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Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

January 31, 2008



“Synthetic biologists aim at creating never-before-seen organisms that will do their bidding...”


Scientists Build First Man-Made Genome; Synthetic Life Comes Next

by Alexis Madrigal


Biologist J. Craig Venter at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. (Matt Houston/AP)

“Scientists have built the first synthetic genome by stringing together 147 pages of letters representing the building blocks of DNA.


“The researchers used yeast to stitch together four long strands of DNA into the genome of a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium. They said it’s more than an order of magnitude longer than any previous synthetic DNA creation. Leading synthetic biologists said with the new work, published Thursday in the journal Science, the first synthetic life could be just months away—if it hasn’t been created already.


“‘We consider this the second in our three-step process to create the first synthetic organism,’ said J. Craig Venter, president of the J. Craig Venter Institute where scientists performed the study, on Thursday during a teleconference. ‘What remains now that we have this complete synthetic chromosome ... is to boot this up in a cell....’”


Wired – January 24, 2008




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Another perspective on the ethical questions raised by synthetic biology...


Venter Institute Builds Longest Sequence of Synthetic DNA (that Doesn’t Work)


“It’s not how long – but how wise” cautions ETC Group



“ETC Group today renewed its call for a moratorium on the release and commercialization of synthetic organisms, asserting that societal debate on the oversight of synthetic biology is urgently overdue. The renewed call came as J. Craig Venter’s research team announced that it has constructed a bacterial-length synthetic genome in the lab using mail-order synthetic DNA sequences. They’ve named the synthetic genome, Mycoplasma genitalium JCVI-1.0, and it’s similar to its counterpart in nature, a genital bacterium with the smallest known genome of any free living organism. The announcement is not breaking news because the work had been previously reported, but the details were published today in Science.


“‘Venter is claiming bragging rights to the world’s longest length of synthetic DNA, but size isn’t everything. The important question is not “how long?” but “how wise?”’ says Jim Thomas of ETC Group. ‘While synthetic biology is speeding ahead in the lab and in the marketplace, societal debate and regulatory oversight is stalled and there has been no meaningful or inclusive discussion on how to govern synthetic biology in a safe and just way. In the absence of democratic oversight, profiteering industrialists are tinkering with the building blocks of life for their own private gain. We regard that as unacceptable....’”


ETC Group – January 24, 2007


“The first time that tolerance to mismatched tissue transplants has been successfully induced...”


Mass. General Transplant Method Prevents Organ Rejection

by Patricia Wen



“A Massachusetts General Hospital research team is reporting a major advance in the years-long effort to overcome the rejection of organ transplants.


“Four out of five patients who underwent an experimental kidney transplant were able to stop taking powerful immunosuppressive drugs, and they have so far lived between 15 months and almost five years without experiencing rejection. At the time of their transplant, the patients received bone marrow from the same donor.


“The report in tomorrow’s New England Journal of Medicine is considered particularly significant because the patients received kidneys that were different from their own tissue type. Transplants of such mismatched organs are the most common, and the most likely to be rejected, even when patients take immunosuppressive drugs....”


Boston Globe – January 23, 2008


“The abortion pill has slowly and quietly begun to transform the experience of ending a pregnancy in the United States...”


As Abortion Rate Drops, Use of RU-486 Is on Rise

by Rob Stein



“Thirty-five years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, a pill that has largely faded from the rancorous public debate over abortion has slowly and quietly begun to transform the experience of ending a pregnancy in the United States.


“The French abortion pill RU-486, on the market since 2000, has become an increasingly common alternative, making abortion less clinical and more private. At a time when the overall number of abortions has been steadily declining, RU-486-induced abortions have been rising by 22 percent a year and now account for 14 percent of the total – and more than one in five early abortions performed by the ninth week of pregnancy.


“The pill, often called ‘miffy’ after its chemical name mifepristone and brand name Mifeprex, also has helped slow the decline in abortion providers, as more physicians who previously did not perform the procedure discreetly start to prescribe the pill....”


Washington Post – January 22, 2008


Sorting out the abortion statistics...


More Women Use Pill for Abortions


The number of women obtaining early abortions with the drug mifepristone (marketed as Mifeprex) is growing, along with the number of providers.



More Women Use Pill for Abortions

SOURCE: Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health | GRAPHIC: The Washington Post, January 22, 2008



The Washington Post – January 22, 2008


When aging is considered a disease...


Nice Résumé. Have You Considered Botox?

by Natasha Singer



“In a new self-help book called ‘How Not to Look Old,’ chapter headings in screaming capital letters warn readers of the dreaded signs of aging that are to be avoided at all costs.


“‘NOTHING AGES YOU LIKE ... FOREHEAD LINES’ admonishes one chapter introduction. Another chapter cautions: ‘NOTHING AGES YOU LIKE ... YELLOW TEETH.’


“Nothing, apparently, also carbon-dates you like GRAY BROW HAIRS or SAGGING SKIN or RECEDING GUMS, according to the book written by Charla Krupp, a former beauty director at Glamour who writes a column for More, a magazine for women over 40.


“The book is the latest makeover title to treat the aging of one’s exterior as a disease whose symptoms are to be fought to the death or, at least, mightily camouflaged. But the book offers a serious rationale for such vigilant attempts at age control, arguing that trying to pass for younger is not so much a matter of sexual allure as of job security....”


The New York Times – January 24, 2008


European regulations are much stricter...


Consumer Group Calls for Stronger Warnings on Potential Dangers of Botox


Watchdog Group Says Its Analysis Shows Botox Can Cause Serious Injury And Death




(AP GraphicsBank)

“A leading consumer watchdog group says its safety analysis revealed that the use of Botox can potentially cause serious injury and death. As a result, Public Citizen today petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to immediately strengthen health warnings to doctors and patients about the risks of using botulinum toxin products, the most commonly known of which is Botox.


“While botulinum toxin is highly toxic, minute quantities of the substance have been widely used for therapeutic and cosmetic procedures.


“Public Citizen said an analysis of FDA data showed that from 1997 to 2006 there were 658 cases of patients experiencing adverse effects after being injected with the botulinum toxin. The consumer group said 180 of these patients suffered from potentially life-threatening conditions, including pneumonia, difficulty swallowing and fluid in the lungs. According to the analysis, there were 16 deaths associated with the use of the toxin. Because the data was self-reported by drug manufacturers, Public Citizen estimated the numbers only account for 10 percent of all cases....”


ABC News – January 24, 2008


When eye lids no longer close...


The Latest Surgery Craze: ‘Undo-Plasty’



“Sadly, it is not a route Michael Jackson has decided to go down, but should he wish to restore some kind of normality to his face, he could visit one of the increasing number of cosmetic surgeons who specialise in what has become known as ‘undo-plasty’. The demand for these procedures—revising botched jobs or looks that a patient is unhappy with—is increasing, with celebrities joining the queue.


“Take Katie Price, who has steadily been dismantling her alter ego, Jordan. Just before Christmas, the glamour model had her breasts reduced from her previously well-known 32FFs, and her lips also looked somewhat deflated. Courtney Love, who has reportedly had a nose job corrected and her surgically enhanced lips reduced, wrote on her blog: ‘I just want the mouth God gave me.’


“While it seems ludicrous that people are having surgery to correct the unnecessary operations they had in the first place, it probably doesn’t signify a backlash against surgery itself: more procedures were carried out last year than ever. What it does suggest is that more patients are disillusioned with the results of their surgery, and that more operations are going wrong....”


The Guardian – January 24, 2008


Steam-rolling ethics in New York...


Eliot Stiffs Ethics in Stem-Cell Tiff

by Daniel P. Sulmasy



Spitzer: Ignoring the advice of the state's own bioethics committee.

Spitzer: Ignoring the advice of the state's own bioethics committee.

“New York’s new Empire State Stem-Cell Board has opted to ignore the advice of its own ethics committee. Those of us on the committee are left wondering if the state requested our service merely to make it look as if the enormous moral questions at stake would be given careful consideration. If so, New York’s citizens have been deceived.


“Other states have had vigorous debates about the ethics of stem-cell research. In New Jersey, a recent referendum on stem-cell research stirred hot debate and eventually went down in flames.


“By contrast, New York’s law allotting $600 million in taxpayer money to stem-cell research over the next 10 years passed in the middle of the night on April Fools Day 2007, tucked away inside the Albany budget.


“To consider the issues that have made the topic so controversial, the governor and Legislature set up an ethics committee—but gave it the power only to make non-binding recommendations. And the first round of grants will go out without waiting for our recommendations....”


Dr. Daniel P. Sulmasy directs the ethics programs at New York Medical College and St. Vincent’s Hospital and serves on the Empire State Stem-Cell Board’s ethics committee.


New York Post – January 22, 2008


Can it be ethical to presume to know what particular individual would do?


Organizing Organ Donation


Changing the question from ‘Will you donate?’ to ‘You’re going to donate, right?’



“About 1,000 Britons die each year waiting for organ transplants. To help boost organ donation rates, Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently proposed that organ donation become an opt-out, rather than an opt-in, system: Everyone would be presumed to be a willing organ donor at death unless he or she had stated otherwise.


“This opt-out system has been proposed for the United States and already exists in about half of Europe. Proponents for extending the system to America and Britain argue that it is more consistent with most donors’ wishes, since surveys show more people would agree to donate organs after death than actually register as organ donors; that it still allows donor choice; and that it will leave the families of potential donors, who sometimes override the deceased’s stated wishes to donate, out of the decision-making process.


“The debate usually gets tripped up over the ethics of recovering organs when the recently deceased may not have taken the trouble to opt out but still would have denied consent. But everyone forgets to ask: Ethics aside, does an opt-out system actually produce more donations?


“Not necessarily....”


The Washington Post – January 23, 2008


Worth considering...


from In Praise of Melancholy

by Eric G. Wilson


American culture’s overemphasis on happiness misses an essential part of a full life



Against Happiness

“...A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. ... Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.


“Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?


“Surely all this happiness can’t be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe—not only the collective and apocalyptic ills but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns? Are we to believe that four out of every five Americans can be content amid the general woe? Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?


“I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?


“My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness....”


Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest University.  “In Praise of Melancholy” is adapted from his book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  This essay appeared in the January 18, 2008 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education and is available online.




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