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Eggs on ice: New profit center for the baby business

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 31st, 2008

A growing number of assisted reproduction companies are now promoting egg freezing and banking for women who are - or can be encouraged to become - nervous about their biological clocks. The Washington Post said in May 2007 that "at least 138" fertility clinics offer this service; a more recent estimate put the number at "more than 220."

This despite the fact that American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the fertility industry's own trade organization, put out a press release last fall titled "ASRM Urges Caution, Strong Counseling for Women Seeking Egg Freezing." ASRM says the technique is experimental - success rates are tiny, effects on the resulting children uncertain - and warns that for now it's appropriate only for women with cancer or other illnesses who may become infertile as a result of treatments for such as chemotherapy.

"Social egg freezing" has also been widely covered by media from women's magazines (Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan) to the business press (Wall Street Journal, Forbes) to the most mainstream of newspapers and broadcast outlets (New York Times, NPR, Newsweek, NBC Nightly News, ABC News). Much of the coverage could easily be mistaken for an infomercial - which explains why it's helpfully collected on the website of the egg freezing company Extend Fertility, whose tagline is "Fertility. Freedom. Finally."

An article this week in the Washington Post falls squarely into the infomercial genre - it fails even to mention the ASRM's cautions. For a far different treatment (not included on Extend Fertility's website), see the July-August newsletter of the National Women's Health Network. That article's title asks whether egg freezing is an example of "Marketing Ploys for Career-oriented Women." Unlike other coverage of social egg freezing, it observes that egg retrieval is invasive and risky for women. And it notes that

advocates of egg freezing use alarming statistics in a misleading fashion to encourage women to create unnecessary back-up plans based on an ineffective, expensive, and unproven technology.

Previously on Biopolitcial Times:

Politicized Prognostication on Pluripotency and Patent Portfolios

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 29th, 2008

Pointless apolitical prognostication in Puxatony, Pennsylvania

Yesterday, researchers at Harvard announced a major development towards the goals of regenerative medicine. Using mice, Doug Melton and his team transformed one type of cell into another, but they bypassed stem cells and embryos.  

These results are impressive. But some of the initial reactions were all too predictably polarized. Conservative opponents of embryonic stem cell research said that embryos are no longer needed. Liberal supporters, many of whom have downplayed progress in cellular reprogramming and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), asserted that the use of embryos remains essential.

I don't pay too much attention to these claims. Most of these stem cell ideologues have been saying the same thing for years, and will continue to do so, regardless of scientific developments. And most of them are non-scientists making arguments concerning competing lines of scientific inquiry. The scientists themselves, of course, support more funding and oppose most regulation, regardless of how they feel about the method in question.

Many of those ideologically committed to one side of the embryonic stem cell debate or the other believe that, although science plays a role, the debate will not be resolved through science, but instead through politics - and they are probably right. In that regard, the momentum of developments gives hope to the opponents of using embryos. If the trajectory continues, they'll soon have a strong case - but they're not there yet.

On a related note, I was surprised by the reaction of Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) to the development:

I'm stunned. It introduces a whole new paradigm for treating disease....

One day, this may allow the doctor to replace the scalpel with a sort of genetic surgery. If this can be perfected, it would represent one of the Holy Grails of medicine.
When induced iPS cells were first announced a year ago, Lanza went out of his way to highlight the new method's potential ethical shortcomings. In a letter published in Science and statements to newspapers, he highlighted the cells' potential to lead to clonal or chimeric humans, reliance on genetic modification through viruses, and likelihood of forming tumors in humans. This wasn't surprising: While iPS cells may at some point reduce or even obviate the need for embryonic stem cell research, they already represent the nail in the coffin for cloning-based work, on which ACT had banked.  

Why the drastic turn on Lanza's part? Perhaps the reporter used only the enthusiastic portion of his response, and left out his criticisms of iPS cells or ongoing preference for cloning methods. Or maybe Lanza sees the writing on the wall, and is positioning himself for his next job, as ACT is on the verge of collapsing. Or perhaps he has a financial stake: ACT has a large and complex intellectual property portfolio, and just last week it obtained an exclusive license on inventions concerning somatic cell reprogramming. The company "believes that the filing date and scope of the intellectual property on this important reprogramming technology could prove to be strategically significant in defining the somatic cell reprogramming patent landscape."

Republicans Toughen on Embryonic Research. Will McCain Follow?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 28th, 2008

The Republican party platform, to be unveiled next week, will take a much harder line than before against research that uses embryos. A blog po­st at the conservative ­National Review provides a first-hand account of how changing an "or" to an "and" resulted in the platform expressing opposition to all "experimentation on human embryos." Not only is this position regardless of the funding source, but the platform committee rejected an amendment that would have limited the opposition to the "destruction of" embryos.

It's clear that Republican hard-liners are trying to capitalize on technical advances that don't use embryos. My guess is that public opinion has not yet changed substantially, though, and the party risks alienating moderates. But even more risky is that the party platform now contradicts the position of its presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain. He has supported expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Does the new party platform make it more likely that he will bow to conservative pressure, and alter his own position? 

McCain's statement at last week's forum with Rev. Rick Warren left that door open. And his website slightly dodges the issue. While it emphasizes his support for research that doesn't destroy embryos and his opposition to "the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes," it does not explicitly address embryonic stem cell research using embryos from fertility clinics.

McCain has left himself enough wiggle room to revisit his position, potentially moving to the right to shore up his base. However, I remain skeptical that he'll use it.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Assisted Reproduction at 30

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 25th, 2008

Biopolitical Times contributor and CGS colleague Pete Shanks writes about the need for regulation in the assisted reproduction industry over at The Cutting Edge. An excerpt:

Thirty years ago the assisted reproduction industry was born. From tiny but noisy beginnings, it grew through an occasionally troubled adolescence to maturity. Now it's time for it to become a responsible member of society….

[T]he American Society for Reproductive Medicine issues guidelines, and the Centers for Disease Control collect data, but there are essentially no sanctions for violations….That's why so many moderate, sympathetic analysts complain that the industry is "not enveloped by a coherent whole regulatory framework" (Kathy Hudson, Johns Hopkins). "A bit of mandatory reining in might not be a bad thing," suggests Peggy Orenstein, who has written about her own experience with assisted reproduction. As Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, says, "Governments need to play a more active role in regulating the baby trade."

The demand for regulation will only grow as the industry tries to broaden its markets. Some new techniques are useful, such as those allowing previously infertile men to father children (though there remain some medical questions about the results). Others are more problematic. Egg freezing is being pushed as a techno-solution to the "problem" of working women wanting to delay pregnancy. And on the horizon, getting closer all the time, is the idea of choosing your baby's height or body type or perhaps even intelligence….

These issues are not new. Back in 1978, Dr. C. Everett Koop, later President Reagan's surgeon general, while supporting IVF worried about "the next step, when Mrs. Jones decides she wants a child from that tall, blond gene pool down the block." A prominent liberal British MP feared that "we are moving to a time when an embryo purchaser could select in advance the color of the baby's eyes and its probable IQ."

The British, to their credit, set up an agency to oversee these and related issues so long ago that it is now in the process of reform. The U.S., observers say, should also take the next step to properly oversee an industry that needs to take its rightful place in society - supported, available to all, and legally regulated.

 Previously on Biopolitical Times:


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