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Moving the Goalposts on Hybrids

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 12th, 2007

In recent years, biologists have been advocating the use of various human-animal constructs in their work. They seem to get what they want. In fact, they may now be getting more than they even asked for.

There are different kinds of entities at issue. Chimeras, in which cells from different species are mixed at the organismal level, are used for testing stem cells or, theoretically, producing organs for transplant. In contrast, hybrids mix the DNA of different species at the cellular level. These hybrids can be of the cytoplasmic variety, for which scientists have made a good case. In these, enucleated animal eggs would be used as the target for human nuclear transfer in cloning-based stem cell research as an alternative to scarce and problematic human eggs. 

Until now, it seemed that “true” hybrids, in which human sperm fertilizes an animal egg (or vice versa) were off the table. But recent maneuverings in the United Kingdom illustrates the research community’s insistence that nothing be taken off the table, regardless of actual need. It’s relevant not just for British policy, but also because that nation’s regulatory structure has been held up a model of oversight. Unfortunately, the British model, originally founded on the principle that “There must be some barriers that are not to be crossed, some fixed limits, beyond which people must not be allowed to go,” appears to be unable to say “no” to researchers’ demands.

The current setting is a multi-year process to update the key law regarding human genetic and reproductive technologies. For three years, the Government (i.e. the cabinet), Parliament, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), and interest groups have been issuing reports and holding public consultations. The Government has been cold to hybrids, and Parliamentarycommitteesvocally supportive. In May, the Government conceded that cytoplasmic hybrids could be permitted, under license, but legalization of true hybrids would require an act by the Secretary of State for Health.

In media coverage, researchers reassured the public that the cytoplasmic hybrids would be 99.9% human and only 0.1% nonhuman. Yet at the same time, the research community was pushing for the normalization of true hybrids - despite the fact that no one had any particular reason to create them. A survey [PDF] of scientific groups by the HFEA stated that, “The general view of the organisations we consulted, and the view expressed in the Academy of Medical Sciences' recent report on inter-species embryos, was that currently there is no reason why scientists would want to create human transgenic embryos, true hybrids or human chimera embryos.” And its Scientific and Clinical Advances Group [PDF], containing over a dozen biomedical researchers, concluded that, “that there is no scientific case for true interspecies hybrids.”

On top of that, public opinion ranges from slightly to significantly opposed. In a HFEA poll [PDF], 36% of respondents agreed that true hybrids should be allowed, while 47% disagreed. In its focus groups [PDF], only 9% agreed, while 73% disagreed.

Notwithstanding the absence of both scientific need and public support, research groups countered that a law couldn’t, and shouldn't, distinguish between cytoplasmic and true hybrids. For example, the Academy of Medical Sciences concluded that "The reasons for banning the creation of hybrid embryos for in vitro experimental use, while permitting research involving other types of human embryo incorporating animal material, are not clear to us…." And a representative of the British Medical Association testified, "We have not had any justification for the [Government proposed] exclusion of true hybrids, and it would be interesting to know if there is a reason, but we would say that it should be treated in the same way as the three forms of inter-species embryos that will be allowed and we would rather not say in the legislation that there is one group of hybrids that would not be allowed because we do not believe it could be readily revisited and it might become an essential." Other true hybrid advocates similarly noted that if the concern among the public was crossing the species barrier, then permitting cytoplasmic hybrids had already done so.

Thus, if cytoplasmic and "true" hybrids are legally and morally inseparable, and its agreed that the former should be permitted, thus the latter must be as well. It seems an effective strategy to prevent any prohibitions on research activities, regardless of their actual need, is to convince the public that you are not going to cross a line, and then claim that the line can't really be drawn.

Oprah on Renting Wombs in India: “It’s beautiful”

Posted by Jamie D. Brooks on October 11th, 2007

On Tuesday, an estimated eight million viewers of the Oprah Winfrey Show were informed that the new phenomenon of Americans going to India to hire surrogates on the cheap is not exploitation. Rather, it’s a warm and fuzzy example of “women helping women.” Furthermore, it’s a “confirmation of just how close our countries can be.” In fact, the couple who provided the gametes and the money are “cultural ambassadors” to India, and benefactors of the women whose wombs they rent.

The hour-long segment was anchored by Lisa Ling of ABC's The View and National Geographic Channel’s Explorer, who traveled to the Akansha Fertility Clinic in Anand, India with the featured couple, Jennifer and Kendall. Their story starts out as a familiar one: They depleted their $25,000 of savings in their attempts to have a biological child. But then they discovered that the fertility treatment and surrogacy that cost upwards of $70,000 in the United States can be had in India for about $12,000. So they traveled to India to undergo the in vitro procedures and meet the surrogate, Sangita.

Two months later, Oprah’s cameras film Jennifer, Kendall, and Lisa watching as an ultrasound displays the child’s heartbeats. Jennifer cries tears of happiness; Sangita keeps her face and head covered with a scarf so that her family members won’t learn what she’s doing.

When Lisa asks Jennifer whether she agrees with those who consider arrangements like this one to be exploitation, Jennifer tearfully and indignantly responds, “Sangita and I give each other a life that neither of us could achieve on our own.” Jennifer is referring to the money – approximately $6,000 U.S. – that Sangita and other Indian surrogates earn for womb rental. She is correct in pointing out that this buys them better housing and bigger kitchens; that it’s a sum of money that they “couldn’t have earned in a lifetime.”  

Surrogates, who must be younger than 45 and have at least one living child, are required to stay in a dormitory attached to the clinic for the nine months that they carry the child they will hand over.  In perhaps the most poignant segment of the show, one surrogate weeps because she misses her son back home. Another says that she will find it difficult to give up the baby she is carrying. “It is up to the child to remember us,” she says. “We will remember the child for the rest of our lives.”

If You're Afraid of the Answer, then Don't Ask

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 10th, 2007

In the past, the California stem cell research agency has resisted calls to publicly disclose the personal financial interests of its grant review teams. Given the level of biotech entrenchment on its governing board, that seems a good way to reveal, if not help prevent, any conflicts of interest. But now CIRM is rejecting the suggestion - from a state auditor - that it merely ask the Attorney General for an opinion on the matter. As usual, the California Stem Cell Report has the details.

The Nobel Prize and the New Eugenics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 9th, 2007

Three scientists have been awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on gene-targeting and other techniques for producing transgenic mice. Known as “knockout mice,” these genetically engineered animals are widely used by researchers to model and study human diseases. In the words of one of the Nobel committee members, they have “led to penetrating new insights into development, immunology, neurobiology, physiology and metabolism.”

Not mentioned in the award announcement or media coverage of it are new Nobelist Mario Capecchi’s views on the future use of these techniques to produce transgenic human beings – genetically modified people who would pass their engineered traits on to all future generations. In short, Capecchi is on record embracing the idea.

Capecchi’s techno-utopian views seem particularly jarring in light of his biography. As a small child in Italy during World War Two, he lived on the streets and in orphanages for several years after his mother was taken to Dachau as a political prisoner. Yet he appears to endorse the use of the genetic tools he has developed for purposes that are frankly eugenic.

Capecchi was one of several prominent scientists – along with James Watson of double helix fame, ex-Science editor Daniel Koshland, mouse biologist turned futurist Lee Silver, and others – who enthused about this prospect at the notorious 1998 conference Engineering the Human Germline. Held at UCLA and covered on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, the event was described by its organizers as part of an effort to make inheritable genetic modification “acceptable” to the public. “The question is not if, but when and how,” the conference report asserted.

Capecchi’s conference presentation was titled “The Genetic Engineer’s Tool Box.” Its abstract described it as “examin[ing] the techniques used to engineer genetic changes in various organisms and consider[ing] their technical potential for refinement into tools for safe, reliable germline engineering in humans.”

Capecchi acknowledged concerns about the safety and wisdom of making permanent changes in the human genome. If germline engineering were to begin in twenty years, he mused, “the procedures that we'll be working out at that point will appear very primitive fifty years from now. And those procedures, in turn, will appear very primitive a hundred years from now.” This is a serious problem, he said: “So there's no way we should create a system where it is a permanent record.”

But for Capecchi, this problem is surmountable. In fact, he had already devised a clever work-around. His proposal: Create germline genetic changes that can be activated or reversed with a drug cocktail. In his plan, the altered genes inserted into every cell in the future child’s body would be designed to function only until they encounter the drugs that turn them off. Or they would be designed to do nothing until they were turned on. “It's simply not something we are writing in stone and whatever mistakes we make we're going to have to live with from then on,” Capecchi explained. “There are very simple ways to make it reversible.”

In an undated video clip that appears to be more recent, Capecchi expresses what sounds like wariness about human germline engineering. But to my knowledge, he has never reconsidered his fundamental support for it, nor discussed its eugenic implications. And he remains eager to extend the reach of his tinkering. “So far the work we've been doing has been entirely in mice,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education after learning of his Nobel award. “[W]e are interested in seeing if this knockout technology applies to other mammalian species.”

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