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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.

Stem Cell Research and the Presidential Candidates

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 19th, 2008

Barack Obama and John McCain

Over the weekend, the presumptive presidential candidates of the major American political parties each described their positions on embryonic stem research. At a televised conversation with popular pastor - and author of the best selling nonfiction book besides the Bible - Rick Warren, both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama made clear they support embryonic stem cell research, but with different emphases.

McCain gave a slightly befuddled response:

For those of us in the pro life community, this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma because we're also taught other obligations that we have as well. I've come down on the side of stem cell research, but I am wildly optimistic that skin cell research which is coming more and more into focus and practicability will make this debate an economic one.

Obama's answer was much clearer and more detailed:

Keep in mind the way that stem cells legislation that was vetoed by the president was structured, what it said was you could only use embryos that were about to be discarded, that had been created as a consequence of attempts at in vitro fertilization. So there were very tightly circumscribed mechanisms that were permitted. I think that that is a legitimate moral approach to take.

If we are going to discard those embryos and we know that there's potential research that could lead to curing debilitating disease, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, if that possibility presents itself then I think we should in a careful way go ahead and pursue that research. Now, if in fact adult stem cell lines are working just as well, then of course we should try to avoid any kind of moral arguments that may be in place.

But I want to make a broader point, Pastor Rick on an issue like stem cell research. It's not like people who are in favor of stem cell research are going around thinking to themselves boy let's go destroy some embryos. That's not the perspective that I think people come to that issue on. I think what they say is we would not tolerate a situation in which, you know, we're encouraging human cloning or in some ways diminishing the sacred necessary of human life and what it means to be human, but that in narrow circumstances, you know, there is nothing inappropriate with us pursuing scientific research certain of that could lead to cures so long as we're not designing embryos for that purpose.

Obama has consistently supported research that uses embryos created for reproductive purposes but that would otherwise be destroyed (1, 2 [PDF]), and implicitly opposed creating embryos specifically for research purposes and cloning-based stem cell research.This position is also in line with the tenor of the draft 2008 Democratic Party platform [PDF], which calls for funding using "cells [sic] that would have otherwise have been discarded."

Because the two major candidates are in agreement not only about removing President Bush's restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but also over cloning-based stem cell research, the issue is unlikely to feature during the campaign. Of course,McCain could bow to conservative pressure to change his position, or Obama could propose that the product of somatic cell nuclear transfer is not really an embryo. But these scenarios are unlikely, at least before the election, as candidates typically move to the center once they've secured their party's nomination.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Questions for Egg Donors

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 18th, 2008

Thousands of young women undergo egg retrieval procedures for other people's fertility treatment each year in the U.S. alone. But though egg retrieval is known to pose non-trivial risks, and though fertility clinics are profitable businesses, there has been almost no follow-up study of these women.

This much was acknowledged in a 2007 report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science:

''There are no registries that track the health of the people who have taken part in IVF, and much of what is known about the women who have participated in IVF may not be directly applicable to oocyte donors. It will be important in the coming years to accumulate extensive health data from the women whose eggs are harvested and to monitor them for long-term effects.''

Now the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), a non-profit that "advocates for the right to honesty and transparency for donor kids," has launched a survey of egg donors. Their questionnaire's 19 questions are aimed, DSR says, at getting "a better understanding of how egg donation affects women as time goes on, as we know of no medical studies or formal research on this topic." DSR hopes the results of their qualitative study will encourage "the medical community to further investigate how egg donation physically affects woman who donate."

Kudos to DSR. Thank goodness someone's trying to mind the store.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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