2011 April 24 Sunday
Heart Transplant For Rapist?

Kenneth Pike might become the first prisoner in New York state to get a heart transplant. What is your reaction to that?

Taxpayers may pay $800,000 to give a life-saving heart transplant to an upstate rapist whose crime of incest was so "grotesquely criminal" that a prosecutor said he should "rot in prison."

If doctors give the OK, Kenneth Pike, 55, would be the first New York prisoner to get a heart transplant.

This report brings to mind a larger issue that looms in our future: Once it becomes possible to do full body rejuvenation what to do about the most dangerous criminals who have been sentenced to 50, 100 or longer (yet finite) in jail? Keep them alive with rejuvenation?

For those who oppose the death penalty a question arises: If a killer is allowed to grow old naturally and die of natural causes does that constitute a (admittedly slow) death penalty? If death by old age won't be morally acceptable to you given the existence of rejuvenation therapies then do you favor basically infinite incarceration? If not, what alternative do you suggest?

Imagine it becomes possible to do cell therapy or nanobot therapy to the brain of a serial killer or pedophile that would make them extremely averse to committing a serious crime. Would you oppose or support use of such a therapy to allow a criminal to be released from jail?

By Randall Parker    2011 April 24 11:14 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2008 January 06 Sunday
Short Attention Spans And Genetic Engineering

Once offspring genetic engineering becomes technologically possible should governments subsidize the use of biotechnologies to improve the genes given to babies of poor and dumb people? Some people recoil at the thought of eugenics. I'm not one of them. I expect eugenic genetic engineering to be extremely cost effective, such are the huge pay-offs for having a high functioning mind. This doesn't just apply to levels of intelligence. A review of what we know about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) serves as a reminder of some of the ways that problematic brain development causes problems for all of us.

In children, ADHD may interfere with paying attention in school, completing homework or making friends. Difficulties experienced in childhood may continue into adulthood. The symptoms of ADHD in adults may lead to potentially serious consequences. Surveys have shown that when compared with their non-ADHD peers, adults with ADHD may be:

  • Three times more likely to be currently unemployed
  • Two times more likely to have problems keeping friends
  • Forty-seven percent more likely to have trouble saving money to pay bills
  • Four times more likely to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease

People who are more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease are also more likely to transmit one. People who have more problems with keeping employed end up using more welfare services. They cost us money. Turn their offspring into kids with longer attention spans and the kids will cause less trouble in many ways. They won't disrupt classrooms or become juvenile delinquents. They'll work more of the time and at higher paying jobs. So they'll contribute more in taxes and toward economic growth.

A University of Massachusetts study found that adults with ADHD had 3 times the likelihood of selling illegal drugs and over 4 times the likelihood of having problems managing money.

The UMASS study, conducted from approximately 2003 to 2004, examined lifestyle outcomes among three cohorts of adult patients: 146 clinic-referred adults with ADHD, 97 adults seen at the same clinic who were not diagnosed with ADHD, and also a third general community sample of 109 adults without ADHD. Specifically, the UMASS study found that the adults with ADHD when compared to the non-ADHD control group were approximately three times more likely (21 percent compared to 6 percent) to sell drugs illegally. Additionally, the UMASS study found that 67 percent of adults with ADHD compared to the control group (15 percent) had trouble managing money.

Another study conducted at The Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found similar results. ADHD adults were over 3 times more likely to initiate physical fights, destroy property of others, and break into buildings.

The Milwaukee study, ongoing since 1977 (with the most recent follow-up conducted from 1999 to 2003), is an observational longitudinal study that looked at secondary lifestyle outcomes of 158 children who had been diagnosed with ADHD and, as adults, either continue to experience symptoms or no longer have the disorder at the age of 27, compared to a community control group of 81 children without ADHD who were followed concurrently. The Milwaukee study found that the adults with ADHD were approximately three times as likely when compared with the community control group to initiate physical fights (30 percent compared to 9 percent), destroy others property (31 percent compared to 8 percent) and break and enter (20 percent compared to 7 percent).

So reduce the incidence of hyperactivity and you'll be less likely to get beat up, less in need of long commutes from safer suburbs into higher crime cities, and less likely to get robbed. What's not to like?

Scientists already have evidence from sibling studies and other studies that ADHD has a large genetic component. (also see here) We'll first need to discover which genetic variants contribute to ADHD.

Knowing all this would you support or oppose government subsidies for offspring genetic engineering aimed at reducing the incidence of hyperactivity and poor ability to concentrate?

The same question holds for boosting offspring intelligence. Would you support or oppose government subsidies to raise intelligence? The payoff from boosting offspring intelligence would be quite large. Economies would surge as the genetically engineered kids reached adult age and joined the work force. Their higher productivity would do more to raise living standards than anything else we could do short of developing artificial intelligence. So do you want higher living standards, lower crime rates, and less social pathology? Or would you prefer that humans continue to receive their genetic inheritance in a natural way through random combining of chromosomes?

By Randall Parker    2008 January 06 07:51 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (24)
2007 September 01 Saturday
Cow Human Hybrid Stem Cells Proposed In Britain

Moo cow fun with cloning science.

Two British scientists seeking permission to create cloned human embryos using cow eggs have renewed an old debate about these “chimeras,” which may offer a new embryonic stem cell source for research but are also a source of controversy.

Stem cell researchers Stephen Minger, director of the Stem Cell Biology Lab at King’s College London, and Lyle Armstrong, a researcher at the North East England Stem Cell Institute applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the agency overseeing all British reproductive and embryo research, to carry out cloning experiments using human genetic material and cow eggs. The controversy surrounding the experiments has exploded on both sides of the Atlantic.

Do you object? If so, why? Does this seem like sacrilege? Or are you afraid where it might lead?

These scientists aren't trying to create fully formed creatures. The cell lines they might be able to create could reveal useful lessons about genetic regulation and interactions between different genetic variations that normally do not interact in nature. But this research sort of research will lead to the identification of compatibilities and incompatibilities between genes across species. That knowledge could some day be used to figure out how to make human compatible versions of genes from big cats, dogs, cows, monkeys, and many other species.

But why would we want to transfer genes from other species into humans? Some would do it to fulfill aesthetic desires. Someone might want a coat of fur made from the same genes as that beautiful coat of fur that their cat Fluffy has. Or how about a tail? Exotic dancers and prostitutes might find that the ability to look like female characters from the X-Men movies would boost their incomes by sizable amounts.

But transplantation of genes from other species into humans holds out the potential for very practical medical benefits as well. The Methuselah Foundation LysoSENS research initiative has as its goal to find genes in bacterial, molds, and other very small organisms that can be transferred into human cells to better break down trash that accumulates in cells as we age. Our own lysosomes contain lysozyme enzymes that break down junk. But over decades they encounter pieces of junk they can't break down and that junk accumulates in our cells and contributes to our aging. By isolating and studying lysozyme enzymes in other species the LysoSENS researchers hope to find enzymes we can transfer to humans with gene therapy to let us clean out our cells.

By Randall Parker    2007 September 01 12:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2006 January 29 Sunday
Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Labs Very Isolated

Harvard University has raised money from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, alumni, and other sources to create the Harvard Stem Cell Institute which does embryonic stem cell research. Douglas Melton, a Harvard professor who does impressive stem cell research (see here and here for example), has a lab in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and recently spoke to the New York Times about the legal barriers between his lab and the bulk of biomedical researchers at Harvard and other research centers.

Q. How exactly has President Bush's ban on federal financing for most embryonic stem cell study affected your research?

A. It made it more difficult, to say the least. Long before Bush's speech, we had planned stem cell experiments. Afterward, we were able to go forward because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Association and Harvard alumni provided private funding.

However, because of administration policy, we had to set up this whole new laboratory that was separate from everything else here at Harvard.

And we had to separate the money in a really scrupulous way. We have an accountant who makes sure that not a penny of federal funds goes to embryonic stem cell research. We have separate everything - light bulbs, computers, centrifuges.

This can be burdensome. Most of the activities at this university receive federal money in some indirect way. So you have to ask yourself, "How can you do the research without any imprint of federal funding?"

And we're not just talking about equipment and real estate; it's people. Let's suppose there's a graduate student who's receiving a federally funded fellowship, can he or she participate in thinking about this research or even look at the data? The answer is no.

In order to keep out researchers who receive federal funds Melton's lab requires a card and access code to enter. On the one hand, at least it is possible to set up labs that operate outside of the restrictions set on federal funding. The private realm still exists. On the other hand, the private realm has got to keep out the public realm using security cards. The default assumption is that government regulations and the government's domain apply at universities. The stem cell research debate aside, I find that troubling.

Melton argues that progress can not be made without a community of researchers. He points out that current regulations so isolate him from the vast bulk of researchers that the advantages that come from sharing ideas are greatly reduced. The 2004 passage of a California ballot initiative to fund stem cell research effectively is going to cause the creation of more isolated buildings on California university campuses where researchers work totally with non-federal funding. But these labs will at least be able to collaborate with each other. Effectively the federal regulations on human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research combined with state and private funding are leading to the creation of a smaller parallel system of research labs.

My expectation is that this is the new status quo on human embryonic stem cells (hESC) research in the United States. We'll have a group of isolated human embryonic stem cell labs working away on human pluripotent stem cells derived from hESC for years to come. Eventually the barrier between these researchers and the rest of biomedical research community will break down due to one of two reasons: A) research advances will lead to ways to make pluripotent stem cells without using an egg as a starting point or B) the value of hESC for producing therapies will become so clear to the public at large that a large majority will decide that their ethical reservations aren't all that deep and that it is in their own self interest to accept therapies made from embryonic stem cells.

I expect option A to happen years before option B. But I'm not certain on that point. Possibly the small number of human embryonic stem cell labs will fairly quickly develop an effective therapy using hESC that public attitudes will shift. Possibly the problem of how to turn more differentiated cells into much less differentiated and ultimately pluripotent cells will take a decade or longer to solve. But a larger number of labs will be funded to work on the problem of how to produce pluripotent stem cells without using embryos as compared to the number of labs that will work on hESC.

By Randall Parker    2006 January 29 09:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2005 October 21 Friday
Half Of Pre-Teens With Behavior Problems Become Criminals

A Swedish research group claims that half of all children who seriously violate norms of behavior go on to become criminals.

The future is bleak for children whose behavior seriously goes against the norm at a tender age. Early and long-term interventions make all the difference. This is shown in a research survey presented by IMS, the Institute for Evidence-Based Social Work Practice at the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare together with the National Board of Institutional Care.

The behavior of such children is often more serious and aggressive than that of children who do not violate the norm until they are teenagers. Moreover, it more often continues into adulthood. Current research shows that as many as every other boy and one in five girls in this group will exhibit criminal behavior as a grown-up.

Suppose the ability to predict future criminal behavior gets further refined with genetic tests, brain scans, and other measures. Suppose that some portion of 12 year olds can be identified as having a 95+% chance of becoming lifelong criminals (and I think it inevitable that we will some day have the means to make predictions that accurate for some fraction of society). Then suppose that drugs are found that, if taken by those 12 year olds will bump their brain development in a direction that cuts their odds of becoming criminals by two thirds or three quarters. would you favor or disfavor mandatory preventative treatment of all 12 year olds who can be shown to have very high odds of becoming criminals?

Greater abilities to predict future behavior and to modify development to alter future behavior will inevitably bring up the question of when to allow or require use of methods to alter brain development and behavioral tendencies. I can't predict exactly when such capabilities will be developed. But I feel quite confident that many of us alive right now will live to see the development of such capabilities. I also expect the capabilities to become widely popular once they are available. The popularity of Ritalin demonstrates that technology for behavioral modification of kids isn't going to face serious opposition.

By Randall Parker    2005 October 21 02:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2005 October 17 Monday
New Methods To Create Embryonic Stem Cells Sidestep Some Ethical Objections

Scientists at the MIT Whitehead Institute demonstrated on mouse murine cells that altered nuclear transfer (ANT) where genes are deactivated in the donor nucleus will allow creation of embryonic stem cells from embryos that could never develop into a full organism.

Some senators unhappy with those proposals have suggested that 'alternative' methods of deriving the cells, which don't require the destruction of viable embryos, could help to bridge the ethical divide (see Nature 436, 309; 2005).

Until now, such methods have been purely theoretical, but in work published online by Nature this week, two teams report their successful use in mice. Rudolf Jaenisch and Alexander Meissner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describe a variant of therapeutic cloning called altered nuclear transfer (ANT), in which a gene in the patient's donated cell is switched off before the nucleus is transferred into a fertilized egg. The resulting egg grows into a normal ball of cells called a blastocyst from which ES cells can be derived, but the deactivated gene means that the ball lacks the ability to implant in a uterus and so develop into a baby (A. Meissner and R. Jaenisch Nature doi:10.1038/nature04257; 2005).

The deactivation of a single gene prevents a pregnancy from being possible to initiate.

Jaenisch and Alexander Meissner, a graduate student in his lab, focused on a gene called Cdx2, which enables an embryo to grow a placenta. In order to create a blastocyst that cannot implant in a uterus, the researchers disabled Cdx2 in mouse cells.

They accomplished this with a technique called RNA interference, or RNAi. Here, short interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules are designed to target an individual gene and disrupt its ability to produce protein. In effect, the gene is shut off. Jaenisch and Meissner designed a particular form of siRNA that shut off this gene in the donor nucleus and then incorporated itself into all the cells comprising the blastocyst. As a result, all of the resulting mouse blastocysts were incapable of implantation.

However, once the stem cells had been extracted from the blastocysts, Cdx2 was still disabled in each of these new cells, something that needed to be repaired in order for these cells to be useful. To correct this, Meissner deleted the siRNA molecule by transferring a plasmid into each cell. (A plasmid is a unit of DNA that can replicate in a cell apart from the nucleus. Plasmids are usually found in bacteria, and they are a staple for recombinant DNA techniques.) The stem cells resulting from this procedure proved to be just as robust and versatile as stem cells procured in the more traditional fashion.

"The success of this procedure in no way precludes the need to pursue all forms of human embryonic stem cell research," says Jaenisch, who is also a professor of biology at MIT. "Human embryonic stem cells are extraordinarily complicated. If we are ever to realize their therapeutic potential, we must use all known tools and techniques in order to explore the mechanisms that give these cells such startling characteristics."

ANT, Jaenisch emphasizes, is a modification, but not an alternative, to nuclear transfer, since the approach requires additional manipulations of the donor cells. He hopes that this modification may help resolve some of the issues surrounding work with embryonic stem cells and allow federal funding.

I like Jaenisch's approach because it will work with any donor nucleus. So a person have their own nuclear DNA used to create a cell line to create stem cell therapies and replacement organs made from their own DNA.

Some will object to Jaenisch's approach as essentially consigning a potential human to death. But as knowledge of more genes involved in development become identified more genes could get turned off in an extended version of this approach where the resulting embryo looked ever less like something that would develop into a human. Imagine, for example, that if one wanted to grow kidneys one turned off all the developmental genes for a head so that the embryo would only have potential to grow into a few chest organs.

Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester Massachusetts and colleagues took a different but very straightforward approach where they removed single cell from an early stage 8 cell embryo called a morula and then expose that cell to existing embryonic stem cells to stabilize it as an embryonic stem cell.

The procedure involves removing a blastomere, one of eight cells that make up an early embryo before implantation in the uterus, and putting it in a culture with other stem cells to encourage it to form into independent stem cells.

The technique, used in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) by couples with a family history of hereditary conditions such as muscular dystrophy to screen out affected embryos, allows the embryo to continue to grow normally despite the removal of the cell.

To meet the objections of ethical opponents Lanza's technique still requires treating the other 7 cells as being destined to make a new baby. That is problematic. Suppose you want to make a stem cell line from your own DNA to, for example, grow a replacement kidney for yourself. Chances are most people won't be keen on creating a baby as a side effect. Also, in order for the stem cell line to perfectly match your DNA then embryo has to be a clone and so you have to clone yourself if you go down this path.

The other 7 cells remain in the embryo and get implanted in a womb.

But the key benefit of this technique may be that the remaining 7-cell embryos, when implanted into the wombs of female mice, developed into completely normal baby mice. Of the 47 implanted, 23 came to term, exactly the same rate as for “control” 8-cell morulas that had not had a blastomere removed.

“It means we overcome the key pro-life objection, that you must destroy life to save life,” says Lanza. Also, he says that the technique used to extract the blastomere is identical to that used routinely in pre-implantation diagnosis during IVF to screen out embryos which are defective and have no chance of surviving. “This procedure has been done hundreds of thousands of times, so we know it has a minimal or negligible effect on the embryo,” he says.

This works okay as a way to get a cell from IVF procedures that are going to get done anyway. So this technique can be utilized to generate new embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines for research and potentially for therapy as well.

Some people reject these approaches.

Much of the debate centers on the precise definition of "embryo," because it is considered by some people to have the same moral status as a human being. In one of the new sets of experiments, researchers crafted stem cell lines from lab creations characterized as "nonviable" entities.

Others dismissed such arguments as semantic quibbling.

"This is an attempt to solve an ethical issue through a scientific redefinition that really doesn't solve the issue," said Jaydee Hanson, director of human genetics at the International Center for Technology Assessment, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that opposes some kinds of cloning and stem cell research on moral grounds.

My guess is that not all moral objectors have to be satisfied by new methods of making ESCs. The approaches just have to win over enough of the objectors that the remaining opponents can not form political coalitions big enough to stop which is done using human ESCs with one of these approaches.

Scientists will keep on developing more improved techniques for making pluripotent stem cells in ways that satisfy an increasing number of the objectors to existing methods for making stem cells from embryos. As more genes involved in development are identified and as more techniques for manipulating genetic regulatory state are discovered stem cell researchers will find all sorts of additional ways to skate around ethical objections. In the process they will also develop useful toolboxes for manipulating stem cells for other goals as well..

By Randall Parker    2005 October 17 03:16 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2005 September 16 Friday
United States Premature Birth Rate Hits Record High

Bad news on the baby front.

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y., SEPT. 8, 2005 – Nearly a half million American babies were born prematurely in a single year, according to a government report issued today, putting them at increased risk for death and disability.

Some 12.3 percent of all babies – 499,008 infants -- were born prematurely (less than 37 weeks gestation) in 2003, according to the report released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). That's up from 12.1 percent (or about 480,000 babies) in 2002 – and an increase of more than 30 percent since the government began tracking premature births in 1981. The prematurity rate was 9.4 in 1981; it has increased every year since then except for slight dips in 1992 and 2000.

"Prematurity is the number one killer of newborns. We see from these latest statistics that the prematurity crisis in this country continues to intensify, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will only make it worse, " said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes. "Babies are dying and those who survive are too often left with devastating consequences – such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, learning problems and blindness."

Does anyone know the cause of this trend? More drug and alcohol abuse by moms? Could premies that were previously classified as stillborn be getting high tech medical treatments that cause more of them to be classified as live births?

A recent BBC report entitled "Many couples unfit for pregnancy" reports a lot of British women are irresponsible about drug and alcohol use while trying to conceive.

A poll of 2,000 women in the UK by Pregnancy & Birth magazine found two-thirds drink alcohol and four in 10 smoke while trying for a baby.

Only 44% of women hoping to conceive said they tried to eat a healthy diet.

...

A third of the women and their male partners trying to conceive were overweight, according to the responses.

Three out of 10 couples trying to conceive reported taking recreational drugs.

Damage from drug and alcohol abuse does not stop at the moment of birth. In Astoria Oregon half of all child welfare office workload is due to methamphetamine abuse.

“Meth is absolutely the worst drug in terms of child safety,” said Jay Wurscher, DHS Alcohol and Drug Services supervisor. “Children are put in dangerous, neglectful, abusive situations.”

About 75 percent of the 250 cases handled by the local Child Welfare office are drug- or alcohol-related, and of those, almost three-quarters involve meth, according to caseworker Chris Wilbur. “I joined the department in July 2001. It was a major problem then, and it has gotten steadily worse.”

Meth abuse has risen greatly in recent years. Could it be responsible for most of the increase in premies?

A recent study done with alcohol exposure to rhesus macaque monkeys used positron emission tomography (PET scans) on the brains of offspring to examine the effects of alcohol on fetal brain development.

Writing in the current issue (Sept. 15, 2005) of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, a team of researchers led by Mary L. Schneider, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of occupational therapy and psychology, reports that when a monkey exposes her fetus to alcohol by drinking, the dopamine system of her offspring is altered. Effects on that key neural system, according to the study's results, can manifest themselves up to five years after birth, when the monkeys are fully grown.

The influence of alcohol on the dopamine system, depending on the timing of exposure during gestation, varies, says Schneider, but illustrates yet another biological consequence of drinking while pregnant.

"It appears that there is no safe time to drink," says the Wisconsin researcher. "And because our study looked at the effects of lower doses of alcohol than most previous studies, the results suggest there is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy. Even moderate drinking can have effects that persist to adulthood."

Depending on what part of pregnancy the monkeys were exposed, alcohol made the monkeys either stimulation junkies or too easily distracted and overwhelmed by stimulation.

For two groups of monkeys, those exposed during early gestation, when dopamine neurons are first forming in the brain, and those exposed continuously throughout pregnancy, the dopamine system appears to be blunted, Schneider says. "If the dopamine system is blunted, you might not get the usual flushes of dopamine in response toe environmental events, and you may seek alcohol or drugs" as a substitute for the stimulation dopamine normally provides.

For the monkeys exposed to alcohol during middle-to-late gestation, the effect was the opposite: "Animals exposed later had supersensitive (dopamine) receptors. If you have supersensitive receptors, you're more susceptible to sensory overload and environmental stimuli can become overwhelming."

The new results add to a long list of alcohol's negative effects on the developing fetus. In the last 30 years, scientists have come to understand that exposing the fetus to alcohol, the drug most widely abused by pregnant women, leads to a host of health and development issues, including low birth weight, facial deformities and mental retardation. The availability of powerful imaging techniques such as PET, which can illustrate the brain at work, are helping scientists make even finer distinctions, linking damage to the developing brain to behavioral problems and learning disabilities later in life.

Why should someone have to grow up with the result of such exposure? Why should women be allowed to get away with abusing their bodies with drugs and alcohol while pregnant?

Also see my previous posts "Low Birth Weight Baby Development Problems Raise Ethical Question" and "Should Pregnant Drug Abusers Be Institutionalized?".

By Randall Parker    2005 September 16 03:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2005 July 26 Tuesday
Should Pregnant Drug Abusers Be Institutionalized?

A single hit of methamphetamine causes brain damage in fetal mice.

A single prenatal dose of methamphetamine – commonly known as speed – may be enough to cause long-term neurodevelopmental problems in babies, say University of Toronto researchers.

In research published in the August issue of Free Radical Biology and Medicine, U of T pharmacy and pharmacology professor Peter Wells and his colleagues determined that exposing pregnant mice only once to methamphetamine led to delivery of offspring with long-term neurodevelopmental problems, including reduced motor co-ordination. Methamphetamine is a potent and addictive stimulant.

"We've known for a while that meth abuse during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight, cleft palates and other malformations but this is the first research demonstrating that even a single exposure can cause long-term damage," says Wells. "It's pretty remarkable that a single low dose can have such an effect.

"It's an important finding, given the increasing use of club drugs among women of childbearing age. It has clinical implications, because it shows that the fetus is exquisitely sensitive."

The developing fetus appears to be vulnerable to DNA damage from methamphetamine exposure because it hasn't yet developed the enzymes that protect it against free radicals – highly activated, destructive oxygen molecules that have been implicated in cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, says Wells. This vulnerability lasts from the embryonic stage through the later fetal period, times when organ structures and mental functions develop.

Should pregnant women who use crystal meth or any form of methamphetamine get locked up in institutions until their babies are born? What if they intend to breast feed? Should they remain locked up until the babies are weened off breast milk?

Meanwhile meth use is a growing problem and not just in rural areas.

According to a survey of law enforcement organizations conducted by the National Association of Counties and released this month, 87 percent of the 500 agencies that participated reported increases in meth arrests in the past three years.

Agencies in Indiana, California, Minnesota, Florida and Ohio reported the number of meth-related arrests had doubled in this time. Iowa, Mississippi, Illinois and North Dakota reported increases of 90 percent or greater.

Is reproduction such a basic sacred right that the state should not dare interfere with it? If drug users want to pop out the babies for the state and foster homes to raise? Should people be permitted to engage in reproductive practices that lead to premature births and brain damaged babies who grow up to be brain damaged adults and wards of the state?

Some commenters raised objections to the tone of my previous post "Low Birth Weight Baby Development Problems Raise Ethical Question". Well okay then. Does the state have no moral right to intervene in the reproductive process? If technological advances make home crystal meth production cheap and easy and lots more fertile women become crystal meth abusers should the state take no steps to enforce safe and responsible reproductive practices?

I see this as linked to an even bigger coming question: When technology advances to the point where people can tinker with the genes of their offspring should the state state limits on how much aggressiveness or other qualities parents should be allowed to genetically engineer into their kids? Does the "unnatural" aspect of genetic engineering provide the state a unique reason to intervene and regulate reproduction where it should not have that power absent that "unnaturalness" that comes from the use of genetic engineering technoloogies?

Some might want to allow state regulation of reproduction involving genetic engineering while otherwise opposing state regulation of reproduction as a violation of basic human rights. But if genetic engineering makes reproduction sufficiently unnatural as to become regulable then why don't all the technologies used to keep premature babies alive have the same effect? After all, the ultimate baby preserving technology which will be developed to keep premies alive will be the complete artificial womb. Once we have artificial wombs then many of the spontaneously aborted (and probably genetically defective) fetuses will not get aborted unless someone flips a switch on the artificial womb. A decision previously made by natural processes which are the product of natural selection or by God (take your pick based on your beliefs - but I'm with Darwin) will be under the conscious control of human minds - just as the decision to put a premie in an incubator is now a human decision.

So when should the state regulate reproduction? Why? Are you a utilitarian? Do you think that people have the right to produce offspring they can't afford to raise and then expect the state (i.e. the taxpaying rest of us) to pay for? Do you think that state intervention against reproducing druggies is a moral and practical necessity or an immoral interference in basic human rights?

By Randall Parker    2005 July 26 03:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (25)
2005 July 25 Monday
Low Birth Weight Baby Development Problems Raise Ethical Question

Should radical measures be employed to save low birth weight premature infants?

Asthma, cerebral palsy, vision and hearing disorders, low I.Q., poor school performance and social difficulties are among the problems described in The Journal of the American Medical Association by doctors at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland. Such disabilities were far more common in the children born prematurely than in normal-weight children from similar backgrounds. For example, 38 percent of those born prematurely had I.Q.'s below 85, as opposed to 14 percent of the normal-weight children. Among the premature, 21 percent had asthma, compared with 9 percent of those with normal weight.

The babies looked at in this study weighted 2.2 lbs or less at birth.

A look at 219 such children born between 1992 and 1995 found 14 percent had developed cerebral palsy, 21 percent had asthma, 38 percent had an IQ under the threshold denoting retardation, 47 percent had poor motor skills, 10 percent had very poor eyesight, and roughly two-thirds were characterized as having "poor adaptive functioning" and "functional limitations," the study said.

Maureen Hack, an expert on premature births at Case Western Reserve University, led the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

About 23,000 very low birth weight babies are born in the United States every year.

Of the 23,000 babies born in the United States in 2002 weighing between 1.1 to 2.2 pounds (500 and 999 grams), 70 percent survived, according to the report.

Check out the total percentages for different ways of categorizing the problems with low birth weight premies.

  • Functional limitations, such as difficulty seeing, hearing, speaking, or communicating (64% versus 20%, OR 8.1; 95% CI 5.0-13.1)
  • Compensatory dependency needs, such as a regularly prescribed medication (48% versus 23%, OR 3.0; 95% CI 1.9-4.7)
  • Need for services above those routinely required by children, such as special school arrangements (65% versus 27%, OR 5.4; 95% CI 3.4-8.5).
  • Advances in biomedical technology lead to increases in the number of very premature babies that survive and have problems.

    A JAMA editorial refers to Hack's findings as ``disappointing news.'' While more babies are surviving at low weights, the long-term outcome has not improved in the last decade or so, the writers say. In fact, they say, the proportion may have worsened as more babies survive.

    Hack, though, said she doesn't see these numbers as disappointing. Only 8 percent of the low-birth-weight babies were unable to walk without help at age 8, which means that 92 percent were walking on their own. And just 6 percent had trouble feeding themselves, while only 7 percent were unable to socialize or play with others.

    Hack said one surprising finding was that even low-birth-weight babies with normal IQs were prone to have trouble in school.

    ``In the past, we looked at a normal IQ over 85 and we expect the child to do fine,'' she said. ``But we're finding they also have problems at school. Even children who are basically functioning OK do have substantial learning problems.''

    There is an old saying about a box being either half empty or half full. Hack thinks it good news that only 8 percent of these premies can't walk at age 8. I see it as a terrible tragedy.

    Also, Hack is wrong to be surprised at the number of premies who have trouble learning. The intelligence level "g" matters (PDF format). If 38 percent are retarded then a large percentage are above the retardation level but still well below the white average IQ of 100. Put that 100 IQ into perspective. One needs 120+ IQ to work at the more demanding jobs such as doctor, lawyer, veterinarian, engineer, or middle manager. The bulk of these premies are not headed for even moderately above average IQ jobs such as clerk, retail store manager, or mechanic. A large fraction of them - perhaps even a majority - will spend their lives as wards of the state.

    These results raise the question of whether low weight birth babies should be treated with such extraordinary measures to keep them alive. I would be interested in hearing views from readers in the comments section.

    Also, note that while advances in biotechnology will eventually lead to the development of artificial wombs which a premie baby could be transferred to at birth do not expect such technologies to eliminate all the medical problems reported above. Some of the premature births are happening because the developing fetus has already developed problems. Some of the premature births are due to genetic flaws. Others are due to toxic exposures that happened while still in the mother's womb. So at birth the defects are already present.

    Update: Also see my previous post "Premature Birth Produces More Lasting Brain Effects In Boys".

    By Randall Parker    2005 July 25 11:39 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (47)
    2005 June 12 Sunday
    Most Couples Oppose Donation Of Excess IVF Embryos

    A very interesting New York Times article by Pamela Belluck reports on the widespread reluctance of couples to donate their excess embryos created by in vitro fertilization to other couples to start pregnancies.

    "When couples are coming into in vitro, and they are asked what they would want to do with leftover embryos, they might say, 'Oh yeah, donating to another couple - if we could help prevent another couple from going through the agony and the pain of what we've been through, we would be willing to do that,' " said Dr. Susan C. Klock, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University's medical school.

    But 3 to 10 years later, 9 out of 11 couples who had said they would donate to another couple were no longer willing to do so, Dr. Klock said.

    Others have seen similar results. "Of the dozen or 15 cases I've handled where people have considered donating embryos to another couple, over half of those cases never went forward," said Susan L. Crockin, a Boston lawyer.

    One couple, Ms. Crockin said, who had had two children through in vitro fertilization, wanted to donate their extra embryos to friends in their neighborhood. "They came in to me to do what they thought at the outset was a simple legal task of 'make it happen,' " Ms. Crockin said. "Instead, after really exploring what this might mean to their existing children, what it might mean for the resulting child, how would they deal with the children they were raising and this child who was going to be raised down the street, they couldn't reach a comfort level. The wife called me in tears: 'We want to do this, we want to be generous, I feel selfish, but I can't do this.' "

    The article reports that couples who used either donated eggs or donated sperm to create their embryos are more willing to donate their excess embryos. But then the egg donors express ambivalence or opposition to the idea of their eggs being used to provide babies to other people who they didn't develop a relationship with ahead of time. So people obviously feel a bond to offspring or potential offspring made from their own DNA.

    President George W. Bush has been funnelling money to embryo adoption programs such as the Nightlight Christian Adoptions Snowflakes program due to his belief that all embryos are really humans.

    The Snowflakes were on hand to show that, in Bush's words, "there is no such thing as a spare embryo." The alternative is "adoption."

    The reluctance of couples to donate their embryos to other couples strongly argues against Bush's position. Those couples in the NY Times article who can't bring themselves to see other people raise their genetic children are the tip of a growing iceberg. So far the Snowflakes program has arranged for 81 embryo adoptions. But at least 400,000 embryos sit frozen in IVF clinics in the United States.

    A 2003 study by the RAND Law and Health Initiative estimated that there are about 400,000 frozen embryos in IVF clinics across the nation, 11,000 of which have been set aside for research purposes.

    The number is probably much larger than that and likely to grow larger still. A British web site reports a very rapid growth in the number of frozen embryos in Britain.

    Since 1990 about 250,000 embryos have been frozen following IVF treatment in Britain. In March 1999 there were 51,346 embryos stored. This had jumped to 97,719 in March 2001 and 116,252 by March 2003, more than doubling in four years.[5] Around eight embryos are created in each IVF treatment cycle but only a maximum of two can be implanted, meaning that there are always spare embryos to be frozen, donated, experimented upon or destroyed. Couples are allowed to keep them for up to ten years for an annual storage fee of approximately £250.

    Note that since some couples are likely deciding to stop storage of frozen embryos once they've managed to get pregnancies to term the increase in the number of stored embryos is happening in spite of embryos destroyed every year.

    Many human embryonic stem cell (hESC) researchers would like to use the left-over embryos created during in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts to extract cells to create hESC lines to use in research and for the development of medical treatments. Their argument is that these embryos are eventually going to be destroyed anyway. So why not use them for research?

    If the people who think embryos are humans want to prevent embryo destruction then their only possible way to achieve that goal is to try to win support for a ban on the creation of embryos through IVF. Though I think the odds are strongly against the enactment of such a ban. The existing federal ban on the use of US federal government research money to use embryos for creation of human embryonic stem cell lines is not preventing embryo destruction.

    Future advances in reproductive science and technology will lead to cures for many causes of infertility. That alone would lead one to expect a reduction in the use of IVF in the future. However, advances in DNA sequencing and DNA testing technology combined with much greater understanding of the meaning of all the human DNA sequence variations will increase the incentive for using IVF over regular sex for initiation of pregnancies. IVF combined with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) will be attractive to tens or hundreds of millions of couples as a way to select which genes to pass along to progeny. Therefore in the coming decades I expect IVF's popularity to grow and therefore the number of extra frozen embryos to grow as well.

    By Randall Parker    2005 June 12 01:41 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
    2005 May 02 Monday
    Californian Legislator Fearing Franken-Kitty Wants To Ban Pet Cloning

    The Genetic Savings & Clone pet cloning service so offends a California state legislator that the legislator is determined to put a stop to pet cloning even though he is willing to tolerate cloning of barnyard animals.

    Cloning hurts animals, exploits grieving pet owners and is unnecessary in a state that kills more than a million unwanted dogs and cats each year, said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), whose bill, AB 1428, would make it illegal to sell cloned pets in California.

    Further, Levine would ban the sale of genetically modified pets, which could affect a San Diego competitor's plan to create and sell allergy-proof cats: felines altered to remove a protein that causes some humans to sneeze. That company, Allerca, also plans to start selling cloned horses later this year. Levine said horses would not be covered under his bill because they are not considered pets.

    Levine objects to cloning because millions of pound animals are killed each year. But based on that argument we might as well outlaw or heavily tax all intentional breeding of cats and dogs.

    Levine also thinks that cloning amounts to playing with animals. But a lot of pets insist upon being played with. They can be downright annoying in their demands for play.

    Animals, he said, "are not toys to be played with at our amusement."

    "I'm concerned that once we start down this road, that's where we're heading," Levine said. " 'Oh gee, the cat got hit by a car, we'll just clone another one.' "

    When cloning costs tens of thousands of dollars and pound pets cost little or nothing I'd say that clone pet buyers are going to be less lackadaisical than normal pet owners, not more.

    Levine is afraid that hypoallergenic cats might breed with regular cats and fears "Franken-kitty". Time for Gene Wilder to do a sequel called "Old Franksteen" where he'd have a hypo-allergenic cat named "Franken-kitty".

    Levine draws parallels with attempts to cross African and European bees. But am I wrong in thinking that the problem there wasn't so much the cross breeding as it was the fact that African bees are innately more aggressive? Did cross-breeding with European bees make them more dangerous or did the cross-breeding perhaps even dilute the aggressiveness? Anyone know?

    What is it about pet cloning that makes it either a threat to public welfare or a threat to the ecosystem? Am I missing something obvious here?

    When my Australian Shepherd was dying a few years ago friends, mindful of my interest in biotechnology, asked me if I was going to save some of his cells on the chance that the cells might be usable some day to clone him. I decided against it on the grounds that cloning him would not bring him back to life. The new dog would be a different dog without his memories and probably without some of his quirks. No matter how similar in some respects the clone would not be my good buddy and cloning my dog would not benefit my dog in any way. But if other people feel differently about it I do not see how their choices create a problem for the rest of us.

    Genetic Savings & Clone says their initial clients are absolutely thrilled by their clone cats.

    Dan, a 40-something investment counselor, became the second paying client to receive a pet clone when Genetic Savings & Clone officials delivered a kitten to his door on Tuesday, February 8. “Little Gizmo” is a clone of Gizmo, his mixed breed Siamese who died at age 13 in March 2004.

    "Valentine’s Day is a special day for GSC, because our business is all about the love between people and their exceptional pets,” said GSC CEO Lou Hawthorne, who delivered Little Gizmo with Mike Hodnett, the company’s VP of Sales & Marketing. “With our second commercial cat clone delivery, we have again duplicated an exceptional pet, and made a certain client very, very happy.”

    Dan, who requested that his last name be withheld for privacy, was among the first five people to sign up for GSC’s cat cloning service, which became available in February 2004 on a limited basis at the price of $50,000. One company client received her cloned kitten in December; the others will receive theirs within the next few months.

    “There are no words to describe how happy I am,” Dan wrote in an email to Hodnett after spending time with Little Gizmo.

    Company policy is to counsel clients that because behavior is influenced by environment as well as by genes, clones may not behave exactly as their genetic donors did. Nonetheless, both of the clients who have now received clones say that not only do they look like their predecessors, but their behavior is strikingly similar as well.

    “She is exact, exact, exact in all of her mannerisms, habits, traits and personality,” Dan wrote of Little Gizmo’s similarity to Gizmo. Little Gizmo was born in Austin, Texas, where GSC has done most of its cloning research and development. The company’s business headquarters is located in Sausalito, California.

    Phil Damiani, Ph.D., GSC’s new Chief Scientific Officer, describes Little Gizmo as yet another example of the excellent results the company is achieving with chromatin transfer (CT), the technology GSC has exclusively licensed for use in pet cloning. CT is a more advanced technology than NT, the method used to produce Dolly and most other clones. Every cat produced by GSC except CC, the world’s first cat clone, is the result of the CT process.

    “Not only has chromatin transfer helped us produce healthy, normal cats,” Dr. Damiani said, “but it has also increased our efficiency, which means we require fewer mothers than we would otherwise.” The increased efficiency of the CT process is one reason that GSC today announced a reduced price of $32,000 for their cat cloning service.

    Note this part about "several leading cloning companies".

    Before joining GSC, Dr. Damiani worked at several leading cloning companies, coordinating research on cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and endangered species, including the Gaur, an endangered relative of the ox, which he cloned in 2000. Dr. Damiani also worked in South Africa establishing a gene bank and assisted reproduction laboratory for wild animals, and helped establish the cloning program at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Center for Research of Endangered Species (AICRES). Dr. Damiani received his doctorate in Reproductive Physiology from the University of Massachusetts, and has numerous publications, patents and patents pending.

    A regular cloning industry has sprung up. Cloning is becoming routine.

    So again, what is wrong with pet cloning? Is it creepy? Yeah, I guess a little. But what harm does it cause?

    Maybe if some ferocious pit bull is cloned dozens of times and one of them kills a person and leaves DNA evidence behind then there will be no way to identify which clone did the killing. But I bet that problem could be handled eventually with a bit of genetic engineering to place unique genetic markers in each clone.

    I don't think pet cloning where single replacement copies are made does any harm to species diversity. If pet species genetic diversity is an issue then why not ban the breeding practices of the show breeders who try to achieve perfect breed shapes and in the process radically in-breed and ruin breeds? In fact, if it had been possible for anyone to keep cloning their 1940s collies or golden retrieivers they'd have better dogs than most of the collies and goldens walking around today.

    Pet animal cloning will help drive down the price of the biotechnologies used in cloning and also help identify problems and work out kinks in cloning technology. Therefore human cloning will eventually be easier as a result. Is that a reason to oppose pet cloning?

    Update:An organization called United Animal Nations supports Levine's attempt to ban pet cloning and have joined with the American Anti-Vivisection Society and the International Center for Technology Assessment to set up nopetcloning.org to support Levine's bill AB 1428.

    GSC has a press release answering many of the objections raised by the opponents of pet cloning.

    1) Wellbeing of Clones. The results we've had with our new CT technology are extremely good — comparable to what conventional breeders experience — allowing us to offer our clients a full guarantee on health of the clones we produce. As University of Pennsylvania bioethics professor Dr. Autumn Fiester explains, “Cloning science is advancing so rapidly that the survival rates and general health of clones are beginning to mirror animals naturally conceived — so this [argument] will soon be a non-starter.”

    2) Wellbeing of Surrogates. The transfer of cloned embryos to a surrogate mother is no more invasive than a common spay. Routine and effective steps are taken by a fully licensed veterinarian to prevent discomfort to the surrogate mother. During their pregnancies and deliveries, our surrogate mothers spend most of their time in the care of experienced breeders under contract to GSC who adhere to our strict animal care protocols. The facilities are professionally staffed throughout the day, and the surrogates receive individualized attention several times a day, along with a broad range of enrichment toys and human/animal as well as animal/animal socialization activities.

    3) Reasonable Oversight. As the world's first pet cloning company, we operate in a fish bowl. Literally thousands of print, radio, television and internet stories are produced about our company each year. This level of public scrutiny — combined with our commitment to transparency — results in the public learning everything it needs to know about GSC's methods and operations. Given that our activities are widely scrutinized and ultimately determine our success, we have adopted the highest standards of animal welfare, scientific practice, and consumer information, far exceeding any likely government oversight. For this reason, we see no problem with reasonable oversight of the pet cloning industry, and in fact would welcome it as a way of constraining companies that do not share our commitment to best cloning practices.

    4) Pet Overpopulation. Millions of animals are abandoned each year and commercial breeders produce over three million pets per year, yet Assemblyman Levine wants to shut down a company that to date has produced fewer than 10 animals. Mr. Levine is obviously unaware that GSC's operations actually reduce the population of unwanted pets. For research purposes, GSC requires large numbers of cat and dog ovaries, a waste product we purchase from spay clinics. To date GSC has paid over $350,000 to spay clinics across the country, funds they've used to spay thousands of dogs and cats. In addition, GSC has provided $315,000 to date to the University of Virginia Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health, for development of an injectible sterilant for dogs and cats, which would greatly reduce the overhead of spay clinics worldwide.

    As biotechnology advances to the point that it can do more things one problem biotechnology companies are going to increasingly face is that their product or service produces a result that is just going to seem really weird to some people. Cloned pets definitely seem weird. But if the animals look and act like normal pets then I don't expect this sort of reaction to last. Compare it to appearance-altering plastic surgery. Some stars in Hollywood have lips and other facial features that seem a lot weirder to me than pet clones. Or look at major league baseball players who have unnatural-looking physiques as a result of steroid use. Or how about those people who cover their bodies with tattoos. These all seem weirder to me than pet clones.

    What do you expect people to do to themselves or to other species in the future that you expect will seem weird for a long time to come?

    By Randall Parker    2005 May 02 02:29 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
    2005 April 25 Monday
    Can Eating Rice With Human Genes Be Considered Cannibalism?

    Insertion of a human gene into rice raises the question of what is a human.

    Environmentalists say that no one will want to eat the partially human-derived food because it will smack of cannibalism.

    But supporters say that the controversial new departure presents no ethical problems and could bring environmental benefits.

    In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals. The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body.

    A scientist quoted in the article claims mammalian liver enzyme genes inserted into food crops could be used to clean up soil contaminated by industry chemical pollutants.

    Will people buy the rice?

    But anti-GM campaigners say using human genes will scare off consumers worried about cannibalism and the idea of scientists playing God.

    Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK said: 'I don't think anyone will want to buy this rice.

    I predict lots of people will buy and eat the rice just for kicks. But use of liver enzyme genes from other species would effectively avoid the cannibalism claim. Then British opponents to genetic modification of food would switch their other standard reasons for opposing this sort of thing.

    British researchers would be a lot more reluctant to try what these Japanese researchers did. Opposition to genetic engineering of foods is much more widesprad in Britain than in Japan or even in the United States.

    The Japanese researchers may have used the human gene rather than a gene because they happened to know more about it. But surely other genes could be found to do the same thing.

    Picture something far more extreme that just putting a single human gene in rice. Imagine the ability to grow human cells in culture to grow muscle tissue. Would you consider someone who eats human muscle tissue grown in a vat to be a cannibal?

    In a few decades tissue engineering technology will be far beyond what we have today. Growth of organs in vats ought to be a piece of cake by the year 2035. I predict home tissue vats sold to the masses will lead to celebrity tissue cannibalism. Picture someone running up to a celebrity and either pulling out some hair or scratching the celebrity with fingernails and then running away. That'd be a way to get cells from that celebrity. Imagine some college sorority or fraternity whose members who have egged on each other to get celebrity tissue samples. Then the frat or sorority could grow up the tissue and dine on the hot babe of the day. Criminalization will just make the dinner parties smaller and more select.

    Of course some narcissists will insist that nothing but their own vat-grown tissue is tasty enough. Then there will be the exhibitionists who will grow their own tissue to give or sell to others.

    Biotechnology will eventually reach then point where full human bodies minus the head can be grown in a vat. Imagine growing a replacement body, having your head transplanted to it, and then eating the old body. One can imagine big old/new body dinner parties where someone using their new body has all their friends over to eat the old one. How will the old body be served? As Frank famously put it: "That's a rather tender subject. Another slice anyone?"

    Feel disgusted or revolted?

    By Randall Parker    2005 April 25 02:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (25)
    2004 November 16 Tuesday
    Will California Proposition Slow Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

    The passage of California state proposition 71 to fund embryonic stem cell research may cause a backlash that brings greater federal restrictions.

    The resounding victory of California's $3 billion ballot initiative for embryonic stem cell studies may have the unintended consequence of slowing research on the national level and creating a backlash from religious conservatives who feel emboldened by President Bush's reelection, say activists on both sides of the issue.

    ...

    Under Proposition 71, California researchers are eligible for $295 million a year in grants to work on cell colonies -- or lines -- taken from five-day-old human embryos.

    ...

    In August 2001, Bush struck a compromise, announcing he would allow federal funding for research on the limited number of cell lines that existed then. Researchers and patient groups have been frustrated by those restrictions, saying the 20-plus available lines and $24 million in federal grants have not been sufficient.

    ...

    Brownback's cloning ban would make it a crime for patients treated outside the United States with therapies derived from embryonic stem cells to reenter.

    Think about that last part. Some day Americans may go abroad for embryonic stem cell therapy and in the process turn themselves into permanent expatriates. If the choice is between permanent exile and death quite a few people will choose exile - at least if they can find a country that will accept them as residents.

    Look at it from a purely financial standpoint: Prop. 71 will increase total money available in the United States for embryonic stem cell research even if all federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is ended. The amount California will start spending is far in excess of what the US federal government is currently spending. Also, if the federal goverment stops spending on embryonic stem cell research it will probably shift the money toward adult stem cell research. So with the California money the total amount going to stem cell research of all kinds will go up. That will speed progress overall.

    Of course if Congress outlaws embryonic stem cell research entirely then embryonic stem cell research in California would be stopped regardless of what money is available. Is such an outcome possible? I would expect the more center-of-the-road Republican Senators and Congressmen from the Northeast and perhaps some from the Midwest and Northwest (e.g. Mormons from Utah) to band together with the Democrats to block such a move. But that is speculation on my part.

    Whatever the United States federal and state governments do about embryonic stem cell research will affect the rate of advance of embryonic stem cell research. But it is inevitable that therapies based on embryonic stem cells will be developed in East Asian countries regardless of what the United States does.

    Also, if human embryonic stem cell research is banned in the United States adult stem cell research will still produce lots of therapies. In the longer run methods will be developed to turn adult stem cells and even adult differentiated cells into any cell type that will be needed for therapy. The big advantage of embryonic stem cells is that they are pluripotent. That means they have the capability to become all other cell types. Well, eventually techniques will be discovered to turn adult cells into pluripotent cells.

    Once it becomes possible to turn adult cells into pluripotent cells will most of the religious opponents of embryonic stem cell research take the position that the creation of such pluripotent cells is immoral because such cells will have the ability to develop into fetuses? Or will the religious folks decide that since the pluripotent cells were not created from an egg or an embryo that those cells do not have a soul and hence are acceptable for use in creating treatments?

    Even if the embryonic stem cell research opponents remain opposed to the use of all pluripotent stem cells for research and therapy one way around restrictions against pluripotent stem cells would be to find ways to create very multipotent (capable of becoming many but not all cell types) stem cells. Basically dedifferentiate or despecialize cells almost all the way back to early embryo state but stop just short of that most flexible state. Some promising research on chemical compounds that dedifferentiate cells has been published. The search for compounds to differentiate and dedifferentiate (specialize and despecialize) stem cells is accelerating due to advances in biotechnology for growing and screening cells. So more compounds will come along that will allow scientists to basically program around restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells. Also, it may be possible to extract highly multipotent or even fully pluripotent stem cells from the blood of pregnant women.

    By Randall Parker    2004 November 16 02:48 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (26)
    2003 June 17 Tuesday
    Natural Life Criminal Sentences And Life Extension

    Daniel Bergner has an Op-Ed in The New York Times about the trend toward natural life sentences for criminals.

    Across the country, at least 31,000 state and federal inmates are serving terms of natural life. That means they have been put away forever, without opportunity for parole. Except in the most unusual circumstances, we need never think of them again. And though national support for capital punishment may be softening, this does not mean that fewer people will be sentenced to die in prison. A decade ago, according to the Criminal Justice Institute, the number of natural lifers was about 12,000. Then, 31 states had adopted the sentence; now, 46 have chosen the safety of permanence and the luxury of not thinking.

    Bergner happens to be opposed to the practice of natural life criminal sentences and it sounds like he's opposed to capital punishment too. But let us put aside the question of whether natural life is a fair or necessary criminal sentence under current circumstances. The natural life sentence is the more problematic when we look decades into the future. Once someone is dead (assuming we do not immediately cryogenically freeze them) we do not face any future decisions on what to do with that person. But as biotechnology advances the existence of long-serving inmates will present us with a number of problems.

    One set of questions will come from the development of rejuvenating life extension therapies. I share the view of Aubrey de Grey that it will be possible to develop Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) that will allow us to become young again and to stay young more or less indefinitely. Well, the first question that will arise with natural life prisoners is whether they should be eligible to receive treatments that cause aging to slow down to a negligible rate. If such treatments are withheld from prisoners serving natural life sentences then the effect will be to sentence them to slow death from old age. But if they are given such treatments then they would be faced with the prospect of effectively "unnatural life" prison sentences that could literally last for centuries (provided the human race lasts that long and the imprisoning government continues to exist - two big ifs).

    Bergner describes the case of Wilbert Rideau who has been serving a prison term for over 40 years for grisly murders but who many prison officials think has changed so much that he is not a threat to anyone. Well, certainly there are older convicts who are no longer dangerous. Some people go thru intellectual and emotional growth, reflect upon who they were, and make profound changes in how they look at life. But some become less dangerous as they age simply because their hormone levels decline, their energy declines, and they just have less energy available with which to be aggressive. Suppose those latter types of people, sentenced to natural life terms, are made young again. In at least some cases the effect will be to make them very dangerous once again. Even if they are kept imprisoned they will become more dangerous to fellow inmates and to guards. Should they be made youthful again if that will make them more dangerous?

    Another set of questions will come from the development of permanently mind-altering therapies. Eventually we will discover how to identify and manipulate biological factors that contribute to criminal behavior. Should someone serving a natural life sentence be told that they can receive therapies that will reverse the aging process only if they consent to alterations in their brains that make them less dangerous? Should those serving natural life sentences be given the option to have their minds altered as a condition of parole?

    The development of rejuvenation therapies and the development of techniques to alter brains to change behavioral tendencies will each present us with basic questions about criminal justice. The death of criminals from old age will no longer be inevitable. The mellowing of violent youth with age will similarly no longer be a process that we can rely upon. Some will become less dangerous because of changes they go thru in their thinking. But what should we do with long-serving prisoners who are "bad to the bone" once aging becomes fully reversible?

    By Randall Parker    2003 June 17 01:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
    2003 January 31 Friday
    Richard Dawkins On What Is Biologically Natural

    Richard Dawkins argues that genes are analogous to software subroutines. They are not any more naturally a part of the species they are found in than a particular subroutine is of any program that uses it. Dawkins suggests that a more rational response to the prospect of genes moved across species is rigorous safety testing.

    What, then, of the widespread gut hostility, amounting to revulsion, against all such “transgenic” imports? This is based on the misconception that it is somehow “unnatural” to splice a fish gene, which was only ever “meant” to work in a fish, into the alien environment of a tomato cell. Surely an antifreeze gene from a fish must come with a fishy “flavour”. Surely some of its fishiness must rub off. Yet nobody thinks that a square-root subroutine carries a “financial flavour” with it when you paste it into a rocket guidance system. The very idea of “flavour” in this sense is not just wrong but profoundly and interestingly wrong. It is a cheerful thought, by the way, that most young people today understand computer software far better than their elders, and they should grasp the point instantly. The present Luddism over genetic engineering may die a natural death as the computer-illiterate generation is superseded.

    Genetic engineering for agricultural purposes is more widely feared in Europe and the UK than in the United States. Americans tend to view technology more in terms of benefits than in terms of potential threats. Also, Third Worlders for whom hunger is a real concern are far more eager to use genetically engineered plants and animals. The known threat of hunger is weighed against potential mostly theoretical threats of gene transfer between species and its not surprising that they decide to put dealing with the real threat ahead of dealing with a potential threat that may not turn out to be justified.

    There is a school of thought that holds that humans are simply not wise enough to interfere with the basic mechanisms of life. Part of the motive for this view is a feeling that life is somehow holy and that to mess with it is akin to biting the apple in the Garden of Eden or of perhaps of trying to steal fire from the gods. This view is held even by people who are not religious in any conventional sense. In Europeam cultures where Christianity has lost much of its force this might be due to historical resonances of pre-Christian pagan ideas about nature.

    As compared to other potentially dangerous technologies the big difference with biological engineering is that life forms can replicate. A harmful mistake has the potential to spread over the world. Depending on the species being genetically engineered it may be difficult or even impossible to stop it once the mistake is uncovered. For some types of plants controlling them once released might not be that difficult. They might not compete well in the wild absent farmer-provided weed control and fertilized fields. This danger is even less a threat for a big land animal species. After all, humans have hunted quite a few animal species to extinction. Imagine if some wild pigs were breeding that carried genes that were discovered to be dangerous. Lots of hunters would positively relish the prospects of hunting down all the pigs to kill them with full official approval. Hunting to save humanity? What could be more fun for a hunter than to take on that sacred challlenge?

    As new generations grow up with different experiences will people gradually come to see genetic engineering as natural? While most efforts to move a gene from one species to another for agricultural purposes are not going to create ecological disasters there are types of genetic engineering that could. Most people simply don't know enough science to be able to begin to guess which types of genetic engineering might pose a threat. Therefore if people come to accept genetic engineering and rigorous safety testing they will have to place their safety into the hands of experts whose competence and prudence they will have to take more or less on faith.

    By Randall Parker    2003 January 31 03:45 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
    2003 January 16 Thursday
    Researcher: Stem Cell Funding Restrictions Not An Obstacle

    Dr. Evan Snyder, a top Harvard University stem cell researcher who is in the process of moving to the Burnham Institute in La Jolla California, was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle about the current state and prospects for stem cell research. Snyder believes current US government restrictions on stem cell research funding are not yet holding back progress in the field.

    Q. Does the Bush administration's policy, and the governmental financing restrictions, allow the field to move forward?

    A. It's not so dire at this particular point because so much fundamental work needs to be done. Any scientists who say they have been paralyzed in their research because of the Bush administration is really being disingenuous.

    There is so much fundamental work we still need to do before we even know if these edicts are restrictive or not.

    This confirms an argument I've made previously: there is so much information needed about how cells differentiate that is best worked out using animal models (primarily mice but other species as well) that few scientists have much need to work with human embyronic stem cells at this point. So why all the debate? Scientists who want to rush more directly into trying experimental therapies on humans are going to object to that line of argument. Those latter scientists think they can develop useful therapies without understanding the details of how stem cells differentiate. They basically want to develop a technology without understanding the underlying science of how it works. This is not an argument that is easily dismissed. There have been many successful medical treatments whose underlying mechanisms of action were unknown for many decades after they entered widespread use.

    Snyder's argument therefore is correct as far as the advance of developmental biology is concerned. How cells differentiate and how to manipulate cells to differentiate in different ways and to de-differentiate (i.e. to become less specialised) can be worked out using animal models. Most of what is learned with animal models will turn out to be directly applicable to human developmental biology. Also, the knowledge that will come from animal model research will eventually make it possible to create stem cell therapies for all possible applications without using embryonic stem cells. But scientists who are approaching the use of stem cells with more of an engineering mindset want to develop useful therapies well ahead of the advance of the underlying science. These scientists may well be able to develop many useful therapies using embryonic stem cells without waiting for the science to be worked out first. Therefore the debate about the use of human embryonic stem cells will continue.

    By Randall Parker    2003 January 16 10:43 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
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