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November 30, 2007

Audit Ordered for California Center for Regenerative Medicine

More trouble in Proposition 71-Land: The California State Controller–in what I must say is a gutsy move given the politics of the matter–has ordered an audit of the CIRM citing charges of conflict of interest. From the story:

California’s top financial officer Tuesday ordered a top-to-bottom audit of the state’s $3 billion stem cell institute, in the wake of reports that its chairman and one of its directors were involved in a violation of the agency’s conflict-of-interest policy.

State Controller John Chiang also called on the state Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate the alleged violation by John Reed, a director of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and president of the internationally known Burnham Institute of La Jolla, California. Reed privately lobbied institute staff in an attempt to secure a $638,000 grant for Burnham, according to agency documents. Complicating the case further, Robert Klein, an attorney and president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, has publicly admitted he advised Reed to solicit internally for Burnham…

Only three years old, the California stem cell agency has had a rocky start, with previous accusations of conflict of interest and lawsuits that held up its grant process for two years. Nevertheless, it has become the largest source in the world for human embryonic stem cell research funding. Scientists and government officials throughout the world follow its activities.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of the nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a group that has closely watched the institute since its inception, has called for the resignation of both Klein and Reed, a call echoed by The Sacramento Bee, the leading newspaper in the California state capital.

Simpson said the only way to clear the air and restore confidence in the agency’s grant awards process is for both men to leave. Simpson cited the built-in conflicts of interest on the institute’s board. Seventeen of its 29 members have links to institutions that stand to benefit from the $227 million lab-construction program.

The potential for conflicts have always been there–ignored by the media prior to the election. But if the CIRM has strayed, it will materially undermine the biotechnology project in general. Indeed, with “science” increasingly taking on the trappings of a special interest, the harm for the reputation of science could be profound.

Well, the truth will out. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Chiang turns up.

Woman’s skin turned to embryo cells

Roger Highfield reports that the alternative to cloning continues to show promise. Skin cells from the face of 36 year old woman have been converted into her own embryonic like cells directly, in experiments that bring closer the day that doctors will not need to clone embryos to create any of a patient’s own cells and tissues for novel treatments.

In an advance that will calm ethical concerns, transform stem-cell research and accelerate progress toward treating patients with their own personalised replacement cells and tissue, American and Japanese researchers reported a few days ago they have reprogrammed ordinary human skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells, a remarkable advance that prompted Prof Ian Wilmut to say he would adopt the new method rather than the one his team used to clone Dolly. (Telegraph)

Duke Scientists Map ‘Silenced Genes’

Remember biology class where you learned that children inherit one copy of a gene from mom and a second from dad? There’s a twist: Some of those genes arrive switched off, so there is no backup if the other copy goes bad, making you more vulnerable to disorders from obesity to cancer.

Duke University scientists now have identified these “silenced genes,” creating the first map of this unique group of about 200 genes believed to play a profound role in people’s health. (Wired News)

Lead Into Gold: “StemCell Vindication” for Bush

Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist who favored ESCR funding but also saw that the scientists would never be satisfied with being limited to leftover embryos, has a column on the great iPSC breakthrough. He writes (prematurely in my view) that “the great stem cell debate is over:”

Which allows a bit of reflection on the storm that has Bush got it right. Not because he necessarily drew the line in the right place. I have long argued that a better line might have been drawn–between using doomed and discarded fertility-clinic embryos created originally for reproduction (permitted) and using embryos created solely to be disassembled for their parts, as in research cloning (prohibited). But what Bush got right was to insist, in the face of enormous popular and scientific opposition, on drawing a line at all, on requiring that scientific imperative be balanced by moral considerations.raged ever since the August 2001 announcement of President Bush’s stem cell policy. The verdict is clear: Rarely has a president–so vilified for a moral stance–been so thoroughly vindicated…

Bush got it right. Not because he necessarily drew the line in the right place. I have long argued that a better line might have been drawn–between using doomed and discarded fertility-clinic embryos created originally for reproduction (permitted) and using embryos created solely to be disassembled for their parts, as in research cloning (prohibited). But what Bush got right was to insist, in the face of enormous popular and scientific opposition, on drawing a line at all, on requiring that scientific imperative be balanced by moral considerations.

A willingness to draw moral lines is going to become increasingly important as life sciences gain power once consigned to the gods. I think atomic energy is a rough, but good analogy. Like the current strides being made in biology and biotechnology (think artificial viruses, for example), the tremendous scientific gains made by physicists in unlocking the atom unleashed great potential for both tremendous good and catastrophic evil. Yet, nobody said in the face of that awesome power, as Senator Specter did the other day about stem cell research, that science should be “unfettered.” Rather, all agreed that at least some parameters had to be placed around the use of atomic energy and we have since engaged in long and sometimes bitter debates about the extent to which we should use our knowledge and ability to make uses out of the atom. Like the debate over stem cell research, that is right and proper in a democratic society.

For those who think that Krauthammer can’t know what it’s like to be sick or is ignorant of the science, or must be religious: He is a secularist, a physician, psychiatrist, and near-quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury.

Read the whole column. It is well worth your time.

Software That Learns from Users

A massive AI project called CALO could revolutionize machine learning. (Technology Review)

Skin ageing ‘reversed’ in mice

Scientists have reversed the effects of ageing on the skin of mice by blocking the action of a specific protein. (BBC)

Are teens old enough for life/death decisions?

Meyer decided Wednesday to allow 14-year-old Dennis Lindberg of Mount Vernon to refuse blood transfusions — based on his religious beliefs — in his fight against leukemia. Lindberg died later that evening. (Seattle Times)

Tax-Funded Research Implants Aborted Fetal Tissue in Mice

American scientists are using tissue from aborted babies in genetically engineered mice to study how certain diseases are spread, and the experiments are being paid for with U.S. tax dollars. (CNS News)

Op-Ed: Who decides: Man or machine?

When the industrial revolution of the early 19th century threatened the centuries-old caste of the English artisans by replacing man with machine, they rose up, allegedly led by a man named Ned Ludd, in protest. To protect their way of life, they attempted to destroy the machines in hopes of clinging to their past. Since then, anyone who opposes technological advancement has been derided as a Luddite. (ARMED FORCES JOURNAL)

Op-Ed: Stem Cell Vindication

A decade ago, Thomson was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells. Last week, he (and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka) announced one of the great scientific breakthroughs since the discovery of DNA: an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells. (Washington Post)

November 29, 2007

More Trouble in Proposition 71 Land

I have this theory, which as I have said previously, isn’t even that–at best a notion or a wisp of a thought–that anyone seriously involved with human cloning will have it turn to dust in his or her hands. And we’ve seen the Wu-suk Hwang debacle, the problems of credibility over at Advanced Cell Technology, and problems at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and its inability to keep top management. Well, now there appears to be another scandal over at CIRM, as reported in an opinion column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Undue Influence at the Stem Cell Institute,” by Jesse Reynolds, who works for the liberal anti-cloning organization Center for Genetics and the Society. Reynolds writes:

Last week was a busy one for stem cell research. But amid the coverage of major technical advances, an all-too-predictable scandal erupted in California’s stem cell program. The details reveal improper and potentially illegal influence on the allocation of public funds by a board member of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state body created to expend the $3 billion voters agreed to borrow and invest in research under Proposition 71.

The action was, in part, a symptom of the board’s structure. Proposition 71, which created CIRM in 2004, requires that a majority of board members be representatives of the very institutions waiting in line to receive grants.

Yes, we opponents warned the media about the potential for real ethical problems in the structuring of the CIRM–and they wrote about it too–after the campaign! Before that, they were too obsessed with pro lifers and giddy at the chance to “stick it to Bush” (which, as I have said Proposition 71 didn’t do; it stuck it to California) to do their jobs for the people of California.
Reynolds continues:

The scandal began when CIRM gave initial approval for a $638,000 grant to a researcher at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla. But a subsequent review by the agency’s staff found that the researcher is not qualified to receive CIRM funds because he’s not a full-time faculty member.

Before this was to be announced, John Reed, who is both a CIRM board member and the president of Burnham, sent a strongly worded seven-page letter to CIRM staff, emphasizing the “potentially damaging consequences” and “dangerous precedent” of a grant denial. Reed wasn’t merely assisting by clarifying a few details. To assess the grant’s eligibility, CIRM staff had been in communication for months with their counterparts at Burnham. When a board member, who is also president of one of the top grant-receiving institutions, writes this sort of letter, he’s sending a strong message.

That message is that it is chow time, boys! Come and git it!

CIRM Board Chairman Robert Klein also got his hands dirty, according to Reynolds:

Before lobbying CIRM staff, Reed asked for an opinion from Klein, who recommended that he write the letter. While Reed claims that he didn’t fully understand the prohibition on board members’ interference, Klein can’t assert ignorance. Although he now says that he’s “learned something,” Klein was Proposition 71′s primary author – not to mention the leader of the campaign to win voter approval.

This is part of a distinct pattern by Klein, who repeatedly chooses heavy-handed tactics and misleading statements over transparency and accountability. He routinely dismisses public process, and seems reluctant to assume the ethical obligations of a public official.

The science climate has changed since the passage of Proposition 71 and its structural problems continue. In light of the new science breakthroughs and the continuing questionable decision making, perhaps it’s time not to borrow billions of dollars for human cloning research in a state once again drowning in red ink.

Androids in pain and breast-feeding baby bots

Japan’s premier robot event offers visitors the chance to find a high-tech ping-pong opponent, see an android dental patient twitch in pain, and to nurse baby robots in the same afternoon. (New Scientist)

Op-Ed: Government and Health Care: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Suppose that instead of looking at health care policy as a means to push an ideology or score political points, we examine it from a pragmatic American vantage point. What works? What does not work? What backfires? Those are the good, the bad, and the ugly, respectively. The table below summarizes our experience in terms of three goals of health care policy: improving access to care; improving the quality of care; and lowering the cost of our health care system. (TCS Daily)

The Longevity Pill?

A novel group of drugs that target a gene linked to longevity could provide a way to turn back the clock on the diseases of aging. The compounds are 1,000 times more potent than resveratrol, the molecule thought to underlie the health benefits of red wine, and have shown promise in treating rodent models of obesity and diabetes. (Technology Review)

Government Outs Worst Nursing Homes

Fifty-four nursing homes are being told by the government that they’re among the worst in their states in an effort to goad them into improving patient care. (AP)

Op-Ed: An inconvenient truth

The top item on prime-time television news in Germany on 21 November featured a statement from research minister Annette Schavan. She was responding to the publication of two studies in which scientists had reprogammed mature adult human cells to behave in a similar way to embryonic stem cells. The findings, she said, vindicated her preference for adult stem-cell research and reprogramming over work on human embryonic stem cells. After all, who needs embryonic cells if it is possible to flick a switch in skin cells to make them a source of virtually any type of cell for perfectly matched tissue replacement? (Nature)

Audit Ordered for California Stem Cell Agency

California’s top financial officer Tuesday ordered a top-to-bottom audit of the state’s $3 billion stem cell institute, in the wake of reports that its chairman and one of its directors were involved in a violation of the agency’s conflict-of-interest policy. (Wired)

Op-Ed: Why Science Can’t Save the GOP

No one is happier than I am about the latest development in stem-cell research. Scientists in Japan and Wisconsin have independently figured out how to turn ordinary human-skin cells into something like pluripotent stem cells. These are the cells that have caused so much excitement in recent years because they are like a biological gift certificate that can be turned into other kinds of cells as needed. These cells have also produced much controversy because they are derived from human embryos. I have the disease—Parkinson’s—for which stem cells hold the most immediate promise. The hope is that they can be turned into the type of brain cells that produce dopamine, the missing ingredient in Parkinson’s patients. (TIME)

Op-Ed: Undue influence at the stem cell institute

Last week was a busy one for stem cell research. But amid the coverage of major technical advances, an all-too-predictable scandal erupted in California’s stem cell program. The details reveal improper and potentially illegal influence on the allocation of public funds by a board member of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state body created to expend the $3 billion voters agreed to borrow and invest in research under Proposition 71. (San Francisco Chronicle)

November 28, 2007

A Working Brain Model

An ambitious project to create an accurate computer model of the brain has reached an impressive milestone. Scientists in Switzerland working with IBM researchers have shown that their computer simulation of the neocortical column, arguably the most complex part of a mammal’s brain, appears to behave like its biological counterpart. By demonstrating that their simulation is realistic, the researchers say, these results suggest that an entire mammal brain could be completely modeled within three years, and a human brain within the next decade. (Technology Review)

Devil and the Deep Blue Sea?

Just because I am an ethicist does not mean I am opposed to making money, particularly when it comes with solid scientific discoveries that benefit human kind. The field of nanotechnology carries that promise. Unfortunately, many ecorestoration, environmentalist, or “green movement” corporations are more concerned with greener wallets than a greener world. (The Scientist)

 

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