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The Many Hats of Robert Klein

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 11th, 2008

In many ways, this weekend's stem cell research advocacy gathering in San Francisco is unremarkable. Many of the same speakers can be found at similar meetings and mini-conventions several times each year. But this one is staged by Americans for Cures, led by Robert Klein, who is also the head of California's multi-billion dollar stem cell research agency. Not only is he juggling two incompatible roles - stem cell booster and public servant - but under his guidance, his advocacy organization has attacked his political opponents, praised his own work, and spread misleading information.

To call Klein a "stem cell czar" is easy, perhaps even modest. He was the primary author of the ballot initiative that created the agency (and insulated it from most public oversight and accountability). He was the chair of the campaign for the initiative’s passage, as well as the campaign’s largest donor. After its passage, Klein was unanimously nominated to chair the board of the new agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). In fact, the requirements for the job that he wrote into the law fit his own experience so closely that few other Californians could even have qualified for consideration.

After the ballot measure passed in November 2004, Klein tried to wear both hats, those of booster and of public servant. The initiative campaign transformed into the advocacy group California Research and Cures Coalition, which remained headed by Klein and operated out of his business office in Palo Alto. In response to public criticism, he quickly resigned from the organization.

But Klein couldn't resist politicking for his cause. In 2006, a new group appeared, Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, with Klein again at the helm. Its first action was to issue a public letter smearing Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) on the eve of her primary election for Secretary of State. She had been the most vocal supporter of the stem cell initiative in the state house, but was now backing legislation to reform the agency. As a taxable lobbying group, Klein's outfit raised also raised money for his political allies in the fall 2006 general election.

Now, Americans for Cures has assumed the mantle of both the California Research and Cures Coalition and Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures. Two months ago, it issued a press release backing one of Klein's pet projects at the CIRM. What's more, it is extensively downplaying the potential of a new alternative to the use of embryos in stem cell research - an alternative whose ascendance would call into question the relevancy of CIRM and its use of taxpayer dollars during a time of budget crunching.   

To top it off, the group is exaggerating the state of cloning-based stem cell research, implying inaccurately that stem cells have already been derived via this technique. Some tidbits from its website:

A research process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), sometimes referred to as "therapeutic cloning", allows scientists to produce embryonic stem cells without using sperm to fertilize an egg.
Embryonic stem cell research utilizes a process called therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), to copy cells with the goal of making stem cells to better treat and cure people with serious diseases and injuries. Using SCNT, scientists can produce embryonic stem cells without using sperm to fertilize an egg.
Patient Specific Stem Cells [glossary entry]: Stem cell lines, developed through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), that match a patient. These cells could be useful as therapeutics to replace disease tissues or, in the case of cells from someone with a genetic disease, to study how the disease occurs.
(Bear in mind that, with a new presidential administration, it’s almost certain that funding for cloning-based stem cell research is all that will be left to distinguish CIRM's portfolio from that of the federal government.)

It can be difficult to see the public funding of stem cell research for what it is: An appropriate use of taxpayer dollars that has popular support in California, but that must be balanced against both changing understanding of the research's potential and other funding priorities.

Considering an analogy to a better-known domain can be illuminating. Imagine the response if the appointed head of California’s Department of Transportation was also the leader of a highway-building advocacy group that issued statements praising the department head, attacked his or her political opponents, raised funds for allies, spread misinformation about the benefits of highways, and compiled arguments against mass transit and bicycling.

It wouldn't "pass the smell test" for a moment, and this shouldn't either. 

Goodman on "The Globalization of Baby-Making"

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on April 11th, 2008

Ellen Goodman


In today's Boston Globe, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman gives voice to unease about pregnancy outsourcing, based on concerns about social and reproductive justice.

Goodman acknowledges the desires and needs that surrogacy addresses:

I don't make light of infertility. The primal desire to have a child underlies this multinational Creation Inc. On one side, couples who choose surrogacy want a baby with at least half their own genes. On the other side, surrogate mothers, who are rarely implanted with their own eggs any longer, can believe that the child they bear and deliver is not really theirs.

But, she goes on,

Nevertheless, there is - and there should be - something uncomfortable about a free-market approach to baby-making. It's easier to accept surrogacy when it's a gift from one woman to another. But we rarely see a rich woman become a surrogate for a poor family. Indeed, in Third World countries, some women sign these contracts with a fingerprint because they are illiterate…

It's the commercialism that is troubling. Some things we cannot sell no matter how good "the deal." We cannot, for example, sell ourselves into slavery. We cannot sell our children. But the surrogacy business comes perilously close to both of these. And international surrogacy tips the scales.

So, these borders we are crossing are not just geographic ones. They are ethical ones. Today the global economy sends everyone in search of the cheaper deal as if that were the single common good. But in the biological search, humanity is sacrificed to the economy and the person becomes the product. And, step by step, we come to a stunning place in our ancient creation story. It's called the marketplace.

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:

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