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Doubts on ScienceDebate2008 from Nature

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 8th, 2008

The journal Nature has raised serious apprehension about the proposal for a presidential candidates' debate on science. An editorial states:

Well meant though it may be, the idea of Tim Russert or some other journalist-interrogator looking Republican hopeful John McCain in the eye and asking "What balance will you seek in federal science funding between major-programme project research and investigator-initiated basic-research grants?" is somewhat fantastical.

It is also slightly disturbing. For all that it claims to be a 'grass-roots' phenomenon, the proposed debate can be seen as an attempt by various élite institutions to grab the microphone and set the agenda from the top down.
And, in an accompanying column, Harvard's David Goldston points out that
The increasing tendency to conflate science questions — Are we experiencing man-made climate change? — with policy questions — What, if anything, should we do about it? — has been a damaging trend. It has helped to turn science into a political football and has muddied policy debates. At a 'science debate', candidates will try to claim that their position is the one supported by 'science', and the very structure of the debate will send voters the faulty message that these are questions that the natural sciences can resolve. Framing questions of economics, ethics and other aspects of policy as 'science issues' does no favour for either science or politics. And it makes one wonder if the sponsors of the debate merely want to find out whether the candidates agree with their personal opinions on these topics.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

“Roots in a Test Tube”

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on February 7th, 2008

Henry Louis Gates Jr. with Jackie Joyner-Kersee

On the heels of the acclaimed 2006 PBS series African-American Lives- where Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. uses genetic ancestry testing to trace several prominent Blacks' genealogies - comes the second installment, African-American Lives 2. Here, Gates brings out a new all-star cast of Black entertainers, athletes, and other icons to demonstrate how genetic ancestry testing can subvert the genealogical disconnect created by the slave trade and tell African-Americans which tribes and regions they came from - all with the presumed pinpoint accuracy of DNA technologies, or what Gates calls "roots in a test tube." For an interesting discussion on these technologies' promises and pitfalls, check out Troy Duster's review of the series' first installment. Duster makes an interesting observation that might be helpful to keep in mind:

. . . the series performs a disturbing sleight of hand. Conventional wisdom has it that we can choose our friends, but that our families are a given. But with long-term genealogical work, there is a sense in which this can be inverted. We each have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. As Gates points out . . current technology permits us to link via DNA analysis to only two specific lines. On the Y chromosome, one's father's father's DNA, going back as far as we can locate the genetic material, can be determined with a high degree of certainty. . . .On the female side, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) can link one's mother's mother's mother going back as far as we can garner the DNA. So, while we have 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents, the technology allows us to locate only two of those 64, if we're going back six generations, as our real legacy and genetic link to the past. But what of the other 62? Those links are equal contributors to our genetic makeup, and we ignore them only because we do not have access to them. What an arbitrary "choice" of a branch on the family tree!

Should rich and poor alike be free to sell their kidneys?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 6th, 2008

A massive kidney trafficking racket exposed last week in India continues to unravel. Indian publications (1, 2) are tracking its twists and turns, but the brief flurry of U.S. coverage (1, 2) has largely subsided.

The story so far: Dozens of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals appear to have participated in the illegal procurement of some 500 kidneys, mostly from poor workers, that were sold to foreign clients. Some of the kidney “donors” were offered sums of about $1000. Others were kidnapped and knocked out, learning only when they regained consciousness that their organs had been harvested. They were then threatened with their lives if they told anyone about the racket.

The mastermind of the operation is still being sought by Indian police and Interpol. Several similar scandals in recent years have raised the question of whether hospitals and police have been involved.

For most, kidney trafficking exploits the desperation of both buyers and sellers, and its horrors call for stricter enforcement of laws against it. But some libertarians, including market enthusiast Ron Bailey at Reason Online and the Cato Institute's Arthur Matas, counsel instead that the sale of kidneys be legalized.

The only country now on that path is Iran. There, the state sets an initial price and runs kidney referral agencies, but haggling between buyers – who have money – and sellers – who urgently need it – is common. A 2007 documentary called Iranian Kidney Bargain Sale gives a blow-by-blow account, and it’s not pretty.

Nature Biotech reports CGS skepticism about IRBs-for-hire

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 5th, 2008

Jolee Mohr

Here's a belated pointer to an article published last September in Nature Biotech. "Death in gene therapy trial raises questions about private IRBs" opens with concerns raised by Biopolitical Times' own Osagie Obasogie, in an op-ed about Jolee Mohr's summer 2007 death in a gene transfer trial for rheumatoid arthritis sponsored by the biotech company Targeted Genetics:

[T]he institutional review board [IRB] charged with ensuring that the trials were conducted ethically is a for-profit enterprise also on Targeted Genetics' payroll. When a review board is being paid by the company that it is supposed to oversee, incentives often lean the wrong way: toward helping industry profit and away from patient safety. Such practices are common in today's clinical trials, and they put people's lives in danger. With so much money in play and so little enforceable oversight, corners may be cut more often than we'd like to think.
The FDA allowed the trial to resume in late November, saying that the gene transfer product was not responsible for Mohr's death. But a few days later, the NIH committee responsible for overseeing gene transfer tests reached a different conclusion, refusing to rule out the experiment as a factor.

We'll probably never know for sure. But as Osagie pointed out in his op-ed, "[T]his isn't simply about regulatory failure. It's also about how profit motives embedded in the clinical trial process can undermine patient safety."

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