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Facts on the Ground

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 2nd, 2008

Researchers in the United Kingdom announced yesterday that they had successfully created (mostly) human clonal embryos using animal eggs. These hybrid embryos, intended for stem cell research, were able to divide to thirty-two cells over three days. That's not quite enough to be able to extract stem cells.

It's discouraging enough that this development was announced via a press release, and not a peer-reviewed publication, particularly so soon after an editorial in Nature decrying haste to publication in stem cell science. The announcement also comes just as the contentious Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is reaching the UK Parliament, with this very human-animal hybrid cloning process one of the most controversial platforms.

One need not be that cynical to believe that these researchers are trying to change the "facts on the ground" for the upcoming debate.

More on Personal Genomics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on March 26th, 2008

New types of community?

For a front-page Washington Post article on the burgeoning - and completely unregulated - personal genetic testing industry, Rick Weiss gathered some real howlers. Here's a quote from Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe:

"We envision a new type of community where people will come together around specific genotypes, and these artificial barriers of country and race will start to break down."

Weiss also includes some zingers, in a far more sober register. He writes,

"One subtle but potentially insidious downside of the new trend, [director of the National Human Genome Research Institute Francis] Collins said, is that people may slip into the DNA-deterministic thinking that fed the early 20th-century eugenics movement, in which people with `undesirable' traits underwent forced sterilizations."

Collins continued:

"I very much worry that all this emphasis on a 'gene for this' and 'gene for that' raises the risk that people will conclude that that's the whole story."

Collins has also addressed these concerns in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, co-authored with W. Gregory Feero and Alan E. Guttmacher. "The Genome Gets Personal - Almost" concludes this way:

There are many rapid advances in personalized medicine to celebrate. But if the goal is to empower [patients] to take full advantage of these discoveries, it is far too early to declare victory. A great deal of complex, groundbreaking, and multidisciplinary research is still needed before personal genomics reaches the mainstream of medicine.

The Gullible Gene?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on March 26th, 2008

Thirty-two companies are now marketing direct-to-consumer genetic tests, according to a chart [PDF] published by the Genetics and Public Policy Institute.

Eight of the 32, including the trio of 23andMe, Navigenics and DeCodeMe that has of late been much in the news, offer "personal genome" services. In other words, they look across the genome for variants that are supposed to correlate with predispositions to a range of conditions, from Alzheimer's to arthritis to - get this - athletic performance.

Other companies focus on propensity towards specific traits - many serious diseases, but also "hair loss," "addiction," and "skin profile." Two companies analyze the blood of pregnant women, and claim that they can thereby determine fetal sex.

Public-interest advocates, government advisory committees, and medical experts have been warning for years that oversight of genetic tests is inadequate. Back in 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report [PDF] on nutrigenetic testing titled Tests Purchased from Four Web Sites Mislead Consumers.

But there's no government agency regulating the genetic testing industry - not the FDA, which you'd think would claim it; not the FTC, which is supposed to prevent false and misleading advertising.

Are the tests accurate? Clinically valid? What about privacy and genetic discrimination? What will you do with the information anyway? And for that matter, what will the company do with it?

Buyer beware. And the rest of us too.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Keep your eye on the stem cell ball

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 25th, 2008

In a distinct shift of rhetoric, advocates of embryonic stem cell research recently recast its imminent benefits not as revolutionary regenerative medicine but simply as a better research tool for testing traditional small molecule drugs:

[Stem cell research Ian] Wilmut and Klein enthusiastically agreed that the nearer-term promise for stem cell research lies in its potential for aiding the development of new, valuable drugs by testing them on human cultured cells.

"That's a view that I would subscribe to very strongly," Wilmut said.

"There's the potential to accelerate drug development and reduce the cost of drug development with human cell lines," Klein agreed.

A better method of testing drugs is certainly less exciting than regenerating damaged tissues to cure Parkinson's or to enable Christopher Reeve to "get up out of that wheelchair and walk again." And while Californians certainly wouldn't have put up billions of taxpayer dollars if they thought they were just lowering costs for Big Pharma, in a way, I agree with these advocates: Testing drugs seems to be a more feasible, short term potential benefit than a paradigm shift in medicine.

This recent change in language follows a full-day closed-door strategizing session of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and it recalls to my mind the similar recasting of cloning-based stem cell research. Around three years ago, that theoretical technique to derive stem cells went from a potential way to derive personalized stem cell lines which would not face immune rejection by patients ("your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital"), to merely a method to create a useful laboratory model for a disease (a "disease in a dish").

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