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PhRMA and BIO self-image: Downtrodden and besieged

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 25th, 2008


It's always odd when the privileged and powerful lay claim to the status of victimhood. An example of this unattractive phenomenon is displayed on the cover of the latest issue of The Journal of Life Sciences, shown here.

This slim bimonthly publication, launched last year, carries a mix of business and lifestyle features for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. The February/March issue, for example, includes a lavishly illustrated story about San Diego golf courses as venues for high-powered bioscience deals, as well as assorted news on the industry's financial and policy prospects.

Though it has the look of an independent magazine, TJOLS is a project of venture capital firm Burrill & Company and the California Healthcare Institute (CHI), a lobbying and trade group. Its advisory board is made up of academic science heavyweights and bioscience financiers and CEOs, including five current or former members of the California stem cell program's board.

The current issue’s cover story - the one illustrated by the governmental jackboot crushing a scientist - examines bills and hearings of concern to Big PhRMA and Big BIO in the current Congressional session. On the sub-textual level, it's a fascinating read. Suffused with an anxious tone and accompanied by another strikingly dire image (researchers bound and gagged in red tape), it basically concedes that the bio-industrial complex doesn't have much to worry about from the current crop of lawmakers.

Last year's FDA reform bill, which takes effect this year, is judged benign. "We were worried that, in the wake of Vioxx, there would be draconian safety provisions, but we avoided that," comments an "optimistic" James Greenwood, BIO CEO and former Republican Congress member from Pennsylvania. (The Vioxx scandal, in which Merck's ibuprofen alternative caused at least 40,000 deaths from premature heart attacks and strokes, led to expectations of a meaningful FDA overhaul. But that's not what happened. As independent analyst Merrill Goozner put it, "Commercial interests still trump safety concerns at America's drug oversight body.")

Greenwood and other industry commentators go on to note additional provisions in the legislation that will "bolster innovation" and remove "burdens" on product development.

So the regulatory climate is looking pretty darn comfy. And the pharmaceutical industry continues to be one of the most profitable in the world – the second highest in the US in 2007. But the captains of bioscience still reserve the right to whine: In their introductory publishers' comment, Steven Burrill and CHI head David Gollaher complain that "anxiety about a government `takeover' of American medicine is not merely political posturing."

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on February 22nd, 2008

Secretly videotaped footage by the Humane Society of America showing cows too sick to walk being forklifted, shocked, and dragged to the slaughterhouse has led to the largest beef recall in American history: 143 million pounds, 37 million of which went to school lunch programs. Although the recall only pertains to meat packaged by California-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Company over the past two years, the USDA openly admits that most of the recalled meat has already been eaten - fortunately without incident.

What's ironic, however, is that if we're so concerned about the health risks associated with eating sick or abnormal animals, why on earth has the FDA approved meat produced by cloning - a method known for producing significant abnormalities - for human consumption? The Center for Food Safety notes:

Most cloned animals born on a farm, outside a veterinary hospital, have little chance of surviving. Those animals that manage to survive until birth are likely to suffer a wide range of health defects and deformities including: enlarged tongues; squashed faces; intestinal blockages; immune deficiencies; diabetes; high rates of heart and lung damage; kidney failure; and brain abnormalities
Or, as Rudolph Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute has noted, "cloned animals have major dysregulation of multiple genes, so they are not normal at all." Sound tasty, eh? Let's just hope that it doesn't take the USDA two years to figure out that it’s probably not the best idea to eat this stuff. 

More media coverage of surrogacy outsourcing

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 21st, 2008

US popular media's fascination with the "rent-a-womb" boom in India continues with a segment Wednesday morning on NBC's The Today Show, the highest-rated morning news and talk show in the United States since 1996.

The Today segment features a US couple from Texas whose surrogacy arrangement involves an on-line medical tourism company and a fertility unit in a large hospital in Pune, India. It includes a brief remark by a young woman serving as a surrogate, who affirms that the money she'll earn (about $7000) is what motivates her, and a longer interview with the contracting couple, who affirm that the money they'll save (about $50,000) is what motivates them.

Today's correspondent mentions "ethical questions" raised by surrogacy outsourcing - which, she reports, has grown to a half-billion dollar industry in India - and refers to unnamed "critics" who point out that the practice is completely unregulated by the Indian government, and that the infant mortality rate in India is 69 times higher than it is in the United States. She even gives a few seconds to Columbia University ethicist Robert Klitzman, who raises concerns about "psychological risks" and the lack of data on "medical problems and complications" that surrogates might experience.

She doesn't mention that the Texas couple's surrogate is carrying twins, which according to a policy mentioned on the website of the medical tourism company they used, means that she'll be required to have a Caesarean.

As in many other US accounts of surrogacy in India, the overall tone is upbeat and approving. A successfully established pregnancy is described as "the beginning of a new life" and "a new beginning" for the surrogate. At least as much attention is given to the intended parents' inconveniences as to the surrogates' emotional, social, and physical challenges. And the segment's wrap-up is Today co-host Matt Lauer breezily wishing the Texas couple "congratulations and good luck."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Big Bucks Become Bigger at CIRM

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 19th, 2008

While publicly funded with taxpayer dollars, the California stem cell research agency is exempt from many of the norms of state governance. One example is that it sets the salaries of its employees on its own, instead of using the civil service pay scale. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine drew criticism early on when it disclosed that its staff salaries would range from $125,000 to $400,000 annually. As a reference point, the state's governor is offered $175,000. Now, the CIRM's leadership is looking to up those numbers, with the top end reaching $620,000.

For now, this is a range of possible salaries, and not yet actual paychecks. But given the lack of accountability to voters or their representatives, there's little doubt that salaries will catch up with these potential ranges.

Given the dire condition of the state's budget and the recent pay scandal at the University of California, this move will only attract more criticism for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. If the compensation sums skyrocket according to the CIRM's plan, calls for its termination, such as the recent editorial in Investor's Business Daily, would likely grow more common.

Previously on Biopolitical Times;

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