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Birds of a Feather

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 18th, 2008

In what may just be a match made in heaven, two controversial cloning-based stem cell research companies have formed a joint venture. In exchange for $500,000, Advanced Cell Technology will license its technology to generate blood cells from stem cells to Allied Cell Technology, a new venture majority-owned by CHA Biotech.

Advanced Cell Technology has been shouting for attention from the furthest fringes of respectable science for years. Founded by an ardent believer in immortality through science, it regularly has tried to prop up its faltering stock over the course of decade through exaggerated announcements. But despite recent adulatory coverage from Discover and Barbara Walters, it is running out of cash, and its stock hasn't been worth more than five cents since September. In the first quarter of 2008 alone, it lost more than $9 million on revenue of only $120,000. Four years ago, it moved its headquarters to California in hopes of getting a slice of that state's $3 billion stem cell pie, but has now returned to Worcester, Massachusetts. Now, there is little left of the company besides an intellectual property portfolio.

CHA Biotech is an American project of a large Korean health care company that operates several hospitals and a medical school. It got into hot water after its affiliated research institute was initially awarded a grant for research cloning efforts from California's stem cell agency. In the ensuing publicity, it emerged that the CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute was a California nonprofit in name only, and that its affiliated fertility clinic - whose offices were in the same Los Angeles office building, raising concerns about conflicts of interest in the acquisition of women's eggs for their cloning-based work - was facing serious allegations from a woman whose eggs had been improperly obtained and handled. CHA later "voluntarily" withdrew its grant application during the subsequent administrative review.

While Allied Cell Technology is purportedly a joint venture, the lopsided nature of the deal may be the first step towards a takeover.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Eggs, wombs and the economy: Hard times fuel a buyers’ market

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on December 16th, 2008

Several recent articles discuss the effects of the economic crisis on the egg and surrogacy markets. The Wall Street Journal's story, under the too-cute title "Ova Time," leads with reports from fertility clinics about "a surge in the number of women applying to donate eggs or serve as surrogate mothers for infertile couples."

WSJ quotes the president of a Chicago egg and surrogacy brokerage saying that inquiries from young women are up 30% in recent weeks, to about 60 calls a day. "We're even getting men offering up their wives," she reports.

And now that it's a buyers' market, she says, "Some people are looking for a 6-foot Swedish volleyball player with 39 ACTs, and they'll take their time."

An MSNBC story covers the up-tick in markets for sperm, blood, and hair as well as eggs: "Seeking quick cash in a tanking financial market, would-be sellers of a variety of body products…are filling waiting rooms and swamping agencies with inquiries," it reports.

MSNBC health writer JoNel Aleccia tried to get numbers to back up accounts from the operators of fertility clinics and egg and surrogacy agencies. She called the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, understandably thinking that the trade organization would have that information.

But ASRM public affairs director Sean Tipton seemed less than pleased with the question, perhaps because the fertility industry is loathe to admit that money might enter into a young woman's decision to seek cash for her eggs (though its Ethics Committee has published guidelines on "financial compensation" for same). "I guess I could imagine economic difficulty inspiring increased inquiries," Tipton said. "But egg donation is so complicated, donors are unlikely to do it only for the money."

In any case, Tipton was unable to help out with any data - because it doesn't exist. There is no central registry of women who provide eggs or carry pregnancies for other people, and the government doesn't even request data on egg retrieval cycles that are halted before completion. As reporter Aleccia delicately puts it, "the largely unregulated industry lacks a national data source."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

This Year’s Stocking Stuffers

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on December 15th, 2008

What do you give the people on your holiday shopping list who have everything? Themselves!

Just in time for the holiday season – free shipping until 12/22 and all – DNA 11 has lowered the price of its mini portraits to $169.  DNA Mini Portraits are 8” x 10” custom-made artistic renderings of individualized genetic sequences. Swab your cheek and FedEx the sample to their corporate headquarters, and they’ll send you a glass framed, Technicolor depiction of what a portion of your genome might vaguely look like.  

Not to be outdone in this race for your holiday bio-dollar, personal genomics company 23andme has recently followed up on its price slash to announce a “Holiday Season Multi-Pack Discount” through December 31st. Now, entire families can get into the holiday gift-giving spirit and save $200 when they order three or more kits.

The business of recreational genetics has always been about making money off of the public’s often-misplaced fascination with DNA – even when the product isn’t able to say very much about the consumer. Given the exuberance brought by the holiday season, don’t be surprised if you end up unwrapping one of these gifts in the next few weeks. 

Nature Makes News

Posted by Pete Shanks on December 11th, 2008


The current edition of Nature includes a remarkable Commentary (free online until December 18th) that advocates the use of "cognitive-enhancing drugs." It's co-written by researchers from six prominent universities in the US and UK (Hank Greely is lead) and by the editor of the magazine.

They state forthrightly that in the article they "propose actions that will help society accept the benefits of enhancement" although they blithely acknowledge that it is "too early to know whether any of these new drugs will be proven safe and effective."

The piece has provoked a minor storm of controversy (about which the editor is doubtless shocked, shocked to hear). The best line came first from George Annas, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle: "What were they smoking?" It was also used by Christopher Wanjek at LiveScience, who calls the Nature commentary "ivory tower intellectualism at its best" (shouldn't that be worst?) and makes some strong points about side-effects, especially given long-term usage.

Nature's own Forum includes many strongly critical comments, as well as a few supportive ones. Here are some excerpts:

  • I think this is probably the silliest idea I have yet heard being suggested by some otherwise really smart people.
  • [H]ow totally irresponsible to suggest that we healthy people now need to take drugs to compete! Which of the pharmaceutical companies are they trying to appease to obtain a grant for their study?
  • Surely you jest. Where is your evidence? Where are your randomized controlled trials? Where are your benefit/risk analyses? Where is your conscience? Do any of you remember "First, do no harm?" How did any of you ever qualify for a medical license?
  • Shame on the authors of this commentary.... Replace "cognitive enhancement drugs" in this commentary with "genetic and reproductive manipulation" and we end up with an argument for eugenics. Shameful.
  • [T]he authors are wrapped up in these intellectual arguments - their ivory tower - to such a degree that they can't see how coercive and desperate the environment they drop their pro-doping argument into is....  How can anyone be so oblivious: the authors' many and well-argued calls for research and education will be largely ignored, while only their licensing of brain doping will get though....
  • [I]t is a bit like the entire "penis enlargement" industry that makes profits on the backs of sexual insecurity as opposed to real need. Who DOESN’T wonder if they are smart or attentive enough? You can start backing up the snake oil tanker trucks now.

Nature has been on this subject for at least a year, since publishing "Professor's Little Helper" last December (co-authored by Barbara Sahakian, one of the authors of the latest piece). They have run correspondence arising from that, conducted a survey on neuroenhancement, and maintain a public Forum. In other words, this seems like a campaign.

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