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FW: BioEdge 184: Pioneer cloner hits the wall

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  • Kirk C Allison
    Two bioedges in reverse chronological order. (The Korean stamp is quite something. Nothing like promising the moon...) ... From: BioEdge
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2005
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      BioEdge 184: Cloning pioneer hits the wall

      Two bioedges in reverse chronological order. (The Korean stamp is quite something. Nothing like promising the moon...)

      -----Original Message-----
      From: BioEdge [mailto:abi@...]
      Tuesday, November 29, 2005 7:08 PM
      To: ABI-HTML
      BioEdge 184: Pioneer cloner hits the wall


      Tuesday, 29 November 2005 ·  Issue 184


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      Cloning pioneer hits the wall
            Admits that he lied over informed consent
      Korean stamp of approval
            Postage advertises therapeutic cloning
      Ethics of epidemics needed, says Canadian study
            How will we cope with another SARS outbreak?
      Kentucky surrogate mother bears child for novelist
            ... but husband refuses to sign adoption papers
      Surrogacy changes mooted in Australia
            No payment, says Law Reform Commission
      IVF complications hit 1 in 7
            Repeated cycles land women in hospital
      New euthanasia film on the way
            Features the genius of Jack Kevorkian
      Abortion drug investigated over four deaths
            Rare infection appears to stem from RU-486
      IN BRIEF: ultimate Xmas gift; morning-after pill


      Researchers who want to clone human embryos and create stem cells are facing the biggest public relations disaster in the history of their fledgling science. Their most acclaimed colleague Hwang Woo-suk, of Seoul National University, has admitted that he lied about his compliance with ethical protocols.

      I am very sorry that I have to tell the public words that are too shameful and horrible," he told a packed press conference. "The world gasped in awe when I first showed the results of my research. I felt a national pride and tasted the confidence that we Koreans could achieve things too," he said. "I was blinded by work and my drive for achievement." Hwang has now resigned from all public posts although he will continue with his research with the warm support of his government.

      Hwang's misdemeanour was actually fairly minor. Despite explicit assertions that the eggs for his research had been donated by generous Korean women, he actually purchased most of them from needy women. Two of his subordinates donated eggs as well. There were persistent rumours of this but the issue came to a head when he denied them in an interview with the journal Nature. In fact, he had done nothing illegal under South Korean law, although since then selling eggs has been banned in South Korea.

      In the eyes of most of his countrymen and women, the Hwang affair is a storm in a teacup. Hundreds of indignant women have volunteered to donate their eggs to further his research. Korean politicians have muttered that his humiliation was engineered by jealous Americans. Western researchers, however, are in a tizz. In human embryonic stem cell research, the principal ethical boundaries are twofold: obtaining informed consent for egg donations and repudiating reproductive cloning. If the public believes that cloning scientists are lying about one, it might think that they are lying about the other as well. Years of work grooming their image as sober medical researchers and not mad scientists from a late night creature feature, might be wasted.

      Hwang's downfall will have several consequences. The first is the possible collapse of his World Stem Cell Hub, which was launched only at the beginning of November. This was going to provide researchers in the US and UK with embryonic stem cells from his laboratory. But until Western researchers can be sure that South Koreans are sensitive to the demands of clinical research ethics, they may shun collaborative projects. South Korean researchers are clearly deficient in this area. A recent survey shows that 8 out of 10 biotechnology researchers are not even aware of the Helsinki Declaration, the gold standard for clinical research ethics.

      Second, it underscores the difficulty of obtaining eggs, the essential raw material for cloning. If reputedly hyper-patriotic Korean women are reluctant to donate their eggs, what chance do researchers have of obtaining the thousands, even millions, of eggs that they will need to deliver on promises of miracle cures? China, with its low bioethical standards, or other developing countries, might be able to provide them. Israeli scientists have mooted the possibility of obtaining eggs from aborted female foetuses. But none of these is a palatable alternative.

      Third, it will lead to greater pressure in the US for government- funded therapeutic cloning under strict supervision to ensure proper informed consent from egg donors. Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, which cloned humans back in 2001, claims in Nature that the US lost the cloning race because of the Bush administration's restrictive policies. Had there been a more liberal approach, American stem cell scientists would have beaten the Koreans and would have done so "ethically", to boot.

      Is the Hwang affair a death knell for embryonic stem cell research? Probably not. As American bioethicist John Robertson, of the University of Texas at Austin, comments: "Now that he has done his public mea culpa I say the time is to forgive him and let him get back to plying his considerable craft." ~ Washington Post; BBC, Nov 25; Nature, Nov 24; blog.bioethics.net, Nov 25; Donga.com, Nov 25   


      Newspaper accounts of the Hwang debacle brought to light something that BioEdge missed earlier in the year: a South Korea postage stamp honouring his achievement. This was, according to Korea Post, the world-first of creating human embryonic stem cells in February 2004, which it describes as "another step forward in liberating humankind from incurable diseases that have inflicted untold human suffering for almost eternity". The only ethical controversy highlighted by Korea Post is the danger that cloning embryos might turn into cloning babies.

      The stamp has two panels. On the left a cell is being manipulated and on the right a paralysed man is bounding out of his wheelchair, kicking up his heels and embracing his girlfriend. With a tantalising vision like this on their stamps, it is no wonder that Hwang is so warmly supported by ordinary Koreans. ~ Korea Post   


      Governments need to set ethical standards now for dealing with a possible influenza epidemic, says a Canadian bioethics thinktank. Based on the experience of the 2003 SARS crisis, the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics has drawn up a 15-point ethical guide.

      The Canadian battle with SARS proved that there were substantial issues. Dozens of health care workers were infected and some even died, but others refused to treat SARS patients. Apart from the duty to provide care, other matters which need to be examined include quarantine measures which strike a balance between public health and individual liberty; allocation of scarce medicines; and framing travel advisories so that they are transparent and equitable. ~ Medical News Today, Nov 28   


      A messy surrogacy lawsuit is looming in Massachusetts which pits a best-selling novelist, her husband and her surrogate mother against the surrogate's estranged husband. Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of "The Deep End of the Ocean" (also a film), engaged Kentucky woman Arletta Bendschneider to carry a child conceived with sperm of Mitchard's husband and a donor egg. Arletta saw surrogacy as her "life's calling" and was happy to hand over the baby, which was born in Massachusetts on November 1.

      However, her husband, Jack Bendschneider, wasn't. He had walked out on her during the pregnancy, taking their two children, aged 7 and 2, and wants a divorce. He says that she neglected her own offspring during the pregnancy. Now he refuses to sign papers giving up his legal rights to the child. Mr Bendschneider says that he is not trying to thwart the surrogacy deal, but he wants nothing to do with his wife's surrogacy. "I don't understand why I have to sign," he says. That baby has nothing to do with me." Under Kentucky law, a child born to a married couple is deemed to be the child of the couple. The birth certificate has been left blank until the issue is settled.

      Although surrogacy agreements are often regarded as arrangements for childless women, Mitchard already has six children, of whom the oldest is 22. Some are adopted. She says that she has found comfort in this distressing time in her writing. Her latest novel, A Cage of Stars", will be released next May. ~ Kentucky.com, Nov 13   


      Adoption law should be liberalised to allow single people and gay couples to engage surrogate mothers, says a major report in the Australian state of Victoria. This is part of a major overhaul of laws on reproductive technology proposed by the Victorian Law Reform Commission. If passed by the state legislature, it will probably influence other states as well.

      The Law Reform Commission frowns on payment for surrogacy arrangements and says that only payment for medical expenses should be allowed -- not compensation for loss of earnings. "It would be unacceptable for the surrogate to obtain any material advantage as a result of carrying and giving birth to the child.," it argues.

      It has also adopted a "cautious" position on parentage. "The law should not compel the surrogate to hand over the baby to the commissioning couple if she decides that she cannot bring herself to do so," it says. The commissioning couple need to be "fit and proper" people to adopt the child. It also recommends that the name of the surrogate mother should be listed on a government register so that children will be able to find out who gave birth to them. ~ VLRC press release, Nov 25   


      After IVF treatment one woman in seven is hospitalised with serious complications, Finnish researchers have found. This is almost twice the number for natural pregnancies, says Dr Reija Klemetti, of the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health in Helsinki. "Though there was a low risk of complications after each IVF treatment cycle, repeated attempts resulted in serious complications for many women," she says.

      The research was based on a survey of 20,000 women. The complications include miscarriages, bleeding, ectopic pregnancies and ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. The study had been carried out because the incidence of complications due to IVF was "poorly understood", said Dr Klemetti. It was originally reported in the journal Human Reproduction. ~ London Telegraph, Nov 25   


      Close on the heels of Oscar-winning euthanasia films "Million Dollar Baby" and "Mar Adentro" ("The Sea Inside"), Hollywood producer Steve Jones is working on a biopic of Dr Jack Kervorkian, the Michigan doctor who helped scores of Americans to commit suicide. Kevorkian is currently in jail for the murder of one of his patients, although his lawyer has requested an early release or a governor's pardon. Early rumblings are that Oscar winners Ben Kingsley or Daniel Day Lewis might play Kevorkian.

      Mr Jones compares his film, to be called "You Don't Know Jack", to another film about a talented eccentric, "A Beautiful Mind". "Dr Kevorkian is a man who walks in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and we're going to tell his story, his struggle, and let the audience decide how they feel about any of the issues that he has taken on," says Mr Jones. ~ press release   


      Following the deaths of four women who took the abortion drug RU- 486, Federal drug regulators in the US have announced that they will convene a scientific meeting early next year to discuss what happened. According to the New York Times, all four deaths occurred in California and all four were due to "a rare and highly lethal bacterial infection". The bacterium, Clostridium sordelli, infects the uterus and enters the bloodstream. It causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and weakness, but not a fever, so women do not realise how sick they are until too late. Antibiotics are often ineffective against a flourishing infection of this kind because even in death, the bacteria continue to release toxins. RU-486, which is also called mifepristone, or Mifeprex, has been responsible for 500,000 abortions in the US since it was approved in 2000.

      At the same time, Australian politicians are wrestling with whether RU-486 should be distributed in their country. Health Minister Tony Abbott currently has the power to ban the importation of the drug, but enormous pressure is being exerted to rescind his authority. It could then be assessed by Australia's counterpart to the FDA, the Therapeutics Goods Authority. It is generally expected that the TGA would approve it.

      The pugnacious Mr Abbott has stood firm. He cites health department advice which warns that RU-486 could be dangerous for women in rural and remote areas because it should only be used under strict medical supervision in areas where there is access to emergency care. However, a number of doctors, health experts and the Australian Medical Association all support its use.

      Because the issue of medical abortion is so controversial, with one side calling it "a human pesticide" and the other acclaiming it as a safe alternative to surgical abortion, Prime Minister John Howard has declared that members of his coalition government will be able to exercise a conscience vote on the issue next year. ~ New York Times, Nov 23; AAP, Nov 29   

      IN BRIEF: ultimate Xmas gift; morning-after pill

      ·  A leading New York cosmetic surgeon is offering "the most expensive and extensive plastic surgery procedure in history" as the ultimate Christmas gift. For US$1 million, the woman who doesn't have quite everything will get an "all-encompassing, full-body rejuvenation", including breast augmentation, full body liposuction, tummy tuck, rhinoplasty, mole removal, and much, much more. Contact Dr Stephen Greenberg, at 7th Floor, 461 Park Avenue South, New York, for further details.

      ·  The controversy over the failure of the US Food and Drug Administration to approve the morning-after pill for over-the- counter sales continues. Now a government watchdog has claimed that senior FDA officials overruled scientists to block distribution of the drug. The FDA responded by saying that the report by the Government Accountability Office "mischaracterises facts... We question the integrity of the investigative process". ~ Nature, Nov 24   




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      Tuesday, 22 November 2005 ·  Issue 183



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