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Eggs, wombs and the economy: Hard times fuel a buyers’ market

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on December 16th, 2008

Several recent articles discuss the effects of the economic crisis on the egg and surrogacy markets. The Wall Street Journal's story, under the too-cute title "Ova Time," leads with reports from fertility clinics about "a surge in the number of women applying to donate eggs or serve as surrogate mothers for infertile couples."

WSJ quotes the president of a Chicago egg and surrogacy brokerage saying that inquiries from young women are up 30% in recent weeks, to about 60 calls a day. "We're even getting men offering up their wives," she reports.

And now that it's a buyers' market, she says, "Some people are looking for a 6-foot Swedish volleyball player with 39 ACTs, and they'll take their time."

An MSNBC story covers the up-tick in markets for sperm, blood, and hair as well as eggs: "Seeking quick cash in a tanking financial market, would-be sellers of a variety of body products…are filling waiting rooms and swamping agencies with inquiries," it reports.

MSNBC health writer JoNel Aleccia tried to get numbers to back up accounts from the operators of fertility clinics and egg and surrogacy agencies. She called the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, understandably thinking that the trade organization would have that information.

But ASRM public affairs director Sean Tipton seemed less than pleased with the question, perhaps because the fertility industry is loathe to admit that money might enter into a young woman's decision to seek cash for her eggs (though its Ethics Committee has published guidelines on "financial compensation" for same). "I guess I could imagine economic difficulty inspiring increased inquiries," Tipton said. "But egg donation is so complicated, donors are unlikely to do it only for the money."

In any case, Tipton was unable to help out with any data - because it doesn't exist. There is no central registry of women who provide eggs or carry pregnancies for other people, and the government doesn't even request data on egg retrieval cycles that are halted before completion. As reporter Aleccia delicately puts it, "the largely unregulated industry lacks a national data source."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

This Year’s Stocking Stuffers

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on December 15th, 2008

What do you give the people on your holiday shopping list who have everything? Themselves!

Just in time for the holiday season – free shipping until 12/22 and all – DNA 11 has lowered the price of its mini portraits to $169.  DNA Mini Portraits are 8” x 10” custom-made artistic renderings of individualized genetic sequences. Swab your cheek and FedEx the sample to their corporate headquarters, and they’ll send you a glass framed, Technicolor depiction of what a portion of your genome might vaguely look like.  

Not to be outdone in this race for your holiday bio-dollar, personal genomics company 23andme has recently followed up on its price slash to announce a “Holiday Season Multi-Pack Discount” through December 31st. Now, entire families can get into the holiday gift-giving spirit and save $200 when they order three or more kits.

The business of recreational genetics has always been about making money off of the public’s often-misplaced fascination with DNA – even when the product isn’t able to say very much about the consumer. Given the exuberance brought by the holiday season, don’t be surprised if you end up unwrapping one of these gifts in the next few weeks. 

Nature Makes News

Posted by Pete Shanks on December 11th, 2008


The current edition of Nature includes a remarkable Commentary (free online until December 18th) that advocates the use of "cognitive-enhancing drugs." It's co-written by researchers from six prominent universities in the US and UK (Hank Greely is lead) and by the editor of the magazine.

They state forthrightly that in the article they "propose actions that will help society accept the benefits of enhancement" although they blithely acknowledge that it is "too early to know whether any of these new drugs will be proven safe and effective."

The piece has provoked a minor storm of controversy (about which the editor is doubtless shocked, shocked to hear). The best line came first from George Annas, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle: "What were they smoking?" It was also used by Christopher Wanjek at LiveScience, who calls the Nature commentary "ivory tower intellectualism at its best" (shouldn't that be worst?) and makes some strong points about side-effects, especially given long-term usage.

Nature's own Forum includes many strongly critical comments, as well as a few supportive ones. Here are some excerpts:

  • I think this is probably the silliest idea I have yet heard being suggested by some otherwise really smart people.
  • [H]ow totally irresponsible to suggest that we healthy people now need to take drugs to compete! Which of the pharmaceutical companies are they trying to appease to obtain a grant for their study?
  • Surely you jest. Where is your evidence? Where are your randomized controlled trials? Where are your benefit/risk analyses? Where is your conscience? Do any of you remember "First, do no harm?" How did any of you ever qualify for a medical license?
  • Shame on the authors of this commentary.... Replace "cognitive enhancement drugs" in this commentary with "genetic and reproductive manipulation" and we end up with an argument for eugenics. Shameful.
  • [T]he authors are wrapped up in these intellectual arguments - their ivory tower - to such a degree that they can't see how coercive and desperate the environment they drop their pro-doping argument into is....  How can anyone be so oblivious: the authors' many and well-argued calls for research and education will be largely ignored, while only their licensing of brain doping will get though....
  • [I]t is a bit like the entire "penis enlargement" industry that makes profits on the backs of sexual insecurity as opposed to real need. Who DOESN’T wonder if they are smart or attentive enough? You can start backing up the snake oil tanker trucks now.

Nature has been on this subject for at least a year, since publishing "Professor's Little Helper" last December (co-authored by Barbara Sahakian, one of the authors of the latest piece). They have run correspondence arising from that, conducted a survey on neuroenhancement, and maintain a public Forum. In other words, this seems like a campaign.

Bizarre Cloners and Serious Questions

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on December 10th, 2008

[Cross-posted from "What's New in Life Science Research," at ScienceBlogs]

Obligatory puns notwithstanding, cloning - of humans, animals, and embryos for stem cells - is no laughing matter.The various applications raise different serious concerns, many of which have been discussed on this blog.

But before we leave the topic, it would be a shame not to note that the field has attracted more than its share of bizarre figures. The record is amusing to consider, in a sick sort of way, and important as a cautionary tale about the consequences of a free-for-all approach to human biotechnologies. Here are a few of the most colorful of the cloning characters...

Richard Seed is a Chicago physicist turned biologist who touched off a media storm with his January 1998 announcement that he would soon open a cloning clinic. According to Wikipedia, Seed first said that he would produce cloned babies for infertile couples, and later talked about cloning himself and his wife. Seed told NPR, "God intended for man to become one with God. Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God."

Rael - formerly a race car test driver named Claude Vorilhon - is the leader of a religious cult that believes human beings were created by alien cloners. The Raelians founded a human cloning company called Clonaid in 1997; announced in 2000 that an anonymous US couple had given them $1 million to clone their dead daughter from preserved cells, and claimed in 2002 that a cloned baby named Eve had been born. The Raelians were covered worldwide in news stories and editorials; Rael, bedecked in robes and a top-knot hairdo, testified at a US Congressional hearing.

Hwang Woo-suk is the South Korean cloning scientist who was lauded around the world for having produced the first stem cell lines using SCNT, and hailed by his government as its "Supreme Scientist" - until it became known that in fact he had perpetrated the scientific fraud that Science Magazine called "one of the most audacious ever committed." He also embezzled something like $3 million in state funds and private donations, and landed more than a dozen women in the hospital after egg retrieval procedures. He is currently cloning dogs with BioArts, the company that Alexandra Stern mentioned in her post earlier this week.

Bernann McKinney (shown here with one of the clones of her dog Booger) is the first customer of the dog cloning company RNL Bio, which is competing with - and fighting about patent rights with - Hwang's firm. She is a former beauty pageant queen who kidnapped a Mormon missionary with whom was obsessed, holding him at a remote cottage in Britain as her sex slave for days. She fled to Canada disguised as a mime, and then went into hiding in the US disguised as a nun. The dog that she had RNL Bio clone was a pit bull named Booger; she originally obtained him by breaking into an animal shelter where he was scheduled to be euthanized after he had attacked some joggers. As of August 2008, she was wanted in Tennessee, where she is accused of convincing a 15-year-old to break into a house so that she could buy a prosthetic leg for her three-legged horse.

Taking stock of all this, it would be easy, as the Center for Genetics and Society's Jesse Reynolds put it, to "dismiss the cloning endeavor as nothing but a freak show." But, Reynolds continues, that's not a good idea:

Despite a broad consensus that human reproductive cloning should be banned (as it already is in about sixty countries), there's no shortage of bioethicists and pundits who fail to see anything wrong in the practice, and supposed cloning opponents who limit their concern to matters of safety.

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