BioEdge 274 -- Wednesday, 14 November 2007

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BioEdge 274: New Jersey voters spurn stem cell research

THIS WEEK


bullet 
New Jersey voters spurn stem cell research
      California still probable leader
bullet 
UK to debate radical amendments to fertility act
      Full hybrids will be allowed
bullet 
Cruisin' for a bruisin' in Zurich
      Death with dignity in car parks
bullet 
Primate embryos cloned for first time
      Could lead to human cloning
bullet 
Lobsters can say Ouch!
      Belfast researcher says crustaceans can feel pain
bullet 
Genetic knowledge could lead to new racism
      Concern after Watson blunder
bullet 
Are humans hard-wired for optimism?
      How about for aggression?
bullet 
Pharmacists can refer Plan B, says Washington judge
      Provisional solution to conscience debate
bullet 
Chinese spinal therapies
      US doctor undertakes trials in China
bullet 
China shifts on prisoner organ harvesting
      Chinese Medical Association repudiates use, except for relatives

New Jersey voters spurn stem cell research

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine Has their run of legislative luck ended, American supporters of embryonic stem cell research must be asking themselves. In 2004 California taxpayers approved a US$3 billion stem cell institute by a hefty margin -- and paid for it with their own money. But in last week's election, New Jersey voters decisively rejected a similar $450 million initiative. Governor Jon S. Corzine, who had donated $150,000 out of his own pocket to promote the measure, was puzzled. After all, the state had already spent $270 million on stem cell research buildings. And New Jersey voters had not rejected a state- wide ballot initiative since 1990.

The result may have sunk the state's dream of becoming a magnet for stem cell biotech. The chairman of the California stem cell institute declared that he felt New Jersey's pain: "For California to carry the leadership for a great part of the nation alone is a monumental task," said Robert Klein.

Voter thrift seemed to be the main reason for the disappointing result, not ethical concerns. "I think the voters cut up the credit card," commented Ruth B. Mandel, of Rutgers University. "They said, 'we're not going to let you borrow any more money until you can pay our bills.'" Opponents on ethical grounds capitalised on the voters' mood. New Jersey Right to Life ran TV advertisements with the simple message: "Research has not produced one cure. Not one. Question 2 is about taking your tax dollars for something that Wall Street and the drug companies will not invest in. Think about it."

Now Governor Corzine plans to ask the drug companies to step up to the plate to help finance the research. "They're a natural to chip in", said John Codey, president of the state senate. Time will tell. ~ New York Times, Nov 8; NewJersey.com, Nov 8   

UK to debate radical amendments to fertility act

You would expect that proposed radical changes to fertility laws would shrink under the glare of publicity. But in the UK, they seem to be growing. The latest version of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill have become even more controversial, sparking a minor revolt by backbenchers. Geraldine Smith, a Labour MP who sat on a Parliamentary committee which studied the new legislation, said she would vote against it. "We could have quite large Labour rebellions on various aspects of this bill. "These decisions have profound ethical implications."

One provision in the bill is scrapping the requirement for IVF clinics to consider a child's need for a father, making it easier for single women and lesbians to access government-funded fertility treatment. But labelling two women "parent 1" and "parent 2" is "colluding in lying about their real origins", says Ms Smith. There are a number of other controversial details. A deceased same sex partner of a pregnant lesbian may be added to a birth certificate, for instance. The certificates would have no reference to the sperm donor father.

Another provision expands the kinds of hybrid embryos which scientists can make. Originally it was only "cybrids", whose DNA is 0.1% animal and 99.9% human. Now it includes true hybrids made from mingling animal eggs with human sperm. This is a technique which only a few months ago the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority denied was wanted by scientists. "None of the scientists that we consulted could see a purpose for carrying out such research using human gametes," an official report stated.

The UK health minister, Dawn Primarolo, says that the bill, which will be in force from early 2009, will help maintain the UK as a world leader in reproductive technologies and research. ~ Daily Mail, Nov 8; eGov monitor, Nov 9   

Cruisin' for a bruisin' in Zurich

Kicked out of an apartment block, barred from its former premises, and banned from hotels, the Swiss suicide group Dignitas has taken to cruising around car parks. Two German men recently used its "death on wheel" service to kill themselves in a woodland parking area. The founder of Dignitas, Ludwig Minelli, says that the demand for its services is high but the local authorities are being obstructive. "People who want to die find themselves in a situation where they cannot wait until the stand-off with officials is sorted out," he says.

The new tactic has angered many of the group's foes. The German Hospice Foundation described it as "disgusting"; a Swiss Social Democrat MP called it "degrading".

Several groups help people commit suicide in Switzerland, but only Dignitas advertises its services abroad. Since 1998, 753 foreigners have taken advantage of them. In the UK, a 44-year-old woman suffering from multiple sclerosis, Debbie Purdy, wants the police to guarantee that it will not prosecute her husband for taking her to Zurich so that she can kill herself. Technically, assisting a suicide is still a crime in the UK, People who have openly defied the law by taking relatives to Dignitas have not been prosecuted, but they have been questioned by the police. ~ London Telegraph, Nov 9; London Times, Nov 11   

Primate embryos cloned for first time

Scientists in the US have successfully cloned a primate for the first time -- a rhesus macaque monkey. The news was immediately hailed as confirmation that cloning human embryos must also be possible. According to a report in the Independent, in the UK, researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, led by Russian-born Shoukhrat Mitalipov, have created dozens of clones, as well as stem cell lines. However, their attempts to implant cloned embryos into the wombs of monkey mothers to get a live birth have all failed so far.

There have been some doubts about whether there might be an insuperable barrier to cloning primates, including man. This experiment, whose results will soon be published in the leading journal Nature, suggests that it is possible. The secret of the team's success seems to be that they did not expose sensitive primate eggs to ultraviolet light and dyes. ~ Independent, Nov 12   

Lobsters can say Ouch!

Boiling live lobsters is an increasingly controversial practice, notwithstanding its epicurean outcome. The chef's argument is that crustaceans feel no pain; animal welfare activists insist that they do. The latter viewpoint has received a boost with a report from Queen's University Belfast of convincing evidence that prawns (shrimp to Americans) do feel pain.

Robert Elwood and colleagues dabbed acetic acid on one of 144 prawns' antennae. The animals reacted by grooming and rubbing the affected areas for up to five minutes. This, he says, is "consistent with an interpretation of pain experience". Other researchers retort that this is nonsense. "Even a single-cell organism can detect a threatening chemical gradient and retreat from it," says Richard Chapman of the University of Utah. "But this is not sensing pain."

Elwood responds that this is unlikely because of the evolutionary advantage that pain confers. ~ New Scientist, Nov 10   

Genetic knowledge could lead to new racism

Many observers worry that growing public trust in genetics could lead to fresh outbreaks of racism, says the New York Times. In the wake of indignation over Nobel laureate James Watson's remarks linking low IQs with people of African descent, it suggests that scientists must educate the public about the limitations of genetics.

We are living through an era of the ascendance of biology, and we have to be very careful," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. "We will all be walking a fine line between using biology and allowing it to be abused."

The Times contends that the Watson scandal "has added to uneasiness about whether society is prepared to handle the consequences of science that may eventually reveal appreciable differences between races in the genes that influence socially important traits".

There are clear differences between people of different continental ancestries," said Marcus W. Feldman, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University. "It's not there yet for things like IQ, but I can see it coming. And it has the potential to spark a new era of racism if we do not start explaining it better." ~ New York Times, Nov 11   

Are humans hard-wired for optimism?

Meanwhile, on the neuroscience front, more qualities have been mapped out in the brain. OPTIMISM: scientists at New York University have found that our brains tend to visualise positive future events more intensely and vividly than negative events. A region called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex lights up on MRI scans when we think of hopes and aspirations. "This region of the cortex may actually be taking information and transforming it in a way that creates this optimism bias," says Dr Elizabeth Phelps. Researchers speculate that optimism may have an evolutionary survival value. ~ Wall Street Journal, Nov 9

AGGRESSION: A combination of an overactive amygdala, a part of the brain linked to fear, and an underactive prefrontal cortex, which is linked to reasoning, may explain road rage. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, used MRI scans to study brain activity in a small group of angry adolescent boys. "A point will come ultimately when you could screen children and say, to a certain degree of predicability, which will become violent offenders," says Adrian Raine, of the University of Pennsylvania. ~ Technology Review, Nov 7   

Pharmacists can refer Plan B, says Washington judge

The battleground of primacy of conscience has shifted to Washington state this week. A federal judge there has suspended the state's requirement that pharmacists sell the morning-after pill, moral objections notwithstanding. Regulators ruled earlier this year that no pharmacist could refuse to supply the drug. This was challenged by some pharmacists who claimed that this violated their civil rights.

In the US, the morning-after pill, marketed by Barr Pharmaceuticals as Plan B, can now be sold over the counter to anyone over 18. US District Judge Ronald Leighton settled for a compromise: pharmacists can refuse if they refer a customer to a nearby supplier. State Senator Karen Keiser said that the judge's ruling was "unconscionable": "The fact is that the citizens of the state of Washington have a right to legal drugs."

"We believe strongly that forcing someone to choose between their religious beliefs and actually losing their business or their career is unconstitutional," responds the pharmacists' lawyer. "And the court agreed, so we're going to continue pursuing the claim." ~ Seattle Post-Intelligencer/AP, Nov 8   

Chinese spinal therapies

A leading US spinal injuries surgeon is setting up a research network in China, despite its abysmal ethical standards, to take advantage of the 60,000 people injured each year in car and industrial accidents. These have risen ten-fold over the past ten years along with China's economic boom.

Dr Wise Young, of Rutgers University, in New Jersey, the doctor who treated Christopher Reeve, says that working in China "means that new therapies can be tested more quickly and cheaply". He has set up a network of 22 centres across the country which are supposed to meet the highest international standards in clinical trials.

An investigation by Jane Qiu, of the New Scientist, however, has found that some the doctors in the network are charging exorbitant fees for experimental techniques which have not been shown to work. Huang Hongyun, of Beijing Xishan Hospital, for example, has treated hundreds of patients with foetal cells from the olfactory bulb, which links the nose to the brain. He charges for treatment, even though Western experts who examined some of his patients say that none had shown significant improvement.

Dr Young is aware of the ethical shortcomings of many of his colleagues and wants them to observe international guidelines for informed consent and ethical review. This will be difficult, observes the New Scientist acidly as "Chinese doctors have until recently paid scant attention to such niceties". Some observers are highly critical. Qiu Renzong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, asks "How could a doctor turn a blind eye to practices which exploit patients with devastating conditions?" ~ New Scientist, Nov 10   

China shifts on prisoner organ harvesting

Uneasy with their reputation for using organs from executed prisoners, the Chinese Medical Association has formally repudiated the practice. According to the BMJ, at the annual general assembly of the World Medical Association in Copenhagen last month, CMA representatives said that prisoners' organs should only be used for immediate family members. Since the chair and one vice-chair are government appointees, this signals that the government realises that what has been common practice in China is not acceptable to the worldwide medical community. ~ BMJ, Nov 10   

  

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Australasian Bioethics Information
ISSN 1446-2117
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BioEdge editor: Michael Cook
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