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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.

More From the Los Angeles Times on DNA Databases

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on July 22nd, 2008

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times published another article on what has become an intriguing series questioning the long held belief that matches made in DNA databases uniquely identify perpetrators with an extraordinarily high level of certainty – often expressed to juries as one in several billion. 

This installment draws attention to the efforts taken by the FBI to keep such scrutiny under wraps through a variety of arguments and tactics designed to maintain DNA forensics’ presumption of infallibility. This is largely being done by limiting the exposure of federal and state databases to outside researchers and attorneys trying to figure out the likelihood that two people might share the same genetic profile and thus the possibility that these technologies may be unwittingly used to convict innocent people. While much research remains to be done, one thing is certain: forensic science cannot be credible unless its methodologies and assumptions are open to independent review. 

Click here for the LA Times’ previous installment on this topic.

Public interest groups step up challenges to sex selection in India

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on July 21st, 2008

How low can skewed sex ratios go? According to Disappearing Daughters, a report by ActionAid and the International Development Research Centre, there are now just 300 girls under the age of six for every 1000 boys in some high-caste urban areas of Punjab, India.

The situation has continued to worsen in spite of public information campaigns and a 1994 Indian law that prohibits prenatal sex determination and sex-selective abortion. Disappearing Daughters reports that some medical professionals who routinely violate the ban say that their participation in these practices is a "social duty" because the girls would face discrimination all their lives.

The report also chronicles deaths of girls and female babies through neglect and mistreatment. According to ActionAid's Laura Turquet, "The real horror of the situation is that for women, avoiding having daughters is a rational choice. But for wider society, it's creating an appalling and desperate state of affairs."

The strength of "son preference" in India and other countries is also behind the recently announced IVF-assisted birth of twins - including one boy - to an Indian woman whose age is estimated as 70. "At last we have a son and heir," the woman's 77-year-old husband said.

Disappearing Daughters made the front page of The Telegraph, Calcutta's largest English daily newspaper, and was reported in dozens of other publications in India and around the world. But it appears not to have been picked up by a single U.S. newspaper.

Developments that originate in the U.S. are nonetheless important drivers of sex selection in India and other parts of the world. Scores of thousands of specially designed low-cost ultrasound machines, used for early sex determination throughout India, are manufactured by General Electric. And websites for U.S. companies advertise offer at-home sex determination kits to pregnant women. Voluntary Health Association, a Punjab non-governmental organization, has asked the state Supreme Court to block the website of the Baby Gender Mentor test, whose maker is the target of several ongoing investigations and class action lawsuits for misleading marketing claims, fraud, and other violations.

The authors of Disappearing Daughters conclude that “the rise of sex-selective abortions and neglect of girls is simply the latest manifestation of entrenched gender discrimination, which denies women and girls their most basic rights.” They call for “sustained action on many fronts,” without which, they say, “millions more women will go missing in India.”

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

In the News this Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on July 17th, 2008

­ Contr­oversial biotech company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) may be closing shop soon due to a lack of funds.

A British tabloid ran a piece portraying the rising use of egg freezing by single professional women in their 30's as generally unproblematic.

The Uttar Pradesh state government has decided to review the poor implementation of India's law prohibiting sex selection.­

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown postponed until autumn the vote on the bill to overhaul the oversight of assisted reproduction and embryo research.

You can stay up-to-date with the CGS newswire, also available via our RSS feeds­.

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