British scientists cheer government climb-down on hybrids

While we're on the topic of flag-waving, British stem cell scientists are waving one, but it's not the white kerchief of surrender, but the Union Jack of victory. Back in December a government white paper recommended that all hybrid embryos be banned. Scientists were outraged. But now, after extensive lobbying, the UK government nearly everything on their shopping list.

This includes all types of inter-species embryos, ranging from "true" hybrids (embryos created by the mixing of human and animal gametes), "cytoplasmic hybrid" embryos (embryos created by the insertion of a human nucleus into an enucleated animal egg); human transgenic embryos (human embryos modified by the addition of animal DNA); and human-animal chimera embryos (embryos created by the addition of animal cells to a human embryo).

The news was welcomed by the Academy of Medical Sciences, which crowed that there never had been any "substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed" and hailed as a "success" by… click here to read whole article and make comments

Fairness is in your genes, not your morals

More news from the everything-is-genetic camp. According to an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Bjorn Wallace, of the Stockholm School of Economics, a sense of fairness is not based upon culture, but upon your genes.

He recruited dozens of identical twins and fraternal twins for an experiment called the ultimatum game. In this, one player divides $15 and offeres a share to the other player. If the responder rejects his share, both players get nothing. This is used as a gauge of fairness. Almost always, people reject a share lower than 20%, apparently to punish the greed of the person making the offer. Dr Wallace found that there was no correlation among fraternal twins but a 42% likelihood that identical twins would make the same choices.

The researchers' findings suggest that genetic influences account for as much as 40% of the variation in how people respond to unfair offers. "This raises the intriguing possibility that many of… click here to read whole article and make comments

Amnesty condemns doctors who execute

Amnesty International is keeping its hand in bioethical debates. Not long after endorsing abortion as a woman's right in certain cases, it has condemned doctors who participate in lethal injections. On the 25th anniversary of its first use in the United States, AI has issued a report arguing that these physicians should be punished by their professional bodies. There have been 919 executions by lethal injection in the US since 1977 to July this year and thousands in China. Although nearly all professional ethical codes forbid doctors and healthcare professional to help in executions, none have ever been disciplined, according to AI.

"The involvement of health professionals in carrying out an execution, particularly by a method using the technology and knowledge of medicine, is a breach of medical ethics," said Jim Welsh, Amnesty International's Health and Human Rights coordinator. "Professional bodies have spoken strongly about this abuse of ethics, but governments want to hide the identity of participating doctors to shield… click here to read whole article and make comments

Organ donation a Christian duty, says CofE

The Church of England in the UK has declared that organ donation is a Christian duty. This supports the government's desire to establish a presumed consent (or opt-out) policy to solve the shortage of organ donors. However, it still opposes selling organs for commercial gain.

"Christians have a mandate to heal, motivated by compassion, mercy, knowledge and ability," says the Church's Mission and Public Affairs Division. "The Christian tradition both affirms the God-given value of human bodily life, and the principle of putting the needs of others before one's own needs."

However, the Church refused to endorse an opt-out system, leaving that as a private decision for its members. It warned that an opt- out system could lead to a " changed relationship between persons and the State."

But both systems have their merits. The opt-in system, where organs can be harvested only with the donor's prior consent, reflects Christian concern "to celebrate and support gracious gifts, freely given". An opt-out approach, where… click here to read whole article and make comments

Disbursing stem cell boodle

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will soon have US$3 billion to spend -- but it is already having trouble handing out the loot. One grant application has been withdrawn by the applicant and another grant rescinded by the CIRM after further investigation. One recipient, the CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute of Los Angeles, has turned down a $2.6 million grant following allegations of plagiarism. Another grant for $638,000 was approved, but a last-minute administrative check found that the principal investigator was not an on-site, full-time employee, as stipulated by the CIRM. Critics of the CIRM blame its secretive grant-award process for the mistakes. click here to read whole article and make comments

Government too lax on conscientious objectors, complains BMA

The British Medical Association and the UK body which disciplines doctors have clashed over conscientious objection. The General Medical Council is drafting new guidelines on which treatments doctors must provide and which they can refuse on ethical grounds. However, the BMA claims that the new guidelines go far beyond a doctor's right to opt out of certain life-and-death procedures such as abortion, contraception and withdrawal of life support. It wants a list of clearly defined procedures.

"This guidance is confusing and inconsistent and will not benefit doctors or patients," says the chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee, Tony Calland. "On the one hand doctors are being advised not to discriminate on the basis of their personal beliefs regarding a patient's gender, sexual orientation, or race, but on the other hand the guidance seems to give doctors a mandate to opt out of any procedure to which they have an ethical objection. The BMA is extremely concerned about how far these… click here to read whole article and make comments

US sperm banks fret about government meddling

US sperm banks are adamantly opposed to the removal of donor anonymity, despite the risks of genetic disease and unintentional incest, reports LA Weekly, in a fascinating look into the US$75 million industry. The article focuses on California Cryogenics, in Los Angeles, which is run by Dr Cappy Rothman. As the biggest player in the largely unregulated industry, his company's policies set the pace for his competitors.

At the moment, all records of sperm donors are destroyed after their samples are sold. So it is impossible for mothers or children to become familiar with the father's medical histories or to know how many siblings they have. The industry fears that if donor anonymity is abolished, no one will donate sperm. Currently, qualified men can earn between US$11,000 to $17,000 by signing up for an 18-month contract. One company, Northwest Andrology, even displays bundles of $100 bills on its website.

In the face of growing pressure to allow… click here to read whole article and make comments

JAMA endorses pro-choice critics of partial-birth abortion

The prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association has endorsed the pro-choice critique of the US Supreme Court's recent decision on partial-birth abortion. In a commentary article, Lawrence O. Gostin, of the Georgetown University Law Centre, says that the Court's decision in Gonzalez v Carhart "erodes trust in the Supreme Court as an institution, undermines clinical freedom and the patient-physician relationship, and degrades public discourse on reproductive rights particularly and the role of women in society generally."

Mr Goston argues that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which was allowed by the Court, has a "chilling effect" on doctors' freedom to practice in accordance with "sincere exercise" of clinical judgement. For the first time, he contends, the Supreme Court has validated the strategy of the "right to life" movement: that abortion is not in the best interests of women, that women are often misled about the its risks, and that the welfare of women and foetuses are the same. The… click here to read whole article and make comments

Frozen ovaries could end egg shortage

Whether for IVF, therapeutic cloning or medical research, the biggest hurdle in reproductive technology at the moment is a shortage of women's eggs. However, two of the biggest IVF clinics in the UK are working on a solution without resorting to animal eggs or complicated manipulations of scarce cells. The Bridge Clinic and Care Fertility are developing techniques of maturing immature eggs taken from slivers of ovarian tissue. These are removed using keyhole surgery and then frozen. A tiny slice of the tissue contains thousands of immature eggs.

Although most IVF clinics downplay the risks of fertility treatment, the two British clinics are now highlighting them to illustrate the potential benefits of their new technique. No longer will women require daily injection of potentially dangerous hormones and uncomfortable and invasive operations. Dr Alan Thornhill, of the Bridge Clinic, told the London Telegraph: "It would mean we have got a pool of thousands of eggs at very little risk to… click here to read whole article and make comments

IRS in sex-change surgery debate

The American tax office has been dragged into the debate over whether sex-changes are genuine medical treatment or an inappropriate response to a psychological problem. Rhianon O'Donnabhain, a construction engineer from Boston, decided to become a woman in 2001 after having fathered three children. He claimed a US$5,000 tax deduction for the surgery, which the Internal Revenue Service initially allowed. However, the IRS quickly reversed its decision because the operation had been merely cosmetic, and therefore not deductible. O'Donnabhain refused and sued the IRS. The case is now making its way through the courts.

O'Donnabhain, now 64, is supported by the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders as a test case. A psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, Marshall Forstein, says that an operation is clearly medically necessary. "When did the IRS suddenly become physicians? It's absolutely clear that transgender identity is a condition discussed in diagnostic manuals. It seems the IRS is now in the business of practicing medicine without… click here to read whole article and make comments

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