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July 29, 2007

ACT Misses Out on the $–For Now

Advanced Cell Technology is always on the lookout for opportunities to garner money, either from private investors (sometimes after hyped stories of its research “successes” somehow “make it” into the papers), or from government grants. ACT’s most recent escapade involved its refuted contention that it created embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. The story made headlines and generated tremendous controversy because company researchers had destroyed each embryo it researched upon–a matter that was covered extensively here at SHS.) In subsequent unpublished research, ACT now claims to have actually created ES cell lines without destroying embryos, which was also covered here at SHS.

ACT quickly applied for NIH money to do research on obtaining ES cell lines from early embryos, but has hit a different roadblock. The Dickey Amendment, passed by every Congress and signed by both Presidents Clinton and Bush since 1996, does not permit funding for research that “harms” embryos. This language was also used in Bush’s recent executive order calling for the NIH to develop regulations for funding “alternatives” to conventional ESCR.
The question is thus, whether taking one cell from an 8-cell embryo harms it, even if it doesn’t destroy it. (We know this can be done because the technique is used in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and such embryos have been successfully implanted and gestated to birth.)

In any event, that question has put ACT’s grant on hold. From the Washington Post story:

The legal standard of allowable harm to an embryo is spelled out in 1995 congressional language and is reiterated in Bush’s June 2007 executive order. It bans federal funding of research that subjects an embryo to more than “minimal” risk, although greater risk is allowed if the research is anticipated to benefit the embryo.

For now, Lanza has suggested limiting his technique to embryos that are already due to be biopsied at a fertility clinic. The plucked cell could divide for a day, providing enough cells for both the genetic testing and to start a line of stem cells. That way the embryo would not be subjected to any new or additional risk.

My question is why is a delayed $240,000 grant to ACT such a big story?
Why do the media always seem to jump through ACT’s press release hoops and continually quote people closely associated with the company despite their–the media–having been, shall we say, misled by the company’s PR machine several times before? I’ll say this for the company: ACT may or may not be a good biotech company, but it is a publicity hound par excellence.

July 27, 2007

Biotech Casualty

A gene therapy subject in an early human trial to treat arthritis has died, causing the experiment to be halted. Very sad. But such are the risks in human trials, which sometimes puts people in potential peril in the effort to get cutting edge medical treatments to clinical use. (There are, of course, cases in which known risks are not disclosed, as in the 1999 gene therapy death of Jesse Gelsinger, which is not part of the usual process.)

There has been so much hope placed in this biotechnological approach, but this isn’t the first such death, and it may indicate that it will be a very long time before this potentially promising treatment modality is available–if ever.

This event should remind us that biotechnology seeks to harness the power of sheer biology. That can be risky, which is why people should be wary. We must take this one step at a time.

Gene That Regulates Blood-forming Fetal Stem Cells Identified

In the rancorous public debate over federal research funding, stem cells are generally assigned to one of two categories: embryonic or adult. But that’s a false dichotomy and an oversimplification. A new University of Michigan study adds to mounting evidence that stem cells in the developing fetus are distinct from both embryonic and adult stem cells. (ScienceDaily)

Druggists sue Washington state over ‘morning-after’ pill

Pharmacists have sued Washington state over a new regulation that requires them to sell emergency contraception, also known as the “morning-after pill.” (USA Today)

N.C House OKs Embryonic Stem Cell Research

A House committee Thursday approved a bill setting rules for how research can be performed on human embryonic stem cells in North Carolina. (WXII Winston-Salem)

Op-Ed: Matters of Morality

People disagree passionately about science and morality because they care about them, and when their disagreements involve public policy, the forum for resolving them will be politics. Neither religion nor science can expect a free pass in the court of public opinion or in the voting booth. (TIME)

Picking the right hospital can save your life

Studies are now finding that not all hospitals are created equal for every medical emergency. Whether it’s a stroke, a high-risk birth, or a heart attack, the research says it’s worth doing whatever it takes to get to the right place. “A lot of people think hospitals are all the same,” said Dr. Samantha Collier, chief medical officer at HealthGrades, which ranks hospitals. “They’re not.” (CNN)

Patient in Gene Therapy Study Dies

A patient in a gene therapy experiment died on Tuesday in what may have been a reaction to a novel treatment for arthritis, federal health officials said late yesterday. (Washington Post)

MU professor retracts research after investigation

MU professor R. Michael Roberts has retracted research published in Science magazine after a nearly yearlong university investigation concluded that accompanying images were doctored by one of his associates, who has apparently fled the country. (Columbia Missourian)

Op-Ed: Ethical stem cell research progresses

Opponents of ethical limitations on scientific research often accuse pro-life conservatives of placing faith before progress. Ironically, faith is exactly the primary element in their assertion that only embryonic stem cells will be able to treat our worst ailments. (News-Leader)

July 26, 2007

Can Human “Non Persons” be Molested?

Personhood theorists claim that one who becomes permanently unconscious has lost personhood. Some even claim that such people are “dead.” In any event, personhood theorists hold that a permanently unconscious human being is of materially less moral value than persons (perhaps including animals), and hence, can be harvested for organs and used in medical experimentation in ways that would be wrong to do in persons.

I disagree adamantly with that. But this terrible story about the sentencing of a sexual predator of the profoundly disabled makes me wonder: If a patient who is non aware has lost much of their moral value due to their cognitive disability, can they truly be sexually molested? If so, is the crime just as wrong, or should it be deemed akin to violating a corpse–which under law is punished less severely as sexually assaulting a living person.

The creep got 45 years in a plea bargain, the least he deserved. True, some of his victims were conscious. But should that matter? No! And it didn’t in this case, in which the prosecutors treated the violation of the unconscious just as seriously as that of the conscious. This is as it should be because the unconscious are–and should be so treated–as fully human persons possessing full human dignity, not as mere meat or quasi-cadavers.

An Emotional Cat Robot

By applying logical rules for emotions, researchers say they can make robots behave more efficiently. (Technology Review)

FDA says no new labeling for nanotech products

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday said the rising number of cosmetics, drugs and other products made using nanotechnology do not require special regulations or labeling. (Reuters)

Australia: Expense stems research

Embryonic stem cell research has suffered a major blow with a major Singaporean-Australian company abandoning work on therapies due to lack of success and soaring costs. (Courier-Mail)

Womb-on-a-chip may boost IVF successes

Can conception, the most intimate of human experiences, be automated?

Teruo Fujii of the University of Tokyo in Japan and his colleagues are building a microfluidic chip to nurture the first stages of pregnancy. They hope, eventually, to create a fully automated artificial uterus in which egg and sperm are fed in at one end and an early embryo comes out the other, ready for implanting in a real mother. They say using such a device could improve the success rate of IVF. (New Scientist)

Op-Ed: From consensus to plurality: the negotiated compromise and public consultations

The University College London’s Law and Bioethics colloquium, which took place in London at the beginning of July, gave me the impression that a silent revolution is taking place in bioethical discourse (1). The goalposts in bioethics may be shifting from an emphasis on trying to build a moral consensus to establishing an ethical framework that respects, and indeed upholds, plurality of opinion and belief. (BioNews)

Study Renews Conflict-Of-Interest Debate

A new study showing that padded hip protectors didn’t prevent fractures in the elderly has renewed questions about hidden drug industry ties to medical research. (AP)

End-of-Life Hospice Care Underused

Too few Americans entering life’s final phase are availing themselves of high-quality hospice care, despite the fact that Medicare covers the expense, experts say. (HealthDay)

Calif. Hospital Settles Transplant Suit

The UCI Medical Center agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle 35 lawsuits brought by former liver transplant candidates at the hospital or their relatives, the lawyer for most of the plaintiffs said Wednesday. (AP)

Playing Piano with a Robotic Hand

Scientists are developing a neural interface that can control the movement of individual fingers on a prosthetic hand. (Technology Review)

A new issue of Clinical Genetics

As pre-released online. Full content is available by subscription only.

“A comparison of counselee and counselor satisfaction in reproductive genetic counseling” by CM Aalfs, FJ Oort, JCJM de Haes, NJ Leschot EMA Smets


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
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Stem Cell Research
"Therapeutic" Cloning
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