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Gene of the Week: American Exceptionalism

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 20th, 2008

Alexis de Tocqueville, an early student of American exceptionalism

In a column from a few weeks ago, conservative pundit Michael Medved asserted that various peculiar American cultural characteristics, including our economic success, are due to genetic differences. Citing two recent books, he claimed that  risk-taking among immigrants to America likely had a genetic component, one that is shared by their descendants here today. I've not read the books, but from my vantage point there are numerous significant flaws with this logic. Hypoid Logic covered many of the bases. At the very least, a cultural reinforcement of risk-taking seems an adequate and potentially superior explanation - particularly considering that a process like migration is unlikely to be a sufficient founder effect or population bottleneck for such a complex behavior.

But I can see the appeal of this logic to people such as Medved and Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Arms. It not only assuages successful Caucasians, whom many conservatives feel are the real victims of postmodernity. It even offers a guilt-free explanation of why dark-skinned people often remain poor. Thus, the current conditions for Native Americans and blacks are not due to the genocide or slavery carried out by the ancestors of contemporary American whites, but instead due to the absence of voluntary migration in their histories.

In the News this Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 20th, 2008

The Telegraph (UK) looks at IVF at thirty years, highlighting the rise in "soft" and "natural" egg extraction.

The California state government has requested that several consumer genetic testing companies cease offering their services to state residents.

A key venture capital firm has invested in a new company dedicated to deriving stem cells through reprogramming (i.e., iPS).

A gene therapy trials indicated progress for cancer patients.

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

Australia expands stem cell research to cloning and reprogramming

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 12th, 2008

Scientists in Australia may become the next to try obtaining stem cells from clonal human embryos. After the federal government removed its moratorium, teams of researchers from Monash University and the Australian Stem Cell Centre applied for licenses to proceed from the Embryo Research Licensing Committee. The committee met last week, but decisions have not been released.

The big question remains vague: How will the researchers obtain the human eggs? Media reports say that the eggs will be leftover from fertility treatments. But since all eggs are typically exposed to sperm during IVF, leftover eggs are rare. Granted, some fail to fertilize, but these appear to be bad candidates for cloning work. Will these instead be from an "egg sharing" arrangement, in which a woman or couple receives a discount on IVF in exchange for providing a portion of the extracted eggs to stem cell researchers. Australia bans payments for eggs [PDF], but so does the United Kingdom, which recently approved such an arrangement.

Media coverage was, unfortunately, thin and occasionally misleading:

Scientists want permission to use eggs left over from fertility treatment to clone human embryonic stem cells, in order to study a number of diseases including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

The green light for the controversial science could lead to cures for the afflictions in less than 10 years.

Ironically, other researchers at the Australian Stem Cell Centre are now the first outside of the US and Japan to work with reprogrammed stem cells, also known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). This method is not only rapidly emerging as an alternative to embryonic stem cells, but also gradually sending cloning-based stem cell research to a quiet death.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 12th, 2008

The California stem cell research agency is at risk of losing its identity. Back in the fall of 2004, when voters were convinced to pass Proposition 71, creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we were told that the new agency and the work it would fund would lead to cures and an economic boom. Since then, the hyped potential of embryonic stem cell research has cooled a bit, and new techniques to derive fully potent stem cells without embryo destruction have been discovered. And it now appears clear that the next US president will lift the federal funding restrictions on using human embryos for stem cell research. Together, these developments call into question the relevance of a multi-billion dollar state-level set-aside, particular as California reels from debt.

Of all the claims of the Proposition 71 campaign, its lavish economic argument was undermined most rapidly. For example, in the campaign's original analysis [PDF], the state would receive up to $1.1 billion in revenue from successful developments, and on top of that, California's share of royalties and licensing would be streaming in before the agency's bond payments start in 2010. Although that was a fantasy in 2004, such an optimistic forecast appears even more unrealistic now, considering that the first clinical trials for a potential embryonic stem cell therapy - which were in the pipeline long before CIRM - will not commence until next year, at the soonest. To top it off, Robert Klein, Proposition 71's author and campaign chair, was caught in 2005 misleading the voters [PDF, page 9] over whether such revenues were even possible. Since then, other critics have acknowledged that the research advocates’ financial analysis was unrealistic at best (1, 2, 3, 4)

Now, the leadership of the CIRM has commissioned a new economic report. While its results will certainly be more tempered in the absence of an electoral campaign, it will be authored by the same consulting group used in 2004 by the campaign. My suspicion is that it is being prepared to be a defense against any potential legislative threats to CIRM’s state funds. Unfortunately for CIRM, any realistic economic analysis may not be an effective shield in Sacramento during a period of drastic budget cuts. What's more, by reviving past controversy, revisiting the economic argument may backfire. Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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