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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").

Genetic Enhancement as Mutually Assured Destruction

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 24th, 2008

An article in the latest issue of Democracy- a fairly new progressive policy journal - frames the prospect of human genetic modification as a threat to global security. Jamie Metzel, an expert on international relations and currently Executive Vice President of the Asia Society, argues that an international treaty is called for:

But despite this looming threat, the world remains dangerously unprepared for the international genetic "arms race" that could one day emerge, in which countries or even corporations compete to generate the most competitive offspring, even as they may recognize the dangers of following this path.... As soon as one country heads down this path, others will immediately set out to keep pace. Sound improbable? The nuclear arms race resulted in the irrational production of more than 30,000 nuclear warheads, and the world came dangerously close to nuclear war more than once. The genetic arms race could well turn out the same way, and this time, we might not be so lucky.

To maximize the benefits of advances in genetic technologies while minimizing their potential harms, the world community must develop global standards and a multilateral structure capable of both promoting advances in human genetic manipulation and preventing abuses. Call it a Genetic Heritage Safeguard Treaty. The science is moving extremely fast. The policy framework must now catch up.
You can read the full piece here.

Child Abuse: UK Police Want Genes of 5-Year-Old "Future Criminals"

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on March 18th, 2008

A storm of criticism is breaking over a top British police official's proposal to seize and store DNA samples from children as young as five years old if they show signs of future criminality - that is, if they misbehave. "You could argue the younger the better," said the scheme's mastermind, Scotland Yard director of forensic services Gary Pugh.

In other words: Your kindergartener's tantrum, or a first-grade teacher who doesn't like the way your kid squirms in his seat, could be grounds for the government to collect his genes and label him a suspect. Permanently.

British newspapers carried quotes from several top-level ministers who support the idea. And Jacqui Smith, who is Home Secretary - one of the most senior and prestigious posts in the government - said it would be kept "under review."

Thankfully, human rights groups and a teachers union were quick to condemn the plan, and the Association of Chief Police Officers has distanced itself from it. But - here's the next kicker - it turns out that those British bobbies are already stashing away lots of teen and preteen DNA samples:

Last week it emerged that the number of 10 to 18-year-olds placed on the DNA database after being arrested will have reached around 1.5 million this time next year.

One and a half million kids! If there are 7 million or so 10 to 18-year-olds among the UK's 60 million people, that means that the genes of about 20% of them are already on file. Might that be a problem for the presumption of innocence? And has anyone looked at the class and racial composition of this group?

But lest you think the problem is confined to the other side of the pond, consider California's Proposition 69, passed by 62% of voters in 2004. When it goes fully into effect next January, police will be allowed to expand the state's criminal databases with DNA from anyone arrested for any felony - including trespassing and shoplifting - whether or not they are convicted.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Gene of the Week: Happiness

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on March 13th, 2008

Under the headline "Happiness all in the genes: study" was an all-too-typical article on a widely-reported recent genetic association:

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane have found our personalities and happiness are largely hereditary and that genetically-determined personality traits affect our happiness.
See also: "Happiness is in the Genes," Forbes, as well as the original report, "Happiness Is a Personal(ity) Thing: The Genetics of Personality and Well-Being in a Representative Sample," Psychological Science.

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