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Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 12th, 2008

The California stem cell research agency is at risk of losing its identity. Back in the fall of 2004, when voters were convinced to pass Proposition 71, creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), we were told that the new agency and the work it would fund would lead to cures and an economic boom. Since then, the hyped potential of embryonic stem cell research has cooled a bit, and new techniques to derive fully potent stem cells without embryo destruction have been discovered. And it now appears clear that the next US president will lift the federal funding restrictions on using human embryos for stem cell research. Together, these developments call into question the relevance of a multi-billion dollar state-level set-aside, particular as California reels from debt.

Of all the claims of the Proposition 71 campaign, its lavish economic argument was undermined most rapidly. For example, in the campaign's original analysis [PDF], the state would receive up to $1.1 billion in revenue from successful developments, and on top of that, California's share of royalties and licensing would be streaming in before the agency's bond payments start in 2010. Although that was a fantasy in 2004, such an optimistic forecast appears even more unrealistic now, considering that the first clinical trials for a potential embryonic stem cell therapy - which were in the pipeline long before CIRM - will not commence until next year, at the soonest. To top it off, Robert Klein, Proposition 71's author and campaign chair, was caught in 2005 misleading the voters [PDF, page 9] over whether such revenues were even possible. Since then, other critics have acknowledged that the research advocates’ financial analysis was unrealistic at best (1, 2, 3, 4)

Now, the leadership of the CIRM has commissioned a new economic report. While its results will certainly be more tempered in the absence of an electoral campaign, it will be authored by the same consulting group used in 2004 by the campaign. My suspicion is that it is being prepared to be a defense against any potential legislative threats to CIRM’s state funds. Unfortunately for CIRM, any realistic economic analysis may not be an effective shield in Sacramento during a period of drastic budget cuts. What's more, by reviving past controversy, revisiting the economic argument may backfire. Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interviews James Watson

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on June 9th, 2008

Back in October of last year, James Watson started a heated debate over race and genetics by making a series of statements suggesting that Blacks are an inherently inferior racial group. To recap, Watson noted that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” since “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Moreover, he is quoted as saying that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

Race scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has filmed two documentaries on race, genetics, and ancestry while also founding a DNA ancestry company, was troubled by Watson’s seemingly pernicious use of race and genetics – particularly since Gates has said that he has “been among those who have long held Watson in high regard.” This led Gates to interview Watson to, in a sense, determine whether he’s a bigot. Gates concludes:

I don't think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist—that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the "gene" is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly "measures" or "determines" is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences.

The difference, the distinction, between being a racist and a racialist is crucial. James Watson is not the garden-variety racist as he has been caricatured by the press and bloggers, the sort epitomized by David Duke and his ilk, and he seemed genuinely chagrined, embarrassed and remorseful that Duke and other racists had claimed him as their champion, as one of their own, because of his remarks as quoted in the London Sunday Times. And, as we might expect, he apologized profusely for those remarks, contending that he had been misquoted, at worst, and his remarks taken out of context, at best.

You can read the full transcript of Gates’ interview with Watson here. Are you persuaded by Gates’ distinction between a racist and a racialist? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Partisan fratricide over stem cells in Missouri?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on June 6th, 2008

Just when you thought that the strange saga of stem cell research policy in Missouri was over, think again. Two years ago, the state underwent an expensive, divisive battle over the issue - but for little significant policy change. Now, a group of state Republicans appears ready to repeat the strife, again with little policy implication, but this time within the ranks of their party.

In 2006, a wealthy Missouri couple successfully bankrolled a ballot initiative which constitutionally protected all forms of human embryonic stem cell research in Missouri. It was a bit superfluous, however, because at the time, the closest thing to a threat to the work was a bill introduced annually by a conservative senator to ban cloning-based stem cell research. This bill had never even made it to the Senate floor, and both the Republican governor and his likely future Democratic opponents had promised to veto any such ban. To top it off, cloning-based stem cell research was not performed in Missouri, nor were there any plans to do so. It was thus something of a mystery as to why Jim and Virginia Stowers were so eager to spend over $30 million on Amendment 2, which passed by a small margin.

But in January of this year, Governor Blunt announced that he would not run for reelection this fall. While the two major Republican contenders to take his place oppose embryonic stem cell research, the constitutional protection remains in place. However, the state's largest newspaper just reported that

Nineteen of the region's most prominent and generous Republicans - who over the years have donated millions of dollars to their party and its candidates - have launched a new effort aimed at protecting embryonic stem-cell research....

[Republicans To Protect Medical Advances founder William] Danforth indicated that some of the founders may link financial support to a candidate's position on the research.

What makes the establishment of Republicans To Protect Medical Advances even stranger is that (contrary to the claims of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) the new Missouri Republican party platform [PDF] does not actually oppose embryonic stem cell research using IVF embryos. It only is against "all human cloning" and "fetal tissue research."

Isn't this potential gubernatorial threat to embryonic stem cell research exactly what the constitutional amendment was designed to block? Why would party bigwigs lunge for the financial jugular of their own party - and possibly cede the governorship to their opponents - over a debate that will have little effect on actual policy? Although there may be state political dynamics of which I am unaware, Republicans To Protect Medical Advances are more likely to fracture their own party than materially protect "medical advances."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Willy Wonka and the cloning factory

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on June 5th, 2008

In yet another publicity bid, BioArts International has announced its Golden Clone Giveaway contest. On June 16, the California start-up will award "a free clone of YOUR dog" to the person who submits the best 500-word essay on why their dog is "clone-worthy." BioArts is being run by cloning impresario Lou Hawthorne; disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo Suk is also involved.

Why does the Golden Clone contest call to mind the five Golden Tickets hidden by candy entrepreneur Willy Wonka among his billions of chocolate bars? You remember the story: Each lucky child who finds a ticket gets a free tour of Wonka's top-secret factory, along with a lifetime supply of special chocolate.

In the 1971 film based on Roald Dahl's children's novel, Gene Wilder plays Wonka as a creepy guy who looks on placidly as one child after another barely escapes a grisly fate, the just desserts, so to speak, of sneaking a taste of the wares. One girl is transformed into a giant blueberry; another child is shrunk to a few inches high; a third is rejected as a "bad egg" and sent down a garbage chute into the Egg Sorting Room. The factory workers - the Oompa-Loompas, who in the 2005 (post-Dolly?) remake of the movie were all played by the same actor, Roy Deep - break into song after each mishap.

Do similar outcomes await those partaking in the Golden Giveaway? Is Lou Hawthorne biotech's Willy Wonka? Stay tuned.

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