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Bioethics 101

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March 31, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 31

  • Researchers: Epilepsy Cause Identified (AP)
  • Preventable Disease Blinds Poor in Third World (New York Times)
  • Power of prayer flunks an unusual test (MSNBC)
  • Long mobile phone use raises brain tumor risk (Reuters)
  • Baby breathing aid study cleared (BBC)
  • Groups Want Warnings Taken Off Drug Ads (AP)

A Side Effect of Prescription Drug Advertising

The Coalition for Healthcare Communication, a coalition of advertising and public relations groups, wants to strip most of the warnings from prescription drug ads aimed at consumers and replace them with a boilerplate statement that all prescription drugs have potential risks and benefits.

“Our goal is simpler, clearer messages that communicate both the risks and benefits of prescription medicines, more informed doctor-patient dialogue and improved patient compliance,” said John Kamp, executive director of the coalition.

Some consumer advocacy groups disagree and claim that what prescription drug ads should contain is clearer, not less, language.

While the physicians who prescribe the medication have an obligation to inform their patients about negative side effects, the pharmaceutical companies should expect to bear some of the responsibility as well. If they want to treat patients as consumers by directly marketing their products, they should provide information needed to make an informed decision.

March 30, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 30

  • Hormone Injections’ Promise Brings Risk (AP)
  • Boost for ‘superbug’ drugs race (BBC)
  • Growth spurts tied to peaks in teen cancers: study (Reuters)
  • Scans Show Different Growth for Intelligent Brains (New York Times)
  • Jell-O Fix for Spinal Cords (Wired)

March 29, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 29

  • ‘Designer baby’ clinic to charge £6,000 per child (Telegraph)
  • EU stem cell funding in jeopardy? (The Scientist)
  • India sex selection doctor jailed (BBC)
  • Mutations Change the Boolean Logic of Gene Regulation (RxPG News)
  • Op-Ed: Needed: Integrative health care (St. Paul Pioneer Press)

A New Generation of Lie Detectors

Cephos Corporation and No Lie MRI, Inc. will each soon be marketing a new kind of lie detector based on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). I’ve mentioned fMRI before, and its potential use as a lie detector. Now people are starting to throw money into the idea.

According to The Baltimore Sun, (February 19, 2006, 1C [not available online]) the federal government conducts 40,000 polygraphs per year. In addition, these companies are speculating that there is a wider market of people who want to prove they are telling the truth. No Lie MRI is planning to open “Vera Centers” around the country. No information is yet available on what these lie detector tests will cost. What would you be willing to pay to have a brain scan reveal whether you’re telling the truth? Would you be willing to take an fMRI lie detector test as a condition of employment? To rule you out as a suspect? Any other reason?

March 28, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 28

  • Foundation moves to grab a piece of stem cell profits (MSNBC)
  • Democrats to hit GOP on stem cell issue (Chicago Tribune)
  • Birth, Controlled (New York Times)
  • World’s 10 Best-Selling Drugs (Wired)

Pharma’s Big Ten

According to, global spending on prescription drugs has topped $600 billion, even as growth slowed in Europe and North America. The top ten best-selling drugs are:

1. Lipitor (high cholesterol) $12.9 billion
2. PLAVIX (heart disease) $5.9 billion
3. NEXIUM (heartburn) $5.7 billion
4. SERETIDE/ADVAIR (asthma) $5.6 billion
5. ZOCOR (high cholesterol) $5.3 billion
6. NORVASC (high blood pressure) $5.0 billion
7. ZYPREXA (schizophrenia) $4.7 billion
8. RISPERDAL (schizophrenia) $4.0 billion
9. PREVACID (heartburn) $4.0 billion
10. EFFEXOR (depression) $3.8 billion

Notably missing from the list are biotic drugs. Almost all of the drugs on the list are small molecules, says Forbes, the same kind of chemicals that “kick-started the drug business into existence at the turn of the last century.”

March 27, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 27

  • A Controversial Therapy for Diabetes Is Verified (New York Times)
  • Very premature babies’ rights defended (Daily Mail)
  • Pursuing Healthier Bacon Through Biotech (AP)
  • Mouse testicles may hold stem cells’ promise (MSNBC)

Source and Type

(via Washington Post and AP)
Saturday’s Washington Post carried an article whose headline trumpeted, “Embryonic Stem Cell Success.” The story reports that German scientists have retrieved cells from the testes of mice and transformed them into cells capable of forming a variety of tissue types. The technical term for this type of cell is pluripotent. The headline writer is confusing source with type. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, that’s why they are so highly sought after. The large question, though, is whether other sources of pluripotent stem cells exit. This study seems to indicate that, in mice, there are cells in the testes that can be transformed into pluripotent stem cells.

The AP story on the same subject (headline: “Mouse testicles may hold stem cells’ promise“) is much closer to getting it right: “German scientists say cells from the testes of mice can behave like embryonic stem cells.”

Terminology has been a huge source of confusion in the stem cell debate. Shouldn’t major news outlets be as clear as possible?

March 24, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 24

  • Typical U.S. Pregnancy Now Just 39 Weeks (MSNBC)
  • Germany’s striking doctors march (BBC)
  • Dr. James H. Schwartz, 73, Who Studied the Basis of Memory, Dies (New York Times)
  • Battle to overturn S. Dakota abortion law begins (Reuters)

March 23, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 23

  • Panel Advises Disclosure of Drugs’ Psychotic Effects (New York Times)
  • Korea fears for gene doping (Fox Sports )
  • Medical safety net shrinks with less charity care (Reuters)
  • Report raises flag on fluoride (USA Today)

March 22, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 22

  • Two Die After Using Abortion Pill (Wired)
  • Illnesses Raise Drug-Safety Questions (AP Medical)
  • Doctor’s bedside manner still what counts (MSNBC)
  • Doctors take a new stab at allergy shots (USA Today)
  • Flaw Seen in Genetic Test for Breast Cancer Risk (New York Times)
  • Abortion row at Catholic hospital (BBC)
  • Japan’s rich buy organs from executed Chinese prisoners (The Independent)

What’s Wrong With That?

Since 1997, only 40 human organs have been transplanted in Japan. Because the demand greatly exceeds the supply, Japanese citizens are turning to China’s burgeoning human organ transplant industry. According to The Independent, a single broker has helped more than a hundred Japanese people go to China for transplants since 2004 and the trade is rapidly growing.

The Japanese willing pay tens of thousands of dollars for livers and kidneys, many of which have been harvested from executed prisoners and sold to area hospitals. The Chinese government does not reveal how many people it executes, but analysts estimate as many as 8,000 people are killed each year. At $70,000 per organ and three viable organs per prisoner, Beijing has a substantial incentive to ensure there is a constant supply of fresh “organ donors.”

Japan’s health ministry has begun a joint research project with transport authorities in an attempt to limit the flow of medical tourists and the sale of organs for transplants is technically illegal in China. But some people, desperate for a transplant, are willing to overlook the ethical and legal ramifications. “My translator said my donor was a young executed prisoner,” says businessman Kenichiro Hokamura’. “The donor was able to provide a contribution to society so what’s wrong with that?”

March 21, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 21

Offshoring . . .

. . . is a relatively new (and somewhat more precise) term for what used to be called outsourcing. In short, offshoring involves moving business processes (e.g., manufacturing, customer service) to a foreign country in order for a company to try to achieve a strategic competitive advantage. Among the countries on the “receiving end” of offshoring are China, Taiwan, and India.

The March issue of Wired contains an article on one of India’s recent business process acquisitions: clinical drug trials. In “A Nation of Guinea Pigs,” author Jennifer Kahn does a good job of covering some of the pros and cons of moving clinical drug trials to India. On the pros side, the latest treatments are made available to an underserved group of people, people receive these treatments free of charge, money for new facilities flows in. On the cons side are communication issues, attitudes toward doctors (“They will almost never question their doctor”), treatments are free only during the trial period, and corruption issues that inevitably follow an influx of money. Of course, the Western world is not free of these problems either.

No doubt globalization is making our world smaller—flat even, in the view of one economist. Bioethics raises serious questions right along other issues of globalization, and our ethics framework must address these global questions.

March 20, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 20

Required Reading: Rethink Stem Cell Research and Cloning

(via National Review Online)
Today’s National Review Online carries an opinion piece by Robert George and Eric Cohen encouraging us to view the Korean cloning scandal as an opportunity to rethink stem cell research and cloning. George and Cohen make a number of good points, but one that really stands out to me is their take on the political agenda of the scientific community.

The future of stem-cell research is rightly a political issue — an issue for deliberation and resolution in the forums of democracy — involving a debate about the ethics of embryo-destructive research, the values of society, and the priorities of the nation. But some scientists, pretending that they are free of political conviction, purport to speak only in the name of science when they demand the public right to use of human embryos as raw materials for research and public funding to pay for their experiments. Embryo research may prove to be scientifically useful, but science alone cannot tell us whether such research is morally good. To promote the embryo research agenda, elite journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine have stated publicly that they will give special attention to research involving embryonic stem cells, not simply because of its scientific merit but because of its political value. To these scientists, embryo research has become a litmus test for being “pro-science,” and the central front in the alleged war of scientific reason against religious barbarians. (Italics in the original.)

Read the whole thing.

Patents, Biotechnology, and Bioethics

(via New York Times)
Novelist (and M.D.) Michael Crichton has an essay in yesterday’s New York Times on a patenting case the Supreme Court is to hear tomorrow. In short, a company is claiming that it owns “licensing rights on the correlation of elevated homocysteine with vitamin deficiency.” These are the facts, and they are not in dispute: there is a correlation between elevated homocysteine and vitamin deficiency. Metabolite owns a patent on this fact. Another company, LabCorp, “published an article mentioning the patented fact. Metabolite sued on a number of grounds, and has won in court so far.”

Chrichton continues:

The question of whether basic truths of nature can be owned ought not to be confused with concerns about how we pay for biotech development, whether we will have drugs in the future, and so on. If you invent a new test, you may patent it and sell it for as much as you can, if that’s your goal. Companies can certainly own a test they have invented. But they should not own the disease itself, or the gene that causes the disease, or essential underlying facts about the disease. The distinction is not difficult, even though patent lawyers attempt to blur it. And even if correlation patents have been granted, the overwhelming majority of medical correlations, including those listed above, are not owned. And shouldn’t be.

March 17, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 17

  • Stem Cell Researcher’s License Revoked (Washington Post)
  • Growing Nerve Cells (ScienCentral)
  • Egg-donor business booms on campuses (USA Today)
  • More Kids Are Getting Anti-Psychotic Drugs (AP)

March 16, 2006

Bioethics in the News — March 16

  • Relatives’ fury over calamitous drug trial (The Guardian)
  • Scientists counter Wilmut criticisms (The Scientist)
  • Connecticut: Bill would establish center for umbilical cord blood (AP)
  • A Doctor? He Is One on TV (New York Times)
  • Op-Ed: Embryology and euphemisms (Carthage Press)

Adult Stem Cells Found in Menstrual Blood

At a recent meeting of the American College of Cardiology, Japanese researchers reported that have harvested stem cells from human menstrual blood. Dr Shunichiro Miyoshi of Keio University in Tokyo said that he and his colleagues were able to obtain about 30 times more stem cells from menstrual blood than from bone marrow. The stem cells were then cultured in a way to induce them to become heart cells and after five days about half of the cells contracted “spontaneously, rhythmical and synchronously, suggesting the presence of electrical communication” between the cells.

Until recently, it was believed that there are few adult stem cells present in the body. But new studies continue to be published which overturns this received wisdom. Adult stem cells have been found in bone marrow, peripheral blood, the inner ear, umbilical cord blood, nasal mucosa, amniotic fluid, and now menstrual blood. If the trend continues and adult stem cells are not only to be found in more places in the body but continue to be turned into clinical therapies, then the use of embryonic stem cells may become moot.


The Bioethics Poll
Should individuals and/or institutions be allowed to patent human genes?
Yes, with some qualifications

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Which area of research should more money be invested in:
Animal-Human Hybrids
Gene Therapy
Reproductive Technology
Stem Cell Research
"Therapeutic" Cloning
None of the above

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