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Last Second Shot

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on November 17th, 2008

ESPN recently ran a web feature story and televised segment (Nov 17: now offline) on NBA All- Star forward Carlos Boozer and his son's struggle with sickle cell anemia. After months of trying to find a blood marrow donor to save Carmani's life, they tried an alternative route: having a pregnancy with genetically screened IVF embryos for the specific purpose of having a child that could produce cord blood that could treat Carmani's illness.

Savior siblings, or having a child only to save another child, raises numerous ethical questions. This except from the ESPN story captures many of them:

The second wave of guilt came hard and fast. CeCe had been so focused on finding a way to save Carmani that she'd never stopped to think about these babies. They weren't for her or for Carlos. She wasn't bringing them into the world out of love for them, or for what they might be or for who they might become. She was bringing them out of love for the suffering son she already had. She watched her abdomen grow and tried to feel for them. She couldn't picture them. Maybe there was no room in heart yet. Carmani was everything. Save Carmani. That was the mission.

Caruso and Darnovsky on Synthetic Biology

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 17th, 2008

The ETC Group's portrayal of synthetic biology

If you are doing some crash preparation to attend tonight's debate in San Francisco on synthetic biology with Drew Endy and Jim Thomas, here are two resources to help bring you up to speed.

Denise Caruso published a lengthy piece at Science Progress. There, she asks tough but reasonable questions about the lack of oversight of the emerging field, and offers a stepwise strategy to address them.

While there may be encyclopedic knowledge of the mechanics of electronic components and their interactions, clearly there remain far more questions than answers about the biological mechanisms that govern living organisms.

In fact, in many respects scientists know less today about these mechanisms than they did even just five years ago. As the NHGRI [.S. National Human Genome Research Institute] said at the release of the ENCODE [Encyclopedia of DNA Elements] report, scientists are now challenged “to rethink some long-held views” about genetic components and what they do. Given this scarcity of knowledge, can synthetic biologists truly claim to know enough about living, reproducing biological systems to design artificial organisms—and, more important, to reliably predict their behavior and effects once they have been released? Are the parallels they draw between electronic components and biological parts accurate, or even relevant?...

Rarely, if ever, has scientific discovery been so tightly coupled with proprietary commercial development, with so little time set aside for reflection and testing, so little consideration of results in the context of broader understanding, and so little independent review of research findings in anticipation of commercial release.

And on Friday, CGS's Marcy Darnovsky discussed the field with Prof. Ignacio Chapela of UC Berkeley on KPFA radio's Terra Verde show. You can download an MP3 of the show here, or stream it at KPFA's site.

Green's surprising turn on stem cells

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 12th, 2008

Ronald Green

In today's Washington Post, libertarian bioethicist Ronald Green issues his recommendation for a "stem cell solution" - a fix that's close to what the incoming Obama administration is likely to adopt. Green calls for opening federal funds for work with stem cell lines derived from embryos created but not needed in fertility treatments. In fact, he takes the surprising  position of limiting this funding to the lines created before the enactment of the revised policy, just like Bush did in 2001:

Like President Bush, President Obama could limit federal research to embryos created for reproductive purposes and abandoned before the statement of his policy. There are more than enough of these embryos to create all the lines we need for research. Under such a policy, there would be no use of embryos created with the intent of stem cell research....

[B]y observing that this policy represented only an extension of the one established by his predecessor, and by stressing the beneficial use of embryos that would otherwise be destroyed, President Obama could succeed in reducing the most vehement opposition to a manageable level.

This is unexpected, considering Green's track record of taking extremely permissive positions. By serving on the ethics advisory board of Advanced Cell Technology, he helped pave the way for cloning-based stem cell research, and opposed limits on payments for women's eggs that are needed for this speculative and unsuccessful line of work. Green has also advocated for inheritable genetic modification for height, weight, and intelligence in order to accelerate the economy and to better match children's outcomes with parents' high expectations.

Does Green's new found moderation represent a change in his perspective, or a shift to accommodate the changed political landscape, or something else? That remains to be seen.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Is Singapore pushing the payment boundary?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 11th, 2008

A headline out of Singapore last week stated, "OK To Compensate Egg Donors," coming just a few days after one that warned, "Kidney law to change." In both stories, the Ministry of Health is considering permitting some financial compensation to donors of eggs for research and of kidneys, respectively. And in both cases, the Ministry asserts that the amounts of compensation will not be large enough to act as an inducement.

The Ministry is treading a thin line here. International and national prohibitions on organ sales are well established as being exploitative and coercive, despite black markets and a recent push for opening the market (1, 2, 3 [PDF]). The logic behind eggs is similar, but less ingrained in policy. Selling them for any purpose, for example, is perfectly legal in most of the United States.

The report regarding eggs from the Ministry's Bioethics Advisory Committee is clear: The extraction of eggs poses real health risks, including potential death. The commercialization of eggs is wrong and to be avoided. In fact, the Committee rejects "egg sharing" arrangements, in which a woman undergoing assisted fertility treatment provides some of her eggs for research in exchange for a discount, such as those in the UK as amounting to payment.

Whereas existing Singapore policy allows reimbursement for direct expenses, the new proposal would permit compensation for lost wages and time. The former is consistent with a policy that the altruistic egg provider should be "no better off, nor any worse off." But paying for time is another matter. Isn't this equivalent as hiring someone? And how are payments for time to be calculated so that they are not inducements for, say, the unemployed?

A year ago, I would have worried that, by lowering the bar, this proposed policy would have put pressure on other jurisdictions to join in a race to the bottom. But with the continued lack of success of cloning-based stem cell research, which would use the eggs, and the frequent strides in the alternative methods of cellular reprogramming, I am skeptical if others would bother fighting for such a policy.

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