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60 Minutes Explores Developments in 'Mind Reading'

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 7th, 2009

The blog posts here at Biopolitical Times focus in large part on the social and ethical implications of developments in reproductive and genetic technologies such as embryonic stem cell research, reproductive cloning, and variations of human genetic engineering. But a number of new technologies raise issues that are just as important for how we think about the evolving relationship between technology and social justice.

An important case in point is the emerging field of neuroscience, which is quickly making claims that fMRI technologies can be used to, in colloquial terms, read people’s minds. Check out the video below for 60 Minutes’ review of the field. 

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The Top Stories of 2008

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 6th, 2009

Now that 2008 is behind us, below I try to capture the top ten news stories in  reproductive and genetic technologies.

Consumer genetic testing received and enormous amount of media coverage. Most media accounts fawned over the purportedly recreational wide-genome scans such as 23andMe, in part due to these companies' efforts to present their products as the must-have item of the hip and intellectual elite (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Some looked forward to, and even purchased, complete genome scans (1, 2, 3). Consumers also saw a greater number of over-the-counter products, such as a paternity tests and test that supposedly assesses children's talents (1, 2), as well as a rise in direct-to-consumer advertising. Many experts expressed concerns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), particularly about how people may respond to medically significant information in the absence of counseling as well as the tests' accuracy (1, 2). Regulators in California and New York intervened (1, 2, 3), but eventually backed off. In perhaps-related developments, the Internet giant Google, which was something of a launching pad for 23andMe, entered the health records market and backed an effort to scan thousands of genomes (1, 2, 3).

The first clonal and genetically modified human embryos were reported. The former was created by a small southern California biotech firm, Stemagen (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Although it was intended for research, Stemagen scientists did not attempt to derive stem cells from it. This task appears to have been recently replicated by a team in China. The first genetically modified human embryo was created in 2007, but uncovered in 2008 (1, 2, 3).

The new reprogramming method of creating fully pluripotent stem cells from normal body cells continued to make progress (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), although some scientists and observers seemed to resist acknowledging their potential and progress (1, 2, 3).

DNA forensics came under fire. Maura Dolan and Jason Felch at the Los Angeles Times produced an impressive investigative series about the limitations of DNA forensic databases (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and other papers published pieces as well (1, 2, 3). After expanding its database, as well as hearing recommendations that children be included, the United Kingdom was rebuked by the European High for Human Rights. Meanwhile, both the US federal government and California are expanding their forensic DNA databases to include people arrested but not convicted (1, 2).

Surrogacy made the news (1, 2, 3, 4) particularly the outsourcing of commercial surrogacy to India (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) That nation later took steps towards regulation of the half-billion-dollar industry (1, 2).

The first "race-based medicine" flopped. NitroMed stopped marketing BiDil, which had failed meet expectations, and then sold it off entirely. However, more race-based drugs are in development.

The global financial crisis struck the biotech industry, causes strains at enterprises including the controversial stem cell company Advanced Cell Technology (1, 2), a prominent consumer genetics firm, and the California stem cell research agency. Meanwhile, there were several reports of increased numbers of women lining up to provide eggs and surrogacy for cash (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The United Nations seems to be gearing up for reviving attempts towards a binding international treaty prohibiting human reproductive cloning (1, 2)

The United Kingdom overhauled its regulation of reproductive technologies and embryo research (1, 2, 3, 4). The most contentious point was the permissibility of creating animal-human hybrid embryos for stem cell research, which scientists succeeded in creating just before the bills' debate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). The prime minister got squarely behind the bill (1, 2, 3), which was highly controversial.

Pet and animal cloning made a surprising comeback after a relatively quiet 2007. Europe and the US debated whether to allow cloned meat in their food supplies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The feasibility of cloning endangered and extinct species - such as a mammoth - were discussed in serious fora (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The research team behind disgraced researcher Woo-Suk Hwang split into two competing factions, each with its own dog cloning company, and each with its publicity gimmicks (1, 2, 3, 4). The public face of this endeavor was a former beauty pageant queen who is on the lam. And while you are getting a pet cloned, you can consider having him or her genetically enhanced. A strange year indeed.

Drug Companies & Corruption

Posted by Pete Shanks on January 5th, 2009

Dollars & Rod of Asclepius

Marcia Angell has an excellent essay in the January 15th, 2009, New York Review of Books, on corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. It's structured as a review of three books (Side Effects, Our Daily Meds and Shyness) that works to tie them together into an indictment. Angell herself is the author of The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It.

The industry is making a minimal step toward responding to this growing chorus of complaint, by voluntarily banning gifts to doctors of pens and mugs and soap dispensers and who knows what else. Check out No Free Lunch for much more on this.

Drug companies refraining from doling out engraved pens and the like will reportedly cost the promotional industry $1 billion a year. How much these practices have been costing the rest of us is much harder to estimate.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

And the Band Played On

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 3rd, 2009

In this time of economic recession, many companies selling luxury goods are having a hard time making the case to consumers that their services are still worthy of premium prices. In the recreational genetics industry, a number of outfits have tried slashing prices or repackaging their products for the holidays to stir up demand. But the pet cloning company BioArts has tried to maintain interests in its service – which can run tens of thousands of dollars per cloned animal – through working the media.

First, there was the global auctioning of five dog cloning procedures. This was followed by the Willy Wonkish Golden Clone Giveaway whereby a ticket to have one’s dog cloned for free was given to the person with the best 500 word essay.

Now, BioArts is using the one-year birthday of the world’s first cloned pet dog as a way to promote its service. (Click here and here for coverage). Although cloning seems to capture the imagination and many people would do anything to keep Fido around forever, BioArts is certainly facing an uphill battle: many people simply can’t afford pets during these times, let alone pay upwards of $50,000 to replicate them.

Nevertheless, the dangers that pet cloning portends for our human future remain quite real. The New York Times’ coverage of BioArts captures the sentiment behind pet cloning that, if applied to human reproductive cloning, may lead us back down a very dark path:

When Mr. Hawthorne recalls Missy [the “original” dog from which clones were made], he tends to wax eugenic. “She was an amazing dog: superior intellect, incredibly beautiful, obedient, a phenomenal temperament,” he said. “I especially loved her majestic plume of a tail.” And in the clones, as he put it matter-of-factly, “all those qualities are represented.”

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