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In the News this Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 18th, 2008

The latest company to offer personal genome scans, Navigenics, opened a store front in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of New York.

In the UK, a provision in the controversial bill to overhaul that nation's oversight of assisted reproductive technologies was altered, so prospective parents could select for deafness during preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Selecting for "serious medical conditions" remains prohibited, but deafness has been removed from that category in the bill.

An international group of stem cell scientists and bioethicists warned politicians "not to block scientific inquiry into subjects such as stem cells and embryo research just because there is a difference of opinion on the ethics or morality of the work."

Inaccuracy and Histrionics in Louisiana

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 17th, 2008

In a too-common occurrence, the media are inaccurately portraying a stem cell bill, and research advocates are exaggerating its potential impact. In Louisiana, HB 370 would prohibit the use of public funds - explicitly including federal dollars sent to the state - for cloning-based research. That such work is not occurring in Louisiana, and that there are no plans to begin, hasn't stopped research advocates from raising a ruckus.

After their protests, an "exception" was inserted into the bill to make it clear that federal funds would be permitted for work on stem cell lines that are eligible for such funding (i.e., created before August 9, 2001). But that exception has no impact, and is irrelevant. The original bill didn't affect those lines anyway: They weren't created via cloning, and the federal government doesn't fund cloning-based stem cell research in the first place.

Nevertheless, the primary newspaper of the state capitol, the Baton Rouge Advocate, says the bill "would impose a Louisiana ban on use of public funds for most embryonic stem-cell research." A scientist claims it will hinder recruitment of other researchers. And a blogger at the liberal MyDD claims the "radical" legislation "prohibits the use of public funds - state or federal - for stem cell research," and states that cloning-based stem cell research "saves lives."

"Premature" would be the most generous description of the claim about saving lives. "Flat-out wrong" is an accurate description of the rest.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

US set to swell its criminal DNA database

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on April 17th, 2008

The United States is about to launch a major expansion of its forensic DNA database, the Washington Post reports today on its front page.

The proposal would allow the FBI, the Border Patrol, and other federal authorities to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested of a federal crime - even if they're not charged or convicted. This includes people detained for immigration violations, however briefly.

How many new DNA samples are we talking about? An official estimate puts the number at 1.2 million each year. Of those, about 140,000 would be people arrested for federal crimes; many of the rest would be people detained for being in the country illegally. The US currently has the largest forensic DNA database in the world, with almost 6 million samples.

"Innocent people don't belong in a so-called criminal database. We're crossing a line," said Tania Simoncelli, of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project (and former CGS staffer). Simoncelli warned that "if the samples are kept, they could one day be analyzed for sensitive information such as diseases and ancestry."

Civil rights and racial justice advocates have been warning for years [1, 2] that racial biases in the police and criminal justice systems mean that forensic databases will disproportionately target people of color.

Immigration rights advocates are also alarmed, pointing out that "most illegal immigrants are detained for administrative violations, not federal crimes." The new policy "casts them all as criminals," said the National Lawyers Guild's Paromita Shah.

The Washington Post article is accumulating a storm of comments; their tone tends heavily toward outrage.

Previously on Biopolitical Times

Cloning and Stem Cells: A Fake, a Red Herring, and a Surprise

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 15th, 2008

Hwang Woo Suk
Hwang Woo Suk

I ran across three brief, interesting items regarding cloning and stem cell research yesterday. First, the infamous embezzler, plagiarizer, and disgraced stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk is trying to resume human embryonic stem cell research in South Korea, but that country's health ministry is delaying a decision on whether to give permission. The brief item from the AP, though, implied he is aiming for cloning-based stem cell research:

The Health Ministry said Monday it will wait until August to decide whether to approve Hwang's request for permission to carry out research on embryonic stem cells using human eggs, citing his ongoing trial. [emphasis mine]
Second, in a move for which the word "ironic" is too weak, one of the leading proponents of cloning-based stem cell research warned that the new alternative of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) will lead the world closer to reproductive cloning, which - he tells us -  is just unacceptable. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, which has invested heavily in somatic cell nuclear transfer, seems to be on something of a campaign:
“In addition to the great therapeutic promise demonstrated by this technology, the same technology opens a whole new can of worms,” Dr Lanza tells the Independent.

“Cloning isn’t here now, but with this new technique we have the technology that might be able to actually produce a child. If this was applied to humans it would be enormously troublesome,” Dr Lanza tells the Telegraph.

“It raises the same issues as reproductive cloning and although the technology for reproductive cloning in humans doesn’t exist, with this breakthrough we now have a working technology whereby anyone, young or old, fertile or infertile, straight or gay can pass on their genes to a child by using just a few skin cells....

“It is quite possible that the real legacy of this whole new programming technology is that it could introduce the era of designer babies.”
This is specious, coming from a man who has dedicated much of his professional life to creating clonal human embryos via the same technique that has led to reproductive clones in over a dozen mammalian species. If any method will lead to human reproductive cloning and designer babies, it is somatic cell nuclear transfer, not iPS. His comments were a follow-up to his letter to Science published last December:
[W]hile the technology to clone a human being does not currently exist, the ability to use iPS cells to make a chimeric human (i.e., using iPS cells to contribute to an embryo that would be a chimera) may be much closer to reality.

Considering the immense power of this technology, it is imperative that an effort is made by scientists and governments to understand the ramifications of this new breakthrough and to ensure that it is used in an ethically responsible way for the benefit and progress of humanity.
Funny, I never heard him issue such warnings regarding somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Finally, while browsing though that issue of Science, I ran across a brief essay on iPS and cloning-based stem cell research by Jose Cibelli, who is both Lanza's former colleague at ACT and a collaborator with Hwang on one of his fraudulent papers in Science. In a pleasant surprise, Cibelli asks, in light of the iPS developments,
Is human therapeutic cloning no longer needed? The short answer is no, but it is likely a matter of time until all the hypothetical advantages of therapeutic cloning will be implemented with induced pluripotent stem cells. More importantly, the controversial issues (ethical and technical) specific to human therapeutic cloning may well be left behind along with the procedure itself, a refreshing change for the field, indeed.

HT to Secondhand Smoke for the Lanza item. 

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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