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Financial analysts' advice on California stem cell research

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 24th, 2008

Citing the Golden State's $14-billion budget shortfall, an editorial in Investor's Business Daily invites Californians to "revisit their decision to borrow $3 billion for a research effort driven more by politics than science" and to "save themselves a good deal of money by winding the program down."

Yes, the financial pundits are talking about Proposition 71, the 2004 stem cell research initiative. They quote Biopolitical Times blogger and CGS stem cell policy expert Jesse Reynolds, who "says he doubts if Proposition 71 would pass if it were on the ballot today." The editorial continues:

The proposition succeeded, Reynolds says, "because of the political shine of embryonic stem cell research . . . It was like a magic bullet aimed at Washington."

700 and Counting

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 22nd, 2008

Over the holiday season, in between re-runs of A Charlie Brown Christmas and minute-by-minute updates on where to find a Nintendo Wii, Big Pharma gave the Black community an odd stocking stuffer that received surprisingly little attention: a report by the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying and trade organization (PhRMA) noting that nearly 700 medications are in clinical development to treat diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans.

It's important to point out that these medicines are not necessarily slated to become the next BiDil, i.e. drugs bearing a race specific label to suggest that they are somehow genetically tailored for only one group. Many of the drugs on PhRMA's list may benefit broader classes of patients beyond those who are Black.

But, given that the story behind BiDil's FDA approval represents how companies can push a failed drug through FDA approval using a questionable clinical trial design and the even more questionable theory that genes are largely responsible for racial disparities, PhRMA's approach should give us some pause. Someone more cynical than I might think that PhRMA is using this report to lay the foundation for race specificity to become the fallback plan whenever a drug's FDA approval for the general population falters.

The economics of this approach might make sense at first as it might help companies recoup the millions of dollars lost when a drug fails to reach market. But FDA approval of race-specific medicines doesn't always mean that communities of color are interested in taking them. Just ask any of the 70 staff members recently laid off from NitroMed after the company decided that BiDil's sales are so slow that it's no longer worth marketing the drug.

Making Waves, Practicing Wisdom

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 21st, 2008

Today is the publication date of Charlie Halpern's engaging memoir, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom. The book recounts Charlie's work as a pioneer of public-interest law, founder of several innovative organizations, head of a progressive philanthropic foundation, and student of Buddhist spirituality.

In addition to all that, Charlie has over the past several years lent his considerable legal talents and political wisdom to the issues raised by the new human biotechnologies. He was a key participant in opposition mounted by CGS and other public-interest groups to the 2004 ballot measure that established the California stem cell agency, and in subsequent efforts to bring some modicum of oversight and accountability to the program. Charlie testified about its flaws to the California legislature, was quoted in dozens of media accounts in national and state newspapers, and submitted numerous letters and petitions to the agency's governing board, including one in February 2005 with Former US Secretary of Health Philip Lee. Many of his letters are included in a compilation of documents on the CGS website.

Making Waves, which features forewords by Robert Reich and the Dalai Lama, includes an eloquent call for bringing "wisdom of a high order" to the urgent new challenges involving science, religion, justice and the human future:

We are at a point where no humans have ever been before, capable of taking over the evolution of the human species, designing the traits of babies, and altering the genetic package that children carry forward into life…If ever there has been a cluster of issues that demands the highest level of attention and care - wisdom of a high order - this is it. Instead, it is being treated like a political football, with Republicans playing to the fundamentalists and many Democrats mindlessly championing the unfettered discretion of scientists to do whatever experiments interest them, regardless of their social consequences.

The recent spate of books demonizing all religions, in the name of science and reason, seem to be calculated to heighten polarization and decrease the likelihood that wisdom will enter the discussion. It would be a tragedy if the voices of wisdom aren't heard on these matters.

What to Expect in ’08: The Business of Baby-Making

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 21st, 2008

What next for the notoriously under-regulated and highly lucrative assisted reproduction industry? Some developments to look for:

  • Sex selection. U.S. fertility clinics will step up their promotion of pre-pregnancy sex selection, and the Genetics & IVF Institute will request and receive FDA pre-market approval for the sperm-sorting method known as MicroSort. In India, civil society efforts to get enforcement of laws against sex selection will start to make headway, but skewed sex ratios in some regions there - and in a number of other Asian countries - will get even worse.
  • Surrogacy. Look for more coverage of the growing rent-a-womb business, in venues from women's lifestyle magazines to business journals to anti-globalization websites. "Medical tourism" companies will cash in on the attention, arranging growing numbers of outsourced pregnancies that offer affluent couples cut-rate surrogacy arrangements with a next-to-zero chance that the woman from a rural village who carries and births "their" baby will change her mind about handing it over. In the U.S., heart-breaking dramas will continue to surface as wildly inconsistent state surrogacy laws foster "regulation shopping" by brokers.
  • Egg freezing. Dozens more fertility clinics will launch online advertising about "exciting new developments" in egg freezing techniques. But they will downplay the risks of egg extraction, the problems of egg thawing (the American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates a 2-4% chance of a live birth for every thawed egg), safety concerns about any children eventually born, and the appalling lack of data about all of these.
Looking for hopeful signs? Check out these three recent and upcoming sources of careful thinking about assisted reproduction:
  • Future Choices: Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Law by Jessica Arons of the Center for American Progress

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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