BioEdge 274 -- Wednesday, 14 November 2007
New Jersey voters spurn stem cell research
California still probable leader
UK to debate radical amendments to fertility act
Full hybrids will be allowed
Cruisin' for a bruisin' in Zurich
Death with dignity in car parks
Primate embryos cloned for first time
Could lead to human cloning
Lobsters can say Ouch!
Belfast researcher says crustaceans can feel pain
Genetic knowledge could lead to new racism
Concern after Watson blunder
Are humans hard-wired for optimism?
How about for aggression?
Pharmacists can refer Plan B, says Washington judge
Provisional solution to conscience debate
Chinese spinal therapies
US doctor undertakes trials in China
China shifts on prisoner organ harvesting
Chinese Medical Association repudiates use, except for relatives
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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