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The Stem Cell Debate Gets Filthy

Posted by Parita Shah on October 25th, 2006

Do one million viewers of a You Tube video clip parlay into political relevance? Well, it seems so in the case of Michael J. Fox's latest campaign advertisement in Missouri. The ad has catapulted stem cells back into the political and media limelights just two weeks before election day.

Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh accused Fox of "exaggerating the effects of [his] disease" for political gain in an advertisement supporting Missouri Senate candidate Claire McKaskill (D). Today, opponents of the initiative launched their own celebrity-laden ad, employing such big names as Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) and Kurt Warner (NFL quarterback), to send their message.

This mudslinging has crossed a new line in the stem cell debate. Both sides have made outrageous claims - one side understates the potential of embryonic stem cell research and the other side overstates it. In doing so, each side is feeding the hyperbole of the other.

Limbaugh's comments, besides being utterly offensive, are among the politically charged and polarizing comments being made by both sides of the debate all over the country. They are muddying the waters to the point where we can no longer see clearly in the ongoing stem cell debate.

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Slooooooow Sales for BiDil®

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie on October 18th, 2006

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that sales for BiDil®—the first drug to receive FDA approval to treat a specific race—are unexpectedly slow. Marketed as treating heart failure in African-Americans, BiDil® was expected to generate $130 million in sales this year; thus far, only a little over $5 million has come in. Estimates show that only 1% of the 750,000 Blacks suffering from heart failure are using it.

There’s no shortage of explanations for why Black people are about as unlikely to take BiDil® as they are to name a newborn child Katrina. Some say BiDil® treats the heart at the expense of an arm and a leg, costing patients between $1300 - $2800 per year. Others blame insurance companies for only paying for patients to take generic versions of BiDil’s® active ingredients rather than the more expensive single dose pill. True to its Reaganomic impulses, the Wall Street Journal highlights government’s role in this market failure: many Blacks who could receive BiDil® under Medicaid lost this eligibility when Medicare Part D went into effect in January.

But, perhaps there’s another explanation that the Wall Street wing tips are missing: a sense of history.

During a conference I attended earlier this year on BiDil® and race specific medicines, an older Black woman in the audience stood up and said “If I were sick and somebody told me that they had a drug just for Black people to help me, I’d say to them: give me what the white people are taking.” BiDil’s® age demographic—Blacks 45 and older—are the very same people with intimate knowledge of how race and science can be dangerous bedfellows, as seen in the Tuskegee studies and countless other examples of human experimentation on people of color. BiDil’s® sluggish sales may be less about market impediments and price points and more about Black people’s skepticism of racial profiling in medicine.

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Millions more in funds for Missouri for stem cell research amendment

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 18th, 2006

Today, the campaigns on both sides of Missouri's proposed stem cell research constitutional amendment released their latest fundraising reports. The shocker is that the amendment advocates, the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, have now raised a total of $28.74 million. (Their opponents have raised $1.2 million.)

Compared to California's Proposition 71 campaign, which set aside $3 billion in public funds, Missouri's research advocates have now raised over five times more, on a per capita basis. About $28 million of that has come from Jim and Virginia Stowers, wealthy cancer survivors who founded the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City with a $2 billion endowment.

Why would the Stowerses set aside so much money for an initiative that does little more than enshrine the status quo? I can think of three possible reasons.

1. If we take the campaign at face value, then they wish to create a stable policy environment for research. They've threatened to build the next expansion of the Institute out of state if Amendment 2 fails. But since the current Institute campus is merely five miles from the Kansas border, this would not seem to be a hardship worth that sort of money. Besides, the proposed Amendment has been consistently leading in the polls.

2. The voter initiative could be a useful get-out-the vote mechanism for the tight race for Missouri's open Senate seat. Although the Stowerses have donated to both major political parties, they likely recognize that the real battle over research cloning is in the federal Congress. A ban on the procedure would be law if not for a Senate filibuster. And Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill is a clear supporter of research cloning, whereas her Republican opponent was, until recently, a co-sponsor of the bill to ban the practice nationally.

3. Stem cell research advocates have won the debate over using embryos "leftover" from fertility clinics in research. It's only a matter of time before federal funding is expanded in this area. The next battle is over research cloning, which, from their perspective, needs to be not only legal but also protected and - ideally - publicly funded. Research advocates are working to reframe the practice as an essential part of lifesaving stem cell research. If such protection can be endorsed by voters in a heartland bellwether state such as Missouri, then other politicians will notice.

Reports have been circulating that initiatives similar to Missouri's are being considered elsewhere. But success in Missouri may not mean much for other proposals. How many other states have potential benefactors like the Stowerses?

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Posted by Center for Genetics and Society on October 5th, 2006

Welcome to Biopolitical Times, where you'll find commentary on breaking news and political developments in the field of human biotechnology. New and emerging genetic, reproductive and biomedical technologies increasingly have the power to reshape individual lives and communities, create private fortunes or social wealth, challenge our political positions and moral values, and foster or undermine human equality.

Biopolitical Times is a forum for frank discussions of human biotechnologies and their effects on politics, policy, and society. You will be hearing regularly from Jesse Reynolds, Parita Shah, and Osagie Obasogie, staff at the Center for Genetics and Society, and intermittently from guest bloggers. Please join us via the comment feature.

Richard Hayes, Executive Director
Marcy Darnovsky, Associate Executive Director

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