On August 5, 2009, in Uncategorized

Designer Babies

Early this year a Los Angeles clinic began offering couples the chance to design their own babies, choosing gender, eye, hair, and skin color, via pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD). According to a BBC report in March, the clinic’s website at that time said it made “NO guarantees as to ‘perfect prediction’ of things such as eye color or hair color.” We just checked, and there is no longer any mention of any genetic selection service on the website except gender selection (which is “100 percent guaranteed”), so the controversy over the morality of designer babies perhaps has had an effect–we don’t know.

Our growing ability to design babies for health and not just aesthetic reasons could feed demand. Last year British scientists created a gene “karyomapping” test that can tell parents-to-be in a matter of weeks whether their embryos are affected by any one of 15,000 inherited diseases.

The chairman of the British Fertility Society told the BBC: “… obviously, the ethical question is, if you can screen for anything, where do you draw the line?” It is surely indisputable that gender selection alone amounts to baby design. Furthermore, it is illegal in many countries (though that is not stopping an apparently growing demand for the service.) One wonders, then, why an arbitrary line would appear to have been drawn under gender selection but above eye-color selection at the LA clinic.

The ethical debate is urgent and important, not because it might put a stop to designer babies (it won’t) but because it gives society at least some opportunity to regulate the practice to prevent excesses and abuses.

Simulators vs. Animals

PETA, a US animal rights group, is among groups putting pressure on hospitals and other

medical institutions to limit or replace the use of animals to practice. One hospital was sued for its use of cats for pediatric intubation practice, another for use of ferrets for intubation practice and live pigs for surgeries.

The pressure seems to be having an effect. A program developed by the American Heart Association and taught across the country “does not require or endorse the use of live animals” during the courses. A similar course uses hi-tech mannequins instead of animals. The lifelike mannequins are able to blink, give blood pressure readings, and simulate a collapsed lung. They “have developed to the point where they are able to mimic conditions that are ‘pretty close’ to live humans, reports Todd Frankel in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

US Set to Retake ESC Ground from the UK

President Obama’s removal of restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, imposed by President Bush in August 2001, is likely to cause an explosion of advances as pent-up research gets under way.

Biotech firm Geron plans to take an embryonic stem cell treatment for spinal cord injury into the clinic. The firm wants to inject embryonic stem cells directly into the spine of newly paralyzed patients. In trials on rats, the animals regained some function. Geron says it has enough undifferentiated stem cells to potentially treat every spinal cord injured patient in the United States for the next two decades. Geron’s next application will be for a stem cell treatment for heart failure. It’s also working on treatments for diabetes, liver disease, bone and cartilage repair.

Meanwhile, although the UK has been even more aggressive legislatively than the US (its Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 2008 allows “human-admixed” embryos to be created from a combination of human and animal genetic material for research, for example), red tape and poor investment threatens the future of UK stem cell work moving from research to real life therapies.

An example is Moorfields Eye Hospital, which is using stem cells to treat blinding ocular surface disorders. It took them five-years of struggling with regulators and financing sources to get the treatment from the bench into the clinic.Another is the London Project to Cure Blindness at University College London, which has made a bank of stem cells with the potential to treat some six million patients who have age-related macular degeneration. But all of the funding to move the work from the bench to the bedside has come from the US. and unless more investment comes in from the UK then this project will go to the US. That seems quite likely to happen, given the British bureaucrats’ response:

  1. Soothe: “The Department of Health believes that stem cell research offers enormous potential to deliver new treatments for diseases and is spending more than £40m a year on all types of research;”
  1. Delay: “The Department of Health and its Gene Therapy Advisory Committee are currently working with other regulators in the field to produce a ‘Regulatory Route Map’ to provide further clarity on the regulatory requirements for the clinical use of stem cells;” and
  1. Deny: “The Medical Research Council said it was unaware of any clinical studies or trials that had been held up by regulatory procedures.”

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