including the United States. And the U.S. professional sports organizations, which have been slow to take effective action on doping in general, have been well behind the curve on gene doping. Let's hope the FoE letter gets not just attention but active responses.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Happy Birthday!

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 25th, 2008

Party balloons

Thirty years ago today, the first IVF baby was born. Her name is Louise Brown, and she is now a mother who generally prefers to stay out of the spotlight, so let us just wish her a very happy birthday.

This date also marks the birth of the modern assisted-reproduction industry, which has grown into a multi-billion-dollar business. Naturally, many of its practitioners are happy to mark the anniversary.

Nature went further, producing a special feature [subscription required] looking forward 30 years, including such gems as Davor Solter predicting that 100-year-old women will give birth and that that research on embryos "would mean you could introduce any kind of genetic modification." An editorial clearly endorsed inheritable genetic modification: It envisages a scenario where "the door would open wider to allow genetic enhancement and modification of germ cells and embryos." It also imagined a couple in 2038 who "chose this particular embryo [because she] had the best odds of growing up to be thin, happy and cancer-free ..."

In the same issue, however, there is Ruth Deech, the former chair of Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, saying: "In the United States, assisted reproduction is nearly an unregulated black market, guided by toothless 'rules' from non-regulatory bodies." Debora Spar, President of Barnard College and author of The Baby Business, agrees that "This is a $3 billion market without any established framework." In the New York Times Magazine last Sunday, Peggy Orenstein, who has written about her own experience with assisted reproduction, gently suggests: "A bit of mandatory reining in might not be a bad thing."

This kind of constructive criticism -- from supporters of assisted reproduction -- does seem to be gaining traction. That's a good sign. But calling for designer babies is a move in the wrong direction.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

The True Believer

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 24th, 2008

Michael West
Michael West

Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) may be on its last legs, but the driving force behind it is still pursuing his long-standing goal of immortality. Michael West's interests have evolved from the family trucking business to telomeres to stem cells to cloning and are now brushing up against cryonics, the controversial practice of freezing people (Ted Williams being perhaps the most notorious case) for hoped-for later resuscitation.

West founded Geron and named it with a reference to "old age" (as in, avoiding it), using seed money raised from "some fairly eccentric people who were interested in living forever" (quoted in Stephen Hall's Merchants of Immortality). At Geron, he was an early advocate of embryonic stem cells, which were not a major priority then. Eventually he was forced out in 1998, ironically just before human cell lines were isolated at Wisconsin in work supported by Geron.

He then founded Origen Therapeutics, with the idea of genetically altering chickens. Soon, however, he joined ACT, where Jose Cibelli and soon Robert Lanza were working on cloning projects. West either invented or at least publicized the "clone your own spare parts" theory of stem-cell research, which has now largely fallen by the wayside. Along the way, ACT became notorious for stunts (such as cloning a gaur, which promptly died) and exaggerations. They also spun off subsidiaries CIMA Biotechnology (avian cloning) and Cyagra (cattle cloning), both of which West headed for a while. West stepped down as ACT's President and Chief Scientific Officer "to pursue new opportunities" in October 2007.

In 2002, he became a Director of BioTime and in 2007 became its CEO and promptly brought the company "into the field of regenerative medicine." They soon launched Embryome Sciences, Inc. BioTime's previous focus had been on tools for low-temperature surgery, a natural offshoot of its founders' interest in cryonics -- the company derives from Trans Time, another of whose offshoots is Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a leading cryonics company.

West has been roundly criticized for "science by press release" -- not least in these pages -- but you have to admire his consistency and dedication. Apparently he really does want to live forever. Or maybe he's just working his way through nine lives; not counting corporate reorganizations, he seems to be up to eight companies now.

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