Top Bioethics Stories - Spring/Summer 2010

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“First U.S. Stem Cells Transplanted Into Spinal Cord”

by Miriam Falco, CNN, January 21, 2010.

For the first time in the United States, stem cells have been directly injected into the spinal cord of a patient, researchers announced Thursday. Doctors injected stem cells from 8-week-old fetal tissue into the spine of a man in his early 60s who has advanced ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It was part of a clinical trial designed to determine whether it is safe to inject stem cells into the spinal cord and whether the cells themselves are safe.

This is the first time fetal stem cells have been injected into a patient in the U.S. The neural stem cells were derived from an aborted fetus, considered by many to be an unethical source of stem cells.

Researchers Directly Turn Mouse Skin Cells into Neurons, Skipping IPS Stage”

by Krista Conger, PhysOrg, January 27, 2010.

Even Superman needed to retire to a phone booth for a quick change. But now scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have succeeded in the ultimate switch: transforming mouse skin cells in a laboratory dish directly into functional nerve cells with the application of just three genes. The cells make the change without first becoming a pluripotent type of stem cell - a step long thought to be required for cells to acquire new identities.

This is the second demonstrated example of direct cell reprogramming, a promising and ethical avenue of regenerative medicine. The researchers are currently working to replicate this experiment in human cells.

“Stem Cell Alternatives Show Early Aging Abnormalities”

by Dan Vergano, USA Today, February 12, 2010.

A first head-to-head comparison of human embryonic stem cells with ones grown from skin cells, reported Thursday by biologists, revealed early aging and other abnormalities in the less-controversial alternatives. http://tinyurl. com/2dpu8l7

This study demonstrates that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) may have certain growth and aging abnormalities compared to embryonic stem cells. iPS cells are being investigated as a source of pluripotent stem cells that avoid the ethical and immune rejection issues of embryonic stem cells.

“US Judge Strikes Down Patent on Cancer Genes”

by Larry Neumeister, Associated Press, March 29, 2010.

In a ruling with potentially far-reaching implications for the patenting of human genes, a judge on Monday struck down a company’s patents on two genes linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

This decision invalidated the patents held by Myriad Genetics for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and threatens the legality of other existing gene patents. Many believe that gene patents greatly hinder scientific research and that the patenting of DNA leads to the commodification of the human body.

“Panel to Take Broad View of Bioethics”

by Brendan Borrell, NatureNews, April 13, 2010.

US President Barack Obama last week announced the full membership of his bioethics advisory council, unveiling a more diverse body and one that is likely to have a greater impact on policy than its predecessor.

While the 12-member panel is professionally diverse, it features only two formal bioethicists. This has caused concern that comprehensive analysis of ethical issues may be overlooked in favor of developing pragmatic policy.

“House Launches Investigation into Genetic Tests”

by Rob Stein, Washington Post, May 19, 2010.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee and its subcommittee on oversight and investigations sent letters to Pathway Genomics Corp. of San Diego, 23&Me Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and Navigenics Inc. of Foster City, Calif., requesting information about their tests. The move was prompted after Pathway announced plans last week to sell its genetic test through drug stores nationwide for the first time “despite concern from the scientific community regarding the accuracy of test results,” the letters stated. http://tinyurl. com/26arrnb

The investigation was launched after concerns were raised that home genetic testing for serious medical conditions would lead to consumer confusion, violations of privacy, and genetic discrimination. The accuracy of these genetic tests has also been under question.

“Scientists Create First Synthetic Cell”

by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2010.

Heralding a potential new era in biology, scientists for the first time have created a synthetic cell, completely controlled by man-made genetic instructions, researchers at the private J. Craig Venter Institute announced Thursday. http://

This “proof-of-principle” experiment is considered to be a major step forward in the field of synthetic biology. Many have objected that engineering a synthetic cell raises deep questions about the proper limits of scientific endeavor that, at the very least, deserve to be aired and carefully thought through within the scientific community and the broader public. There is also concern that the use of synthetic cells outside the laboratory may have serious environmental consequences.

NIH to Tighten Rules on Conflicts”

by Meredith Wadman, Nature News, May 20, 2010.

After a wave of financial scandals over the past few years involving biomedical researchers, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposed farreaching changes today that would lead to much tighter oversight of agency-funded extramural investigators and their institutions. http://tinyurl. com/3685dof

The NIH has proposed revisions to current regulations to prevent financial conflicts of interest and increase transparency of NIHfunded investigators. These changes shift the responsibility for determining and disclosing financial conflicts of interest from the individual researcher to their institution.

“Doctors Reverse Stand on Circumcision”

by Pam Belluck, New York Times, May 26, 2010.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has reversed its decision last month regarding the practice of female circumcision by immigrants from some African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. The academy had suggested in a policy statement that doctors be given permission to perform a ceremonial pinprick or nick on girls if it would keep their families from sending them overseas for the full circumcision.

Originally supported as a means of compromise to prevent families from seeking full female circumcision overseas, the decision was reversed due to opposition by those who believe that the decision tolerates an unethical and harmful practice.

“First Human ‘Infected with Computer Virus’”

by Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC News, May 27, 2010.

Dr Mark Gasson from the University of Reading contaminated a computer chip which was then inserted into his hand. The device, which enables him to pass through security doors and activate his mobile phone, is a sophisticated version of ID chips used to tag pets.

This was a “proof-of-principle” experiment to demonstrate that computer viruses could be transferred to implanted medical devices such as pacemakers and cochlear implants, highlighting an important safety concern.

*Each of these articles was accessed June 25 - July 1, 2010