Blog : Displaying 9-12 of 1194

Drew Endy's Hollywood Dreams for Synthetic Biology

Posted by Pete Shanks on September 18th, 2014

Drew Endy

Drew Endy, Stanford professor and synthetic biology evangelist, gave an interesting overview of the subject in general and "The iGEM Revolution" in particular at a Long Now seminar on September 16 in San Francisco. A summary will be posted soon, as well as complete video.

Endy is convinced that this is the century of biology, and in particular of making things with biology. He even invoked "Steve & Steve" (Jobs & Wozniak) — a common trope among synthetic biology types — claiming that the technology he started with was even cruder than the first Apple (which didn't even have a screen). The implication is, of course, that these new tools will lead to an equivalent technical, economic and social revolution.

Some DiY biotech initiatives do struggle along on a shoestring, but the analogy is misleading. iGEM has 20,000 alumni, Endy said, scattered among labs worldwide. Stanford's department of bioengineering alone has two dozen core faculty, plus associates and consultants; this is not a small operation, nor are those in Cambridge and elsewhere. Allied Market Research is hawking a report claiming that the global synthetic biology market will reach $38.7 billion by 2020.

Yet Endy admitted, in the Q&A, that "we need to figure out what we wish for." Which might help to explain why (as he complained) movies always seem to show biologists as villains, although he and others in the field seem to view themselves, sincerely though not always humbly, as white knights and revolutionary heroes bringing salvation and transcendence to the planet. Sadly for them, Hollywood has not yet come up with the "realistic heroic narratives" that Endy thinks are needed to promote biotech to the general public.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Shame and Scandal in the 23andMe Family

Posted by Pete Shanks on September 17th, 2014

The beleaguered direct-to-consumer (DTC) gene testing company 23andMe just cannot catch a break. And its problems seem to be largely of its own making.

Last year, the company stopped responding to the FDA’s letters. In response, the FDA finally sent a cease-and-desist letter that basically restricted the company to providing raw data and doing ancestry tests. Sales fell by 50%. CEO Anne Wojcicki has been putting a brave face on this, calling it "a really good experience for 23andMe because it's taking us up a level,” and hired four executives with healthcare backgrounds.

Then Vox, which launched in April as a fact-based website covering both news and background, started looking into some of the possible issues that DTC testing can raise, and published two articles on September 9th. The general overview was:

Genetic testing brings families together
And sometimes tears them apart

The dramatic case study was headlined:

With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce

The author explained that through his 23andMe gene test, he had discovered a previously unknown half brother — his father's previously unacknowledged or unknown son. Then the rest of his family found out.

Years of repressed memories and emotions uncorked and resulted in tumultuous times that have torn my nuclear family apart. My parents divorced. No one is talking to my dad. We're not anywhere close to being healed yet and I don't know how long it will take to put the pieces back together.

Vox also revealed that 23andMe was about to move from an opt-in to an opt-out model of revealing close relationships. Up till now, customers have had to answer “Yes” to a question asking if they wanted to find their closest relatives in the company database; the change would have meant that anyone could accidentally be put in touch with family members they didn’t know existed.

The thinking behind the change seems to have been that privacy is no longer possible, a concept that is fashionable in some circles. Apparently Wojcicki did not know about this move, since she soon stated that this was "a decision that should have come to my attention but it did not.” She reversed it. And announced that:

23andMe is hiring a Chief Privacy Officer

It's about time the company started taking these issues seriously. Who wants to be blindsided with news such as, in the words of the old calypso, that your daddy ain’t your daddy but your daddy don’t know?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

The Stupidity of the “Smart Gene”

Posted by Jessica Cussins on September 17th, 2014

Untitled Document

Science writer David Dobbs has definitively described the voracious appetite of the “selfish gene” meme, pointing out that the notion of individual genes exercising power on the outcome of events has been so good at mass producing itself, that “the selfish gene has become a selfish meme.”

At CGS, we have another name for this phenomenon: the gene of the week.

All “genes of the week” have something in common: they never actually live up to their billing. For starters, it is never true that a single gene just does something. Genes work together, and genomes work with their environments. But this inconvenient reality has done amazingly little to stem genetic determinism, or the funding of research that relies upon its framework.

How could this be true? Is it really the case, as Dobbs posits, that “the gene-centric model survives because simplicity is a hugely advantageous trait for an idea to possess?”

The adventures of “smart genes” provide an illuminating case study. 

There are some people who really want to find the genetic basis of intelligence. The sole effort of BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Lab, for example, is to investigate the genetics of human cognition. The fascinating documentary film DNA Dreams sheds light on the hopes of those involved with this project. They harbor no doubt that there is a genetic basis for intelligence; the only question is when they’ll uncover it and how limitless the possibilities will be once they do. Embryo selection and modification to ensure smarter babies are among the future scenarios they envision.

But the future doesn’t seem to be cooperating. Project leader Bowen Zhao confidently promised data in three months time in February, 2013; it has now been nineteen months and we are still waiting.

In the meantime, two of the Cognitive Genomics Lab’s illustrious “collaborators and advisors,” Robert Plomin and Steven Pinker, are among the 59 co-authors of a brand new PNAS study, which Nature has called “one of the largest, most rigorous genetic studies of human cognition.”

The paper, published on September 5, is called “Common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance identified using the proxy-phenotype method.” It claims that three gene variants are associated with both educational attainment and higher IQ scores. The study is a follow-up of the 2013 Science study, “GWAS of 126,559 Individuals Identifies Genetic Variants Associated with Educational Attainment.”

What is remarkable about these studies is how little what they “identify” actually matters. Over 100,000 genomes were studied in each, but the results are so limited that they could easily fail to be replicated and become one of the many of a decade’s worth of publications on gene associations that the editors of Behavior Genetics disparage as “wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge.”

In the Science study, three gene variants were found that each correlated with roughly one month’s difference in a person’s total amount of schooling.  In the PNAS study, three gene variants were found that each correlated with about 0.3 points on an IQ test. Results this inconsequential could easily be no more than false positives.

Study co-leader Daniel Benjamin was upfront about this fact. He told Nature, “We haven’t found nothing.”

Whatever mechanisms are working on the partial heritability of intelligence, it doesn’t seem to be a defined group of “smart genes.” The authors of the PNAS study have suggested that looking into more than one million people’s genomes could help explain the genetic basis of cognitive ability a little bit better.

But the problem isn’t in the numbers, it’s in the framework. Genes are not selfish; they don’t act on their own for virtuous or nefarious ends. Heritability is much more complex than genes.

So, can we finally put the notion of “smart genes” behind us?

Not quite. Here’s how The Sydney Morning Herald covered the exact same study last week: “Scientists discover 'smart' genes.”

These are powerful memes. And when information is so beautifully simple, who cares if it says basically nothing and could well be wrong?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

International Surrogacy, Global Consumerism, Harms to Women and Children

Posted by Carmel Shalev, Biopolitical Times guest contributor on September 15th, 2014

Pattaramon Chanbua, Thai surrogate mother to Baby Gammy.
Pattaramon Chanbua, Thai surrogate mother to Baby Gammy.

Untitled Document

This summer two separate incidents highlighted the deeply troubling problems that can arise in inter-country surrogacy arrangements. In the most extensively covered situation, the “Baby Gammy” case, an Australian couple left their infant son who has Down syndrome with his Thai surrogate mother and returned home with his twin sister. The husband was then discovered to have been convicted of multiple child sex offenses that took place between the early 1980s and early 1990s against girls as young as 5.

In the second incident, a young Japanese businessman fathered 16 children with multiple Thai surrogate mothers, only weeks or months apart, and then told Thai police that he simply wanted a large family.

The New York Times covered these stories in an article titled “Thailand’s Business in Paid Surrogates May Be Foundering in a Moral Quagmire.

What should we make of these disturbing stories? Should we see them as revealing the ingenuity of consumers (commissioning parents and particularly fathers) in devising ways to exploit women as breeders in the unregulated global market of medically assisted reproduction? Is Baby Gammy’s story best understood as a tale of eugenics by a man convicted of abusing children (his words: "I don't think any parent wants a son with a disability")?  What does the story of the Japanese man who fathered (perhaps “sired” is the better term) all those infants share with Theresa Erickson's international baby-selling fraud, which also involved the abuse of unknowing women?  

Both stories raise policy questions about inter-country medically assisted reproduction, including the screening of intended parents, the parentage and citizenship status of children born of international commercial surrogacy, and these children’s welfare and interests in knowing their bio-social origins as a matter of identity.

Intermediaries in surrogacy agreements have certainly been ingenuous in navigating the economic opportunities and legal loopholes of the global market for their own profit. It appears from The New York Times report that Chinese women have been traveling to Thailand for impregnation, presumably to return home to carry a pregnancy and give birth to a child within a commercial surrogacy arrangement. In the wake of recent restrictions on international commercial surrogacy in India and Thailand, intermediaries operating out of other designation countries have devised schemes to transport surrogate mothers from those countries across borders to Nepal, where they are to give birth. These practices are conducive if not tantamount to trafficking in human beings. So is the cross-border movement of women who are paid to provide ("donate") eggs in response to the needs of infertile and post-fertile women and of single and gay men.

It is well-known that women who provide their bodily resources in transnational reproductive collaborations are subject to physical, emotional and social risks. Some egg providers and surrogate mothers have suffered irreversible damage to their own fertility. In India, where international commercial surrogacy has been most thoroughly studied and documented, some surrogate mothers are confined ("housed") in hostels following conception and for the duration of pregnancy, and subjected to 24/7 surveillance and control. In general, most surrogate mothers undergo Cesarean section in birthing, often without any clinical indication, for the convenience of intended parents or medical personnel. Double standards of medical care and ethics are pervasive, while emotional and social harms are neglected.

As The New York Times coverage notes, the surrogacy industries of Thailand and India are outgrowths of both countries' economic policies that promote a private market of medical tourism. Medical tourism is problematic in any event: private healthcare markets exacerbate disparities in the distribution of resources at both local and global levels. Travelling abroad for medical care is wrought with additional risks of fraud and exploitation (e.g., unproven stem cell therapies) or downright criminality (e.g., organ trafficking). These issues are compounded in the case of reproductive tourism, because at stake is the birth of a child.

Who should be held responsible for the harms to women and children involved in inter-country surrogacy arrangements? Women who work as surrogates or egg providers are certainly not to blame. Unfettered consumer desire, in the guise of a neoliberal “right to reproduce,” may be a major driver of the market. But medical entrepreneurs are at the heart of the matter.

Professional medical associations should take responsibility to prevent medical practitioners from dehumanizing women and children as commodities. Nations too should act to quell abuses perpetrated by their own nationals, both inside and outside their borders. And the international community must intervene in the unregulated global market to protect, promote and sanction the human dignity and human rights of women and children.


Carmel Shalev, JSD, is chair of the Department for Reproduction and Society at the International Center for Health, Law and Ethics, Haifa University.

Displaying 9-12 of 1194  
< Prev  Next >> 
« First Page Last Page » 
« Show Complete List » 



home | overview | blog | publications | about us | donate | newsletter | press room | privacy policy

CGS • 1936 University Ave, Suite 350, Berkeley, CA 94704 USA • • (p) 1.510.625.0819 • (F) 1.510.665.8760