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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:


Girl babies, boy babies, gender expectations

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 25th, 2008

Sex selection has become a frequent topic in parenting publications. The latest treatment is in Babble, the hip online magazine "for a new generation of parents" that debuted in December 2006. In "Pick a Sex, Any Sex," Jeanne Sager reports on parents who have, and parents who would never consider it.

Sager also cites the qualms of a California psychotherapist and author, Tina Tessina, who says, "there are a lot of issues parents ignore when they tie expectations to a child's sex."

"I can understand, if parents already have a child of one gender, why they might want a child of the other gender," Tessina said. "However, gender does not determine personality or parent-child connection. So, parents who put a great deal of store in expectations about gender may turn out to be disappointed…

"It really depends on the emotional maturity of the parent, but this kind of trying to control the baby's gender - rather than just being glad it's a healthy baby - indicates some lack of emotional maturity anyway."

Babble's home page features a poll on sex selection. In answer to the question, "Would you go to extremes to pick your baby's sex?" - admittedly not a neutral way of eliciting opinion - only six percent selected the answer "You bet."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

How to turn a gene for this into one for that

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 22nd, 2008

Snidely Whiplash, a stereotypical villain who certainly looks ruthless

In June, I reported that research into a gene correlated with the presence, or absence, of altruism during an economic game was reported by Nature News as the "dictator gene" with a "link to ruthlessness." At the time, I asked:

In this case, a news article in one of the world's most respected scientific journal tells us that a genetic characteristic can lead to the worst of possible human behaviors. To the extent that this framing becomes adopted as truth, how will society react to the identification of the gene in individuals?

Now, a small firm is not only offering the "ruthlessness gene" test, but has created a target market. Genesis Biolabs is offering what it portrays as "the first genetic screen for marital success":

Screening for the "ruthlessness" gene is likely an indicator of marital happiness. Marriages born out of mutual respect and mutual interest rather than self-interest are much more likely to succeed and probably less likely to end in divorce. Is your fiancé just after your money? Those with the "ruthlessness" gene may very well be. Those with the altruistic version of AVPR1a probably aren't. Ruthless people will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. Genetics may not be a guaranteed indicator of human behavior and motivation [genetics is only one half of the nature vs. nurture debate] but genes don't lie. Before you make a lifetime commitment, have your fiancé tested. 

These results were published in the journal Genes, Brain and Behavior. NatureNews subsequently published an article referring to this gene as the "Ruthlessness Gene"! The original authors might have preferred to call it the altruistic gene, the benevolent gene or the universalistic gene. A Google search for the ruthlessness gene leads right to AVPR1a, while a search for these other possible names does not....

Before getting married, or making a business partnership, this genetic test might be appropriate. All of our politicians should probably submit to this test.

The purveyors of this test concede that it doesn't really measure potential marital success. And Genesis also accurately points out that it was Nature News - not the researchers who discovered the gene - who cast it as the "ruthlessness gene."

This is a glaring example both of the importance of media framings, and of why consumer genetic tests - and emerging human biotechnologies in general - are in dire need of responsible oversight. Hopefully, the company's remarkably low-budget website will deter most consumers from forking over a hundred bucks in hopes of discovering if they, or their potential spouses, business partners, or elected representatives, may secretly be jerks (at least at the genetic level).

Discover magazine sets a new bar for puffery

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 20th, 2008

Robert Lanza

"Puff piece" is a term for a piece of journalism that is a simplistic, gratuitous hagiography to a public figure. These are expected during an election year by reporters currying favor or publications that take readers' minds off the "real world." But an article in the latest issue of Discover on Robert Lanza, vice president for research at the struggling stem cell company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), sets a new standard.

Essentially pretending that the last seven years have not occurred, author Pamela Weintraub breathlessly portrays Lanza as a genius misfit who bravely bucks rigid authority and has been a pioneer in cloning-based stem cell research, an exciting field with great potential. And, according to the interview, titled "Fighting for the Right to Clone," he would have made even more progress, if it weren't for those meddling federal authorities.

Whether defying the dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine so he could publish a book on world health or challenging the titans of cosmology, Robert Lanza has never followed the script. It’s no wonder, then, that this renegade doctor would lead the charge into medicine’s most controversial turf: the creation of cloned embryos for therapy and the engineering of spare human parts.

The value of therapeutic cloning has long been clear to Lanza...

Lanza’s single-minded quest to usher in this new age has paid dividends in scientific insights and groundbreaking discoveries. Today a world force in the field of regenerative medicine, he’s close to delivering cellular therapies that might reseed the immune system, heal damaged hearts, even save limbs. Yet for almost 20 years government policy has kept his innovations literally on ice. He has been called a murderer for tampering with embryos, and personal threats were so common at one point that he believed he would be killed....

In a 2001 article, U.S. News & World Report called Lanza the “living embodiment” of the fictional genius in the movie Good Will Hunting, whose Massachusetts accent is as thick as Lanza’s own.

The introduction above (emphasis added) is followed by a relentless stream of softball "questions" such as, "This seems like lifesaving technology on an unprecedented scale, yet the work has been stymied by politics. It must be frustrating to have these cells sitting around the lab, in storage, when you could be helping people," and "You’re launching the future of medicine, but it is still on hold."

But even setting aside the the fluff and softballs, Weintraub misrepresents both cloning-based stem cell research and ACT. The field has had very little progress - and what has occurred has not been the work of Lanza or ACT. And the company, currently on the brink of closing shop due to lack of funds, has regularly been roundly criticized of excessive hype and science-by-press-release, even by supporters of stem cell research such as Sen. Arlen Spector.

The cited 2001 article in US News and World Report is perhaps the epitome of these exaggerations. In it, the company claimed - without the benefit of a peer-reviewed article* - to have created the first human clonal embryos. This was quickly debunked, and it wasn't until this year that such a feat was accomplished by a competing firm.

Regardless of this recent development, cloning-based stem cell research looks less and less relevant not due to overbearing government policies but because of extremely limited scientific progress progress, the large number of fresh human eggs required, and the derivation of patient- and disease-specific stem cell lines using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS).

*Update (January 6, 2009): I thank the commenter below for refreshing my memory. The results of the experiment were released in e-biomed, an obscure online academic journal edited by a friend of ACT's CEO, and whose editorial board included two coauthors of the paper in question. The publication of the articles in the journal and in US News and World Report were arranged to coincide. A small scandal endued, and three members of e-biomed's editorial board resigned, one of whom said the "paper was of little or no scientific value" and that "[We] would have counselled against publication." The electronic journal has since ceased publication

For subsequent debates, see articles in the New York Times, Science, and Scientific American, BBC News, The Independent, and Nature Biotechnology.

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