Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the Women's Bioethics Project!

Each year brings new experiences for which to be thankful ~ here, at the Women's Bioethics Blog, we'd like to send all of our readers a Thanksgiving Blessing and an expression of gratitude for your support!

England’s plan for GM trees, and the possible ramifications

Another one of our weekly guest posts from Jonathan Javitt:

A group of researchers from the University of Southampton are hoping to establish a settlement of genetically modified poplar trees on land owned by the Forestry Commission as part of a research project into biofuels. Sounds good on its face – modified trees that may help us solve some of our oil dependency problems. But it’s not that easy. The truth is, these trees would present a whole other set of problems.

Clare Oxborrow, A campaigner for the eco-friendly organization, Friends of the Earth, explains the potential problems: “Our concerns with GM trees are even more serious than crops because trees are very long-lived. They are inherently geared up for spreading seeds and pollen because of the way they reproduce. There’s a huge potential for cross-pollination. It could have a really negative impact and cause widespread ecological damage.”

The proposed plantation would be the first attempt to cultivate genetically modified trees in Britain since 1999, when activists destroyed 115 plants. Those particular trees were super-trees – they had been modified to grow at four times the rate of a normal tree. That means they used more oxygen, more resources(what resources?), and could reproduce and pollinate faster. Campaigners have said that they will fight the new, similar plan amid warnings that allowing the move to go ahead would be “an unknown and worrying risk” for Britain’s ecosystems.

Meanwhile, eco-organizations are cautioning that the government should think carefully before giving the project the go-ahead. As I talk about in Capitol Reflections - and as with any scheme involving genetic modification - there is no doubt much more than meets the eye, and many serious issues to consider, on both sides of the argument. True, my book is fiction but many of the debates and issues raised in it are things that are happening on the forefront of the genetically modified foods movement. The American people as a whole need to be made more aware of this movement as we address issues like the one mentioned above.

Jonathan Javitt is a physician and scientist who has served as a senior White House health adviser in the past three presidential administrations. He currently serves as Senior Fellow in the National Security Health Policy Center. Visit his site ( and his first book, Capitol Reflections is on sale on

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Little Bit Closer to Jurassic Park

I fully admit that I am typically the first skeptic in line when people make proclamations like "oh, we're getting close to Jurassic Park!" After all, as fantastical as the book (and movie) was, it was fantasy, and it got as much, if not more wrong, than right. So needless to say, it was with a bit of chagrin that my first reaction to reading that scientists believe that they can regenerate a woolly mammoth for around USD $10 million was, indeed, along the lines of "oh wow Jurassic Park!" In fact, my thought process, in pretty rapid succession, went something like this:
  1. Ooooooh neat!

  2. $10 million isn't really that much...

  3. Huh, yeah, it'd definitely raise ethical issues to do this to a Neanderthal, but why wouldn't it be ethically questionable for a mammoth?

  4. $10 million isn't that much at all, especially when you consider the kind of money the top philanthropists throw at science projects.

  5. Oh man, it's gonna be Jurassic Park, isn't it? Some rich philanthropist is going to go buy an island and...

Right. I do acknowledge not only being a geek, but being rather medicated to the gills on cold medicine right now, too. At least, that's gonna be my excuse!

With less levity and more seriousness, this is an interesting break, both in where the found and how they sequenced the DNA, but also for the very idea of replicating extinct species. What does it mean to be extinct, then? Does this alleviate our environmental concerns? "Oops, just wiped out the last Bengal tiger, let's go grow a new couple!" How close of a genetic match do you need to make before the animal being born now is the same animal that was last born hundreds, if not thousands, of years before?

And more in my own areas of interest: do we really have the right to bring something back from the dead? Can we assume that it died for a reason, and we might really be mucking with things to undo that? If we regenerated a mammoth today, would it have the right foods to eat? How would its immune system handle common viruses? Would the climate be right? Where would it live? Are they herd animals, or can they be solitary?

The temptation to play God is always great, especially when science allows us to do - and undo - so much. But I wonder if, this time, it might take going too far to see just where that line is.
-Kelly Hills

As a total aside, I nominate naming the first one Snuffleupagus.

WBP Advisory Member R. Alta Charo Joins Transition Team of President-elect Obama

*****Congratulations and Hooray! ***** for R. Alta Charo, one of the WBP's Advisory Board members, who has been named by President-elect Barack Obama to his Transition Team. A prominent nationally known bioethicist, she is also the Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Well known for her brilliance, insightful lectures, keen wit, and scholarly publications, Charo is working on the team reviewing the Department of Health and Human Services, taking advantage of her familiarity with a number of issues related to bioethics, health policy, and science policy.

The full press release from the University of Wisconsin can be found here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Moreno named to Obama Transition Team

News alert: Women's Bioethics Project advisory board member Jonathan D. Moreno has been named to President-elect Obama’s transition team. Dr. Moreno will be leading the President's Council on Bioethics Review Team. You can read the official announcement here. This is excellent news for the field of bioethics, science policy, and progressive values. Congratulations to Dr. Moreno and we look forward to working with him to ensure that women’s voices, health concerns, and unique life experiences strongly influence ethical issues in health care and biotechnology.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nip/Tucking Your Way to Beauty Queendom

Friend and colleague Art Caplan comments on the ethical issues surrounding Venezuelan beauty pageants on

"Eva Ekvall says she was 17, a little overweight and dreaming of winning enough to buy a car when she entered her first beauty contest. Plastic surgery was the last thing on the young Venezuelan's mind.

Then she met Osmel Sousa, the Pygmalion of her country's beauty industry. Three months later, weighing 10 kilograms (22 pounds) less, her nose reshaped, and with breast implants, Ekvall was crowned Miss Venezuela...

Cuban-born Sousa, 60, who has run the Miss Venezuela franchise since 1981, is responsible for most of the country's five Miss Universe, five Miss World and five Miss International titles. He openly encourages surgery.

``This isn't a nature contest,'' Sousa said in an interview as contestants in swimsuits and high heels practiced choreography for the 2008 Miss Venezuela pageant, which took place in Caracas on Sept. 10. ``It's a beauty contest, and science exists to help perfect beauty. There is nothing wrong with that.'...

Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics questions Sousa's endorsement of aesthetic surgery.

``No surgeon can say that giving breast implants to a 17-, 18-year-old for beauty reasons is ethical,'' Caplan said by phone from Philadelphia. ``It's terrible that these pageants are turning into plastic surgery competitions and are no longer about real beauty.''

Surgical enhancement is permitted and is common among contestants, said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, a joint venture between billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump and NBC Universal Inc...." [Full article can be accessed here.]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bone Marrow Transplant Cured AIDS?

BBC News reports that a patient suffering from AIDS and leukemia shows no signs of AIDS infection after receiving a bone marrow transplant from an AIDS-resistant donor.

He had been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, that causes Aids, for more than a decade and also had leukaemia.

The clinic said since the transplant was carried out 20 months ago, tests on the patient's bone marrow, blood and other organ tissues have all been clear.

In a statement, Professor Rodolf Tauber from the Charite clinic said: "This is an interesting case for research.

"But to promise to millions of people infected with HIV that there is hope of a cure would not be right."

Like many of you, I am skeptical about the long-term efficacy of this treatment and am concerned about the social justice challenges presented should this be determined to be a cure. But this story is valuable for the new direction it offers to medical research; while many researchers focus on preventing the virus from propagating, introducing genetics and possibly retroviruses opens up more possibilities. By pursuing all available angles of this crisis, we increase our chances of finding that elusive cure to this global epidemic.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

BioBeer -- It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This...

Along the lines of 'Better Living Through Genetic Manipulation', scientists at Rice University have created a beer that could enhance your chances at longevity:

"BioBeer, as it's called, has three genes spliced into special brewer's yeast that produce resveratrol, the chemical in red wine that is thought to protect against diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and other age-related conditions."

Full article accessible here in Discovery news.

I wanna know, though, how does it taste? Would you drink this?

Treacherous Kisses?

Our weekly guest post from Jonathan Javitt, author of Capitol Reflections:

Genetically modified (GM) beet sugar is generally used to make Hershey's Kisses – but that will no longer be the case in Brazil. The company recently announced it won't use GM beet sugar in its Brazilian-made products, but Hershey has not made any such promises for its US products.

In light of this, a number of consumer watch-dog groups in the US are urging people to take action; several years ago, Hershey told U.S. consumers it would not use genetically engineered sugar. But now genetically modified sugar beets are being planted commercially in the US and Hershey is utilizing sugar made from these plants for their hugely popular “Kisses” candy.

Additionally, the nation's largest sugar manufacturer, Crystal Sugar (from whom Hershey buys its sugar), said in the past that they would not be using GM sugar beets and indicated that herbicide-resistant varieties developed using biotechnology would not “be sold, given away, distributed, or planted.” But it doesn't look like that promise has been kept.

The New York Times reported last year in an article, “Round Two for Biotech Beets”that the sugar manufacturer abandoned its promise not to use genetically-modified sugar because public resistance to GM foods seems to have faded. Crystal Sugar and others now support the cultivation of GM beets because it will increase yields. According this article, beet sugar is unlike many GM foods in that the sugar molecule in GM beets is identical to the sugar molecule made by non-GM beets. Sugar, as a pure, crystalline substance contains no genetically modified strands of DNA or proteins.

GM beets are produced by Monsanto, which is a concern to many consumer groups – and agriculture activists - because of perceived dangers of Monsanto’s pesticide resistant technology and the aggressive marketing to farmers who don't use their products. The GM beets are called Roundup Ready Beets because their DNA has been altered to survive applications of Roundup weed-killer.

Consumer groups are concerned about the introduction of GM foods for human consumption in the US because there are no clear requirements for pre-market safety testing. The nation’s food safety laws were written before GM foods were conceived and although those laws focus on proving the safety of food additives and adulterated foods, genetic modification is considered neither an additive nor an adulterant.

While these issues are debated, still others are worried about Monsanto's central role in our food supply. As I mention in my book, altering the food supply could potentially play a big role – and cause big problems – in our society. In the “real world,” this is easy to see - increasing use of GM seed and food gives Monsanto – a GMO giant - a great deal of control over the production of food, and only a handful of corporations like Monsanto are involved in agricultural biotechnology.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Refreshing Change: A Code of Ethics in a Presidential transition...

[Hat tip to Dr. Matt Wynia, director of the American Medical Association Institute for Ethics for bringing our attention to this one]

Any who has attended an ASBH meeting knows that one of the issues that has been hotly debated among members in the last few years is whether or not bioethicists should have a code of ethics to which they agree to adhere to retain membership -- it is just one step towards setting standards, obtaining public trust, and promoting transparency. Well, it looks like the Obama transition team beat us to punch:

"At an afternoon press briefing in the Transition Team offices for President-elect Barack Obama, transition team co-chairman John Podesta said this would be “the most open and transparent transition in history” and released a set of rules that lobbyists working on the team will be required to abide by.

The list of rules include the following: Lobbyists working with the team -- a list of whom will be released -- are prohibited from doing any lobbying during the transition; someone who becomes a lobbyist after working on the transition is prohibited from lobbying the Administration for one year on matters for which they worked; and anyone who has lobbied in the last year is prohibited from working in the policy areas for which they lobbied. Transition team members will be subject to a “gift ban,” and Podesta also indicated they would need to sign an ethics code.

"These are the strictest ethics rules ever applied," said Podesta, who served as Bill Clinton's chief of staff for the last two years of his administration. Asked why they would keep lobbyists from working on policy areas for which they're deeply knowledgeable, Podesta said: "I've heard the complaint that we're leaving all these extra people on the side, that we're leaving all the people that know everything out in the cold. So be it. That's a commitment that is one the American people expect and one the President-elect made."

How Womens' Health Will Be Affected by the Obama Presidency

[Tip of the hat to Rachel Walden over at Women's Health News Blog for alerting us to these headlines]

Buh-bye Global Gag Rule!

7 Things Obama’s Win Could Mean for Women’s Health

Condoms Trump Abstinence in Obama Global AIDS Policy (Update1)

US health policy: we've fallen but we can get up ~ Yes, we can!: Dr Susan Wood appointed co-chair of Obama's advisory committee on Women's Health.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama election signals change in stem cell fight

A commentary by friend and colleague Art Caplan in his MSNBC column:

'Change' was the horse that Barack Obama's presidential campaign rode to victory. Indeed the 2008 election will be remembered not only for Obama becoming the first African-American president, but also for its impact on core bioethical topics that have long dominated American domestic politics.

Divisive issues such as abortion bans failed to gain traction on state ballot initiatives, while newer bioethical concerns that are likely to dominate American politics for years to come, including physician-assisted suicide, emerged.

The past eight years of the Bush White House have seen stem cell research and the status of embryos at the center of the moral values debate. Obama's election has brought the fight over embryonic stem cell research in the U.S. to an end.

Loosening stem cell research
The state of Michigan passed Proposal 2, loosening restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. This means that in Michigan - whose universities such as Michigan State in East Lansing are major biomedical research powerhouses - scientists will be able to use the excess embryos created at in-vitro fertility clinics as a source of stem cells for research, as long as they have the written consent of the parents who sought treatment.

There are now 10 states that have laws permitting embryonic stem cell research. These 10 are likely to be the recipients of an executive order that the new president will undoubtedly sign shortly after taking office, freeing up federal funds for embryonic stem cell research while laying out new regulatory guidelines.

One of the main arguments against embryonic stem cell research is that all embryos are persons from the moment of conception. The voters of Colorado were given the chance to put that view into law with the proposed Amendment 48. The so-called "Personhood Amendment" sought to define fertilized eggs as human beings, extending them constitutional rights. Coloradoans defeated this amendment by a margin of three to one.

Many, including myself, would argue that the ongoing debate over the morality of stem cell research is really just a stalking horse for the abortion debate. But efforts to further restrict abortion did not fare well at the ballot box, either. California voters rejected a proposition that would have required doctors to notify parents before performing an abortion on a minor. The initiative also would have required a two-day waiting period before minors could get abortions.

In South Dakota a measure that would have banned abortions - except in cases of rape, incest and serious health threat to the mother - also lost. An even tougher version, without the rape and incest exceptions, was defeated two years ago. The 2008 initiative went down to a resounding defeat of 55 percent to 45 percent.

Taken all together this series of votes represents an important moment in public bioethics in America. Like it or not - and I am well aware that many are not ready to let go of these issues - the nation may be starting to move past the endless battles over stem cells, embryos and abortion. Stem cell research in all forms is proceeding. Embryos are not going to be given legal status as persons. Further restrictions on abortion are unlikely.

There will still be plenty to fight over! The most important topic to emerge from this election is how Americans die and treat painful medical conditions.

Michigan became the 13th state to enact an amendment legalizing marijuana use for medical purposes. Proposal 1 passed by a margin of 63 percent to 37 percent. It allows patients with "debilitating medical conditions" to register with the state and, with the permission of a physician, legally buy, grow and use small amounts of marijuana to relieve pain, nausea and appetite loss, among other symptoms. Massachusetts decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, shifting the penalty to a $100 fine.

Help for terminally ill
Americans are clearly telling Washington that they want dying people to have access to whatever helps make that process less burdensome. It will be interesting to see how the new administration grapples with that message. If no one listens, then a much more controversial option may emerge - physician-assisted suicide.

Perhaps the most startling measure to pass at the state level was in Washington's Initiative 1000, offering terminally ill people the option of physician-assisted suicide. Washington voters decided that adults who are deemed competent and have been given less than six months to live by a physician can legally request and self-administer lethal prescription medicine. The measure passed by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.

This surely will not be the last state-level effort to legalize physician-assisted suicide if other policies aimed at minimizing the suffering of the dying are not enacted. While I have my doubts about the wisdom of offering help in ending one's life before offering them health insurance, I suspect it will become a political hot potato in a number of states in the next few years.
An aging population, the increasing cost of medical care and a lack of high-quality palliative and nursing-home care almost guarantee it.

The pundits will spend the next few months analyzing the election, pontificating on what led to the Obama victory and the Democrats taking greater control of Congress. They won't find the answers if they do not pay attention to the clear messages Americans sent concerning critical bioethical questions.

Original article here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Life begins at....

In light of the recent defeat of the embryos-are-full-persons amendment in Colorado, this article from New Scientist from a few days ago sheds some interesting light on the spectrum of thought on when life (or more specifically moral and/or legal status) begins:

[Whether the legal rights enjoyed by citizens in the state of Colorado should extend to embryos from the point of fertilisation will be decided by its voters on 4 November. A "yes" decision could pave the way for anti-abortion legislation. But an online poll of people with a range of nationalities and religions shows opinion varies widely on the age-old question of when life begins.

The poll was part of a questionnaire compiled by the IVF clinic Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta, Georgia, to see how people might view new reproductive technologies.

The Colorado ballot will ask voters whether they think an embryo becomes a person when the sperm and egg fuse. Of the 643 poll respondents, just 22.7 per cent believe this is when life begins. The most popular answer was "when the fetal heartbeat becomes detectable", garnering 23.5 per cent of answers, while "when the embryo attaches to the womb lining" got 15 per cent.

"It demonstrates that this question doesn't have a right or wrong answer," says Jackie Friedman of Reproductive Biology Associates, which will present the survey results at the annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in San Francisco next week.

Unsurprisingly, among Roman Catholics sperm-egg fusion won. In contrast, Jews, agnostics, atheists, Muslims and IVF recipients gave fetal heartbeat the most votes. In North America, 27 per cent chose sperm-egg fusion, 24 per cent heartbeat detection and 18 per cent womb attachment.]

From issue 2680 of New Scientist magazine, 29 October 2008, page 6

A New Day...

Now that the numbers are in, here are some of the election results that our readers might be interested in:

South Dakota's Measure 11, aimed at triggering a Supreme Court showdown on Roe vs. Wade, has been defeated.

The ban on gay marriage is leading.

Colorado 'Personhood' Amendment Defeated.

The next American President is an advocate and steward for the environment.

Michigan became the 13th state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, with 63 percent of the vote.

Voters in Massachusetts approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

British GMO Protests Highlight Global Divide

Our weekly guest post by Jonathan Javitt, author of Capitol Reflections:

In July, Malawi became the second African country to approve biotech crops, and as food prices continue to rise, this is a trend that will doubtless be continuing. More countries are turning to genetically modified crops for agricultural assistance.

In Britain, opposition to these types of crops is quite prevalent - nearly all of the 54 U.K. pesticide-resistant crop trials attempted in the past eight years have been attacked, according to media reports. Protesters are destroying the experimental crops to prevent biotechnology companies from spreading genetically modified organisms (GMOs) more widely in Europe and the developing world.

Thanks to this bio-vandalism, research of GMOs has been forced to come to a near-halt. European Union legislation requires research groups and facilities to let the public know the location of the trials, making it easier for opponents to locate the research sites.

GMO protests go beyond the US and the UK - 200 South Koreans protested GM crops in May, and 300 Brazilian activists attacked a farm owned by global agribusiness company Monsanto, a developer of biotechnology products, in March.

But are people getting as carried away as it might sound? One analyst believes extreme protests are overemphasized by the media, in part due to efforts by the biotech industry to discredit the opposition.

In my novel, Capitol Reflections, I note that many people are concerned that new GM techniques are developing so rapidly that there isn't an extensive enough screening process to weed out potential hazards before products hit the market. They're concerned that long-term assessments of environmental and health effects are lagging behind discoveries. This could mean – as is the case with genetically modified coffee in the book – that products are introduced to the market that appear to be beneficial, but can end up having unforeseen detrimental effects.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

So Little Time, So Much Damage To Do

In a quick and dirty driveby post, it's worth taking note that the current administration has 77 days left to change rules and regulations on the environment, civil liberties and reproductive rights (mind you, not in a progressive way)- and, according to an editorial in the NY Times, they are not wasting any time, intending to leave a series of little "surprises" (a euphemistic word for....well, I'm sure you can fill in the blank) for the next administration.

This will surely keep the watchdog groups busy...

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Week in Review

- Does your heart good: Don’t forget to “fall back” this weekend. Apparently, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, turning clocks back in the fall lowers incidence of heart attacks on the Monday after the change! The opposite effect is seen on the Monday after we “spring ahead.”

- “Hallway medicine” is seen as way to unclutter ERs. Instead of stackin’ ‘em in the ER, stack ‘em in the halls elsewhere. Hmm. Kind of like how I clean off the top of my desk. Shift a pile here, shift one there. Looks better, but is anything really solved?

- Irish university approves use of human embryonic stem cells in research.

- A cancer drug which could prolong the lives of thousands of patients is ruled not cost effective by the NHS drugs watchdog in the UK.

- Erectile dysfunction—best predictor of heart attack in men. How about a stress test and EKG with that Viagra?

- New minimally invasive technique zaps fibroids using MRI-guided ultrasound. Zip. Zap. Gone.

- A sad silver lining: Alzheimer’s sufferers might have lower blood pressure thanks to decline in memory. Less anxiety, less worries. (What, me worry?)

- Scientists restore movement to monkeys’ anesthetized arms through artificial brain-muscle connections. Possible hope for stroke victims.

- Purple GM tomatoes may ward off cancer. Loaded with gorgeous purple antioxidants! But will people eat them?

- Artificial antibodies—could be used in cheap, field-ready toxin sensors. But what tells them to stop once they’re let loose inside the body?

- Fully implantable, totally artificial heart could be available in 2011.

- Split the FDA into separate food and drug agencies? Opinion piece discusses the possibility in light of recent regulatory snafus.

[Thank you to Lisa von Biela, JD candidate, 2009, UMN, Editor of the BioBlurb, from which this content is taken and edited. BioBlurb is a weekly electronic publication of the American Bar Association's Committee on Biotechnology, Section of Science & Technology Law. Archived issues of the BioBlurb, as well as further information about the Committee on Biotechnology, are available here.]