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Obama and the future of stem cell politics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 26th, 2008

[ Cross-posted from "What's new in life sciences research" at ScienceBlogs, where Marcy Darnovsky will be posting over the next month. ]

Remember stem cell politics during the 2004 presidential campaign?

VP candidate John Edwards told a crowd that embryonic stem cell research would allow people like Christopher Reeve "to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again." In a speech at the Democratic convention, Ron Reagan Jr. predicted that cloning-based stem cell research would produce for each of us a "personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital." Meanwhile, opponents of deriving stem cells from embryos lost no opportunity to proclaim equally miraculous powers for "adult" stem cells.

What a difference four years make.

The stem cell world has been reshaped, both in terms of the science and politics. There are no longer only two types of stem cells - adult stem cells that don't require embryos, and embryonic stem cells that have stirred all the controversy. Over the past year, researchers around the world have developed and refined the derivation and control of a third type of stem cells - "induced pluripotent stem cells" or "reprogrammed cells." These are produced from ordinary body cells, without using embryos or women's eggs. (The eggs are used in efforts - so far unsuccessful - to derive stem cells from cloned embryos. More about this in a subsequent post.)

The political changes have been as dramatic. Stem cells figured little in the 2008 campaign, with the exception of a Michigan ballot measure. Both presidential candidates supported embryonic stem cell research that use embryos created but not used for reproductive purposes, and President-elect Obama has made it clear that he will lift the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding of it.

What's likely to happen after that?

The shift in policy will be valuable for both obvious and not-so-obvious reason. It will normalize the funding of stem cell research, putting it on a level playing field with other promising medical investigations and experiments. It will help move stem cell research away from its status as a hot-button partisan wedge issue. Hopefully, it will open discussion of stem cells to issues other than the status of human embryos.

A new chapter in the politics of stem cells will be good for science, and good for efforts to bring democratic accountability to the development of all genetic, reproductive and biomedical technologies. Here are some of the things we need:

  • Researchers and research advocates (as well as bloggers and journalists) should take a sober look at the exaggeration and hype that have shaped the field over the past decade. They should re-commit themselves to responsible descriptions of their work's prospects, and refrain from exaggerating the likelihood and imminence of breakthroughs, treatments and cures.
  • Democratic Congress members preparing stem cell legislation have indicated that their bills will include provisions for regulation and oversight of the research. Let's hope the structures and rules they propose are effective and transparent, and applicable to research whether it is publicly or privately funded.
  • Lawmakers and research review boards need to pay special attention to safeguarding participants in clinical trials, whether of adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells or (further off) reprogrammed stem cells. Because stem cell researchers, like other biomedical scientists, are increasingly involved in commercial enterprises, conflicts between patient well-being and research advancement are not uncommon. Overheated expectations about stem cells further raise the stakes.

And one more thing: All of us should think carefully about the lessons of the stem cell wars for future decisions about human biotechnologies. I'm definitely not of the mind that we should take politics out of science - that's not possible, and winds up hiding rather than taming partisan motives, commercial prerogatives, and special interests.

The stem cell wars have provided a great example of how not to conduct the politics of science. Our job now is to work out what a democratic politics of human biotechnology would look like.

Any ideas?

Silencing Science

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 25th, 2008

A biotech company is suing a researcher at the National Institutes of Health for defamation after he published results casting one of the company's products in a unflattering light. In April, the NIH's Charles Natanson reported in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that five blood substitutes are related to a 30% increase in mortality. Biopure, a company that makes one of the studied substitutes, first asked Natanson to retract his paper, citing flawed methodology. After he declined, Biopure filed suit, accusing him of making "false and defamatory statements."

I was initially frustrated by Biopure's lawsuit and what it may represent. While I don't equate science with constitutionally protected free speech, the open publication of unbiased results is necessary both for technological progress and for protecting people from potential current hazards. Such a lawsuit, if successful or even if Natanson settles out of court, could create an unprecedented and dangerous chilling effect. Unfortunately, this seems likes a logical outcome of three decades of the commercialization of the life sciences.

Yet after I read more details, I became at least partially sympathetic to Biopure's complaint. Most importantly, Natanson had failed to disclose his personal financial interest in a method which could reduce the negative side effects of blood substitutes. It's not out of the question that the commercialization of his own work had biased Natanson, consciously or not. Ideally, the court will be able to sort this.

HT to Integrity in Science Watch.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Doing the right thing with DNA forensics

Posted by Osagie Obasagie on November 21st, 2008

Defense attorneys, such as those at the Innocence Project, have been using DNA testing for years to exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted. But, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the efforts of Craig Watkins, a Dallas District attorney, who is reviewing old cases and using DNA tests to set the record straight. So far, this has led to six men being cleared of heinous crimes such as murder and rape.

Politics and a lack of resources often play a large role in preventing the thorough review of cases. District Attorneys make their careers by putting people in prison, not setting them free. And dwindling funding often means that crime labs do not have the staff or resources to keep up with current cases let alone review older ones. But, it is certainly heartening to see that at least one D.A. is doing whatever he can to use DNA technologies not only as a tool for conviction, but also as a opportunity for redemption. As Watkins notes, "We have the constitutional obligation to seek justice."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

A call for "truth in egg-donor advertising"

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 21st, 2008

A columnist for Princeton University's campus newspaper asks, "Did early feminists fight to keep the government out of their ovaries just so the free market could invade?"

Michael Collins reports:

Unfortunately, donors are sometimes misled about the health risks. Doctors working at fertility clinics have a conflict of interest because they are paid by infertile couples but give medical advice to donors. As a result of this conflict of interest, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) has received complaints from donors that they were promised coverage for egg-donation-related medical costs only to find that the coverage was extremely limited or came with high deductibles.

Collins asserts the need for federal regulation to "remedy the lack of available knowledge and limit the influence of a market system." His specific suggestions: establish a national register of egg donors and authorized fertility clinics, set a ceiling on compensation, and require that fertility clinics fully disclose their medical coverage plans. He also calls for college newspapers to "exert greater care in soliciting advertisements" from egg brokers and fertility clinics.

He ends by applying to the egg retrieval situation the lessons recently learned from the Wall Street fiasco:

With a lack of governmental regulation, the current system of free-market driven egg donation is prone to the same neglect and extravagances of Wall Street. The recent economic meltdown should stand as a reminder to the dangers of an unregulated market.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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