Warnock offers advice in Nature

With the British Parliament deliberating the further liberalisation of its fertility laws to allow hybrid human-animal embryos, the leading journal Nature has sought guidance from the Grand Old Lady of British bioethics, Dame Mary Warnock. Back in 1984 Dame Mary supervised the drafting of the original law regulating fertility treatment and embryo experimentation.

In a special essay she argues that decisions about matters which some members of the public may find repugnant must be guided by public morality, whose principles differ from those of private morality. Religious considerations must be overlooked as Britain is not "intrinsically religious". The appropriate standard is "weighing up possible goods against possible harms" (which do not include offending particular interest groups). The final decision should be made by expert committees whose members are not guided by "ignorance and prejudice". ~ Nature, Nov 29

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Sperm donor’s surprise at child support

A London man has been forced to pay child support for two children he fathered for a lesbian couple, even though he has had no involvement in the toddlers' lives. Andy Bathie says that he was approached by the two women five years ago when they were in a civil partnership. He agreed to become a sperm donor because his then-partner had been sterilised and was not planning to have children.

Now the lesbian couple have split up and he has found a new partner. Unhappily he cannot afford to have children now because he has to pay thousands of pounds in child support. Mr Bathie's plight is due to the fact that men who donate through licensed clinics are shield from being recognised as legal fathers in the UK, but men who donate privately are not. Pending fertility reforms will recognise lesbian couples as the legal parents. But the change has come too late for Mr… click here to read whole article and make comments

The stem cell gusher

from the New York Times

Stem cell scientists have hit a gusher, says the New York Times, with proof by two groups in Japan and the US that skin cells can be reprogrammed to function like embryonic stem cells. And now that the ethical and political logjam has broken up, money should start flowing in. But finding an ethical, abundant raw material is not enough. Scientists also have to find how to turn these new cells into useful material for therapies and disease research.

Initially these cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells) will be used to study “diseases in a dish” and then develop drugs not just to treat them but to prevent them in patients. “This is a whole new way of thinking about how we might investigate human disease,” says Kenneth S. Zaret, of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. But this will still take years.… click here to read whole article and make comments

Kass calls for ban on cloning after reprogramming advance

Dr Leon Kass The former head of the President's Council on Bioethics, Dr Leon Kass, says that the validation of reprogramming is an opportunity to pass long-delayed legislation in the US. 

“Reprogramming of human somatic cells to pluripotency is an enormously significant achievement, one that boosters of medical progress and defenders of human dignity can celebrate without qualification... The ethical and political benefits may be equally great. The alleged need for so-called therapeutic cloning — cloning embryos for research — is now passé. We can therefore disentangle the “life issue” of embryo-destruction from the “dignity issue” of baby manufacture, and enact a legislative ban on cloning and other degrading forms of baby-making, as recommended unanimously by the President’s Council on Bioethics: Prohibit all attempts to conceive a child by any means other the union of egg and sperm, both obtained from adults.” ~ NRO, Nov 21


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More problems in governance of California’s stem cell institute

California's stem cell institute, the best-funded in the world, has not had an easy birth. Since taxpayers voted to create it with a US$3 billion bond issue in 2004, a string of lawsuits, staff churn, and internal wrangling has slowed its progress in promoting research. A fresh embarrassment has now entangled its chairman, Robert Klein. The Sacramento Bee has called for his resignation over allegations of conflict of interest.

The latest kerfuffle involves a scientist on the oversight board, John Reed, who urged the institute to reverse a decision after it had denied a US$638,000 grant to a researcher associated with his institution. This was clearly a violation of the institute's conflict of interest rules. To make matters worse, his lobbying was approved by Mr Klein, who is a lawyer and should have been more sensitive to the issue. Klein, says the Bee, should step down: ” His divided loyalties, his disregard for public processes and his… click here to read whole article and make comments

Gene therapy works with Parkinson’s

Encouraging news on the gene therapy front: researchers have reported that gene therapy improved the symptoms of patients suffering from Parkinson's disease. This is the first solid evidence that gene therapy can work in the brain. Professor David Eidelberg, of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that injecting genetically altered viruses into the subthalamic nucleus brought about a substantial improvement in mobility. The experiment could be a model for treating other brain diseases, especially epilepsy. However, the study was small – only 12 patients – and there are lingering doubts that improvement could be anecdotal or due to the placebo effect. ~ London Telegraph, Nov 19

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German move to open assisted suicide agency

The German branch of the Swiss assisted suicide group Dignitas is seeking to help someone die to see if helpers will be prosecuted under German law. The deputy director of Dignitate, Uwe-Christian Arnold, told Deutsche Welle that the present state of the law was ambiguous. Dignitate's plans have unleashed a storm of protest because people associate euthanasia with the Nazis. However Mr Arnold claims that the German medical association is spurning a very sensible proposal for “a pressing social need” because it has a guilty conscience over its links to Nazi atrocities. He insists that voluntary euthanasia is “quite different from what the Nazis did”. He is hopeful that euthanasia will be legalised: “Because of the churches and the medical association, abortion was also completely taboo here for years, and nowadays we can perform abortion here just like in England and other countries.” ~ Deutsche Welle, Nov 23

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Do neuroscientists manage teen tantrums better?

Because they appreciate that the neural circuits that control a teenager's ability to focus don't finish developing until late adolescence, neuroscientists make better parents, right? Not necessarily, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Dr Arthur Toga, of UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, has been scanning his 20-year-old daughter's brain since she was 6. The sheaf of scans represent one of the longest sequences in the new field of the neurobiology of youth. Did it make him more patient, more tolerant, more understanding? Nope. “It is sad but true: It didn’t help me at all,” he told the WSJ. “You’d think it would make me more tolerant. I should have been, because I knew what was going on as a matter of neural development.” ~ Wall Street Journal, Nov 23

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Brain surgery 101: left and right hemispheres

A Rhode Island hospital has been fined and reprimanded after three different neurosurgeons operated on the wrong side of a patient's head for the third time this year. “We are extremely concerned about this continuing pattern,” said the director of the state health department, David R. Gifford. The latest incident happened last week. A similar mistake happened in February. Both times the patients were unharmed. However in August a patient died a few weeks after being operated on. The hospital, Rhode Island Hospital, is owned by a not-for-profit corporation and serves as a teaching hospital for Brown University.

Distressing as these incidents may be, they are far from unprecedented. Last year the Archives of Surgery reported that there are an estimated 1300 to 2700 cases of wrong-side surgery in the US each year. "Reporting of WSPEs is virtually nonexistent, with reports in the lay press far more common than reports in the medical literature," it said. In… click here to read whole article and make comments

UK animal rights harassment declines

Researchers who work with animals in the UK are feeling safer from harassment by radical animal rights activists after tough legislation was brought in by the government, observes Nature Neuroscience. In 2004, the UK police formed a National Extremism Coordination Tactical Unit. After two years of investigation in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, 30 people have been brought to trial. Anti-social behaviour orders have also been used to stifle agitation. “The difference between intimidation and legitimate protest can be difficult to define, but so far the UK authorities have done a good job of making this distinction,” says the journal. Although intimidation continues (some scientists refused to speak on the record for the article, for instance), the situation is slowly improving. Just as the UK led the world in animal extremism, “it seems only fitting that it should lead the way in effectively dealing with such extremism as well,” says the journal. ~ Nature Neuroscience, Dec

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