Tuesday, March 27. 2012
For 30 years, the U.S. Patent Office has been issuing patents for naturally occurring genes. About a fourth of our genes are patented by companies who are looking to make a profit off of a molecule we naturally make in our bodies. Objects of nature are not patentable so genes should not be patentable either. As the late Michael Crichton pointed out, issuing patents for naturally occurring genes is like issuing a patent for noses. Such a patent would allow a company to restrict or charge royalties for any product like glasses, sinus medication or sunscreen that has anything to do with noses.
I believe gene patents are not just a legal issue, but a moral issue. The patenting of genes allows what I believe to be an unethical practice: the systematic claim of ownership of the human body. You own your DNA while it is in your body, but if someone extracts it and identifies the purpose of it, they now own it. Even though it is still your DNA from your body. This naturally reduces the human body to pieces that can be bought and sold. John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on genetic research, stated:
On this subject, we rejoice that numerous researchers have refused to allow discoveries made about the genome to be patented. Since the human body is not an object that can be disposed of at will, the results of research should be made available to the whole scientific community and cannot be the property of a small group.Gene patenting affects you directly whether you know it or not. Because a company legal "owns" a gene sequence, they control who is able to test or research that gene. In the case of genetic testing, labs are limited on what genes they can offer tests for because of gene patents, which limits the choices they can offer patients. Labs that are allowed to test a patented gene pay royalties to the companies that own the genes which drives up the cost of the genetic test. Many labs, like ones I have worked in, just chose not to offer the test at all.
These patents also allow companies hold patents on genes and not do research on those genes. They can also not allow others to do research either. And because so many diseases have a genetic component, gene patents tie the hands of researchers who want to look at genetic links to disease. As Dr. Iris Schrijver, president of the Association for Molecular Pathology, which is against the issuing of gene patents, observed:
Because variation in gene sequences plays an important role in the development and progression of many diseases, through gene patents patent holders can essentially gain ownership of the understanding of some diseases and of certain areas of patient care itself.In the case of some genes like the breast cancer genes BRCA I and BRCA II, one company, Myriad, owns the gene and only Myriad offers the test for variations that signal a high risk of breast or ovarian cancer. This means that if a patient wants a second test run by another company to confirm the test result and test interpretation before they have radical surgery, they are out of luck. In addition, many women who fear that they are at risk simply cannot afford the $3000 test that could give them the information to save their life. And because of gene patents, they cannot go anywhere else.
To put a human face on gene patents, I once got a call from a frantic father whose daughter was diagnosed with Long QT, a rare and serious genetic heart condition. He and his wife were faced with putting their 4 year-old little girl on serious medication and fitting her with a pace maker because of the genetic testing results showed she had a rare genetic mutation for Long QT. Something about the lab that gave them their results did not sit right with them. Before initiating the invasive procedures on their daughter, they wanted a second opinion. The could not get one without traveling overseas because only one lab in the United States owned the patent for the gene and only they offered the test.
The ACLU and the Association for Molecular Pathology have sued Myriad Genetics and the U.S. Patent Office over Myriad's patent on the BRCA I and II genes. The initial ruling, issued by Judge Sweet, was that DNA isolated from its natural environment cannot be patented.
Of course Myriad appealed the ruling. Then a higher court that deals with patent cases overturned Judge Sweet's ruling saying that DNA isolated from the body to be tested was remarkably different that the DNA found in the body. I found this decision ludicrous. I have isolated DNA from thousands of patients and never once did I think it didn't contain the same information as DNA inside their bodies. If I did think that isolated DNA was so different from DNA inside the body that it was a patentable invention, I wouldn't bother testing it.
This case then went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has rightfully overturned the stupid decision that human DNA outside the body was remarkably different than inside the body and sent the case back down to the lower court to be reconsidered. The high Court cited another ruling that they made last week that laws of nature are unpatentable.
This is good news. One step closer to making the patenting of our genes invalid. Now let's hope that the lower court gets the decision right this time.
If children are conceived through IVF after one of the parents dies, are the children entitled to the social security benefits of the deceased parent?
That is what the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding in Astrue v. Capato. Before Robert Capato died of cancer, he banked his sperm. A year later his widow, Karen Capato, used that sperm to create IVF embryos and gave birth to twins. Karen applied to Social Security for "survivor" benefits for the twins, a provision added to the Social Security Act in 1939 to provide benefits to dependents of deceased wage earners. Those benefits were denied and now the case is before the Supreme Court.
This case has many facets and elicits conflicting thoughts on how the Court should rule. On one hand the fiscal conservative in me says, "No way!" Children knowingly conceived with the gametes of a deceased person are not entitled to survivor benefits. Once Robert died, the marriage was over making Karen a single mother.
But the Catholic pro-lifer in me realizes that this is an untenable situation for these children. They were intentionally brought into this world never to know their father. They have been wronged by an out of control fertility industry that willingly creates life in a dish, en masse, for any reason, for anyone. An industry that purposefully and knowingly creates children that will never meet their father. If anyone needs our compassion and our support, it is these twins who, in this Brave New World, are forced to argue, to the Supreme Court, that they deserve their father's benefits. They are as much children of God as anyone who was naturally conceived and should not be punished for the decisions of their genetic parents.
The Life Legal Defense Foundation, a pro-life organization whose mission is to "give innocent and helpless human beings of any age, particularly unborn children, a trained and committed defense against the threat of death, and to support their advocates in the nation’s courtrooms," agrees. Along with Jennifer Lahl, director of Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, Dr. Anthony Caruso, a former IVF practitioner, Stephanie Blessing and Kathleen R. LaBounty, donor-conceived adults, and Kathleen Sloan, a women's rights advocate and Program Director at the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Life Legal Defense Fund submitted a friend of the court brief in favor of the Capatos.
Continue reading at LifeNews >>
Saturday, March 24. 2012
My junior year I took a year off of my chemistry studies and went on an adventure. I spent a year studying English literature, philosophy and Latin at Blackfriars College, a part of Oxford University. Academically, I got my butt handed to me. Once, after spending days pouring over a philosophy text and writing the best 12 page paper I could, my philosophy professor, called a tutor, asked me if I had gotten drunk and then stayed up all night writing that paper. In a word, he thought it was "terrible." Before Oxford, I was a straight "A" chemistry major.
Despite my academic setbacks, Oxford was a fantastic experience. I had no money so I got a job at the famous Turf Tavern and poured more pints of Old Speckled Hen, Headbanger and Dogs Bollocks than one person should. I also loved BBC television. Their adverts (commercials) were better then some of our best shows. So much so that I would consider getting a satellite dish if BBC America started playing British adverts instead of the mind-numbing American commercials. I spent the year gorging myself on cheese and pickle sandwiches, gammon and pineapple crisps, and trifle. Washing it all down with the best ale you have ever tasted; so good, it doesn't need to be cold to mask the flavor.
But lately I have noticed my beloved Oxford is nurturing academics who are exporting some seriously pernicious ideas.
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Wednesday, March 21. 2012
Scientists have always been fascinated by the power of some organisms to regenerate whole body parts. One flatworm, called the planarian, is so good at regeneration that it can be cut up in several pieces and each of those pieces will generate a whole new worm. That regenerative power comes from stem cells that can become the cells that are needed for replacement. Which is why stem cell scientists study the planarian as a model.
Monday, March 19. 2012
Dean Koontz understands the foundations of the transhumanist movement unlike any other popular fiction writer today. His latest novel 77 Shadow Street is so timely because it explores the marriage of transhumanism, which he calls posthumanism, and environmentalism. Last week we were introduced to the musings of academics who envisioned engineering humans in an effort to combat "climate change." In 77 Shadow Street, scientists did just that. They use nanotechnology enhance humanity and make us immortal and then artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to control the human threat to the planet. It doesn't turn out the way they expected.
The novel follows the residents of 77 Shadow Street, a luxury condominium, as they are temporarily transported to the transhumanist future. Some do not survive the horrors they encounter. One character muses about the posthumanist movement:
The dark prospect of posthumanism was part of it that most excited the theorists and scientists: the augmentation of the brain with hundreds of millions of microcomputers made largely of carbon nanotubes, which would be distributed throughout our gray matter. These tiny but powerful computers would interact with one another, with the brain, and potentially with every computer in the world through a wireless network, tremendously enhancing the individual's intelligence and knowledge. The posthuman species, a combination of biological and machine intelligence, never aging, nearly immortal, still human in appearance, inspired scientists at MIT and at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and at hundreds of other universities, institutes, and corporations around the world. They saw at last a possibly swiftt path to a human civilization with superhuman capabilities, the total submission of nature to humanity, the acquisition of godlike power, the looming end of nationalism and tribalism, and superstition, therefore the elimination of limits in all things.And that sums up what I believe to be the heart of transhumanism: an unhealthy desire to subjugate nature to human will. But in doing so, we will subjugate ourselves and our own nature to the technology we create.
I do not want to give too much away but I will say that Koontz is astute in his assessment of science and scientists. And even after seeing the future, the altruistic scientist that set the ball in motion cannot grasp that his good intentions are not enough to stop the freight train of our own technology now out of our control.
In private correspondence in 2011 with Mr. Koontz on a related matter, he told me about 77 Shadow Street. I share what he wrote only because I believe it is something everyone needs to not just read, but hear. Written on a typewriter, he wrote the following about posthumanism:
Reading about the subject to research the novel, I was struck by how insane most people in this movement sound when they are writing about their dream future; insane not because I am too ignorant of science to understand them, but because they are so narrowly focused on the promise of physical immortality, that they can see only the promise of power that entrances them and nothing of the social, civilizational, and biological disaster that will make their dream a nightmare.I am with Mr. Koontz that the transhumanist future will not be the dream the transhumanists envision. It will be a nightmare where we are slaves to technology that radically changes our nature.
Sometimes I wonder if transhumanism is the modern Tower of Babel. Will God scatter us to the ends of the Earth before we can destroy Creation with our irrational desires to radically change it? Will economies collapse before nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering become mainstream enough to effect such a destruction of Nature? Only time will tell.
Tuesday, March 13. 2012
Recently there has been a lot of reporting about the use of cells from aborted fetuses to test or develop products. Specifically, LifeNews has been reporting on Senomyx, the California company that uses HEK 293 cells to test compounds as possible flavor enhancers. HEK 293 is a cell line taken from the kidneys of a fetus aborted in the 1970s. This cell line has since been genetically engineered with viral DNA and sold for various uses by common chemical supply companies. Senomyx was reported as having contracts with giants like Pepsi to test possible flavor enhancers.
I recently posted about Neuralstem which has likely developed a new drug for depression by testing compounds on a cell line that originated from an elective abortion.
In the past, I have argued for labeling on products where cells from aborted fetal cells were used in either the production or development so that we consumers could know about what unethical practices went into making what we buy. With the increasing media coverage, now is the time to make the push for labeling.
I did not realize that I was behind the times.
Children of God for Life, which broke the Senomyx-Pepsi story and exposed other companies like Neocutis, already has proposed legislation that would do just that. It is called the The Fair Labeling and Informed Consent Act. It would, among other things:
Monday, March 12. 2012
I have written before that the two movements that I think are very pernicious are radical environmentalism andtranshumanism. Radical environmentalism wants the plague of humanity to be reduced (or disappear all together) so the Earth can be "healthy" again. Transhumanism wants to radically engineer man to be "posthuman" which includes, but is not limited to living forever through enhancements.
These two movements seem diametrically opposed and yet they suffer from the same faulty underpinning: rejection of human nature. We live on this planet too. We are built to reproduce, like all other living things. And we are not naturally immortal.
It is not often that these two movements converge, and yet more and more, there are suggestions that we engineer ourselves to save the planet; a marriage of transhumanist ideas of engineering humanity and environmentalism. I have written before that way back in 1967, MIT engineers suggested that we engineer humans to be smaller to conserve resources.
The idea that we radically engineer our species to "save the planet" is in the news again. The Atlantic has an interview with S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University, who wrote a paper exploring ways humanity can change our nature to combat "climate change." Liao says he is simply discussing the subject and is not an advocate of forcing these options on people.
One way Liao explores is either to select smaller children through IVF and PGD or to engineer our children to be smaller with growth-stunting chemicals or genetic manipulation:
What are the various ways humans could be engineered to be smaller?One avenue that Liao discusses would be right up the transhumanist's alley. Genetically altering people to be able to see in the dark like cats:
Your paper focuses on human engineering techniques that are relatively safe. Did your research lead you to any interesting techniques that were unsafe?At least Liao labels this suggestion unsafe...for now. But unfortunately, Liao seems to buy the transhumanist line that engineering ourselves is "liberating." (I would argue that, instead, embracing our nature is liberating much the same way we tell girls to love themselves the way they are, not the way others would have them be.) In a world where people are forcibly limited to how many children they can have, Liao suggests the engineering the size of our children would give us more choice in the matter:
In your paper you suggest that some human engineering solutions may actually be liberty enhancing. How so?There is so much to discuss about Dr. Liao's exploration that a blog post could hardly do it justice, but I will try.
First, as Wesley J. Smith points out what begins as discussions among academics, becomes policy for the masses. I fear if we embrace engineering ourselves to "combat climate change" then to save the planet these radical ideas could become compulsory.
Second, our attempts at engineering mankind to combat overpopulation in Asia has had devastating societal impact. As Mara Hvistendahl reported in her book Unnatural Selection, the West feared the population increases in Asia and pushed an agenda of contraception, sterilization and abortion, some of it non-voluntary. Decades later there are 163 million missing Asian women as a direct result of efforts to control Asian population. This is a problem of epidemic proportions and women are more commodities to be bought, sold and traded than ever before.
Third, all of this assumes that people, and children especially, are things to be manipulated for some goal. Even of that goal is deemed worthy, we cannot fall into the trap that our inherent dignity need somehow be compromised to meet that goal. Children are gifts, not items we can manipulate to fulfill certain needs. They are certainly not things from which we can choose which ones are the "best for the environment."
The Catholic Church is clear that any attempts at genetic engineering must have normal human development as the goal. The Charter for Health Care Workers states:
On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is 'the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,' which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, 'are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future,' 'no social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic, that is its finality must be the natural development of the human being.The goal of intervention on the human body must be therapeutic in nature keeping the inherent dignity of each individual the foremost concern. Therapeutic for the person, not for the planet.
Friday, March 9. 2012
I have revised my piece on genetic determinism slightly for the Creative Minority Report. There always seems to be a lively discussion over there. Visit if you haven't read it before or want to join in the conversation.
Genetic determinism is not only one of the most insidious philosophies that society has swallowed whole, but also one of the most ignorant. Genetic determinism is everywhere. How many times have you heard someone say, "It's in my genes. I can't help it!"
Scientists everywhere seem to find a gene for everything from promiscuity to being a ruthless dictator. One company is now selling a simple DNA test that they claim can tell everything you about your children, all of their future strengths and weaknesses. They claim that "without you understanding what your child's inborn talents are, your child is in for disaster!"
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Wednesday, March 7. 2012
You cannot believe the flack I get for pointing out the transhumanist aspects of Captain America. It has been suggested that I am anti-military and possibly anti-American. Good, faithful Catholics have argued with me that Captain America was a good guy and not an example of the arrogant and power-hungry transhumanist that they envision.
I love Captain America as a super hero too but I am not certainly not going to overlook that in this beloved story line the United States Army took a perfectly healthy man and put him through a potentially lethal experiment to make a weapon of war. Talk about taking a child of God, disrespecting his inherent dignity and turning him into an object to be used.
E. Christian Brugger, Associate Professor of Moral Theology at Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado and Fellow of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, was asked about transhumanism and the Catholic world view and guess what example he uses? You guessed it: Captain America. Here is Dr. Brugger on Zenit.org:
The problem of "Transhumanism" is so critically important to understand, and so poorly understood, that I think the topic deserves more than a single column. I therefore address it here and in my next ZENIT bioethics briefs.I don't want to gloat or anything, but I feel vindicated. Also read Dr. Brugger's Introduction to Transhumansim.
Tuesday, March 6. 2012
An AIDS vaccine developed in Cuba will begin human testing this year. From the Deccan Chronicle:
A couple in Portland are suing Legacy Health because their child has Down Syndrome. This is another of these so-called wrongful birth lawsuits that are so very wrong.
The wrongful birth suit is brought by the parents of a sick or disabled child against medical professionals that, the parents say, were negligent. The wrongful birth lawsuit does not say that the medical practitioners caused the disease or disability, which would be a valid reason to sue.
Instead the wrongful birth lawsuit claims the that doctor failed to inform the parents of the illness or disability of the child and that had they known, they would have aborted their child. In other words, the parents are saying we wish our child was dead. Because he or she is not, someone has to pay.
The parents often use the excuse that they love their child; they are simply suing to acquire funds to care for their sick or disabled offspring. But to get those funds they have to insist that, had they known, they would have killed that very same child. The Oregon couple is suing for $7 million. From ABCNews:
The parents of a four-year-old Oregon girl with Down syndrome are suing Legacy Health in Portland because they say doctors misdiagnosed their daughter as not having the condition during a prenatal screening.
There is much confusion over prenatal testing in general so it is not surprising that the details of exactly what testing was perform have been omitted. People often confuse a screening method called a triple or quad screen that simply looks at protein levels in a maternal blood sample and actual genetic testing of the fetus through amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS). While the quad screen is just that, a non-invasive screen that requires further testing, the genetic testing through amnio or CVS is much more accurate because it tests the DNA of the baby directly.
Monday, March 5. 2012
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have announced they have found stem cells in ovaries that may be able to generate egg cells. It was previously thought that women are born with all the eggs they will ever have in a lifetime. But this research suggests that more eggs can be made by extracting these stem cells from ovaries.
The scientists first found these stem cells in mice and were able to generate mouse eggs. They then turned to ovaries donated by Japanese women undergoing a sex-change. The reproductive stem cells were isolated and coaxed to differentiate into follicles and mature eggs. From the New York Times:
The new research, by a team led by the biologist Jonathan L. Tilly, depends on a special protein found to mark the surface of reproductive cells like eggs and sperm. Using a cell-sorting machine that can separate out the marked cells, the team obtained reproductive cells from mouse ovaries and showed that the cells would generate viable egg cells that could be fertilized and produce embryos.
This discovery is being hailed as a game-changer for the fertility industry where eggs are a hot commodity. The specter of a greater supply has everyone talking.
Friday, March 2. 2012
The Disney channel has a new show called Lab Rats. Three of the main characters are teenagers that according to the promotional material are super-human kids genetically engineered by a billionaire investor to "save the world." Each kid has a special enhancement. Chase has been altered to have super intelligence. Bree has been enhanced with super speed and agility. And Adam is super strong, has laser vision, and is super dumb.
Hat Tip: Bill Genereux
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