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Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

February 4, 2005



Adult stem cells—“some of the strongest evidence to date”


Marrow Has Cells Like Stem Cells, Tests Show

by Rick Weiss



Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a stem cell collected from human bone marrow.

“Researchers in Boston have isolated a kind of cell from human bone marrow that they say has all the medical potential of human embryonic stem cells—a claim that, if verified, could shake up the debate over human embryo research that has divided the country for the past six years.


“But not all scientists are convinced the cells are as versatile as they appear to be.


“Tufts University researchers used specialized cell-sorting machines to pluck the peculiar cells from samples of bone marrow obtained from three different donors. Tests suggested the cells are capable of morphing into many, and perhaps all, of the various kinds of cells that make up the human body. That is a hallmark of embryonic stem cells, which doctors hope to use to cure a wide variety of diseases but which have stirred controversy because human embryos must be destroyed to obtain them.


“When a batch of the newly identified marrow cells were injected into the hearts of rats that had experienced heart attacks, some of the cells turned into new heart muscle while others became new blood vessels to support the ailing hearts. Treated rats ended up with more than twice as many small vessels feeding their hearts than those given a dummy treatment. They also ended up with less scar tissue, which can interfere with cardiac function….” – February 2, 2005 (free registration required)


Stem Cell Photo – UCSF Magazine



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Making sense of changes in the infant mortality rate…


Leap in U.S. Infant Mortality Due to Low Birth Weight 



“Infant deaths increased in 2002 for the first time since 1958. And now CDC researchers know why: more births of very small babies.


“However, there is preliminary evidence that this disturbing trend has not continued, the CDC report says.


“‘Birthweight is one of the most important predictors of an infant’s survival chances,’ writes lead researcher Marian F. MacDorman, PhD, a CDC epidemiologist. ‘The infant mortality rate for very low birthweight infants [less than 1 lb, 10.5 oz] was 105 times higher than the rate for infants born weighing [5 lb, 8 oz] or more….’


“Among the reasons for these very small babies and the higher infant death rate:


“Preterm Births: A 3 percent increase in infant deaths among preterm babies (less than 37 weeks of gestation)….


“Multiple Births: A 3 percent increase in multiple births accounted for 25 percent of low birth weight babies.


“Technological advancements have also played a role, MacDorman notes.


“The increased use of assisted reproductive therapies, like in-vitro fertilization, has been linked with an increase in multiple-birth pregnancies and low birth weight babies. Changes in labor and delivery technologies, and aggressive treatment of premature rupture of membranes, may also be boosting the numbers, MacDorman writes.


“‘Also, advances in neonatal medicine have prompted doctors to alter their perception of a very small infant’s chances of survival. In fact, what might have been reported as a “fetal death” may now be reported as a “live birth,”’ writes MacDorman. ‘Because these very high risk infants are likely to succumb within the first few hours or days of life, any significant shift in reporting could result in an increase in the infant mortality rate….’


“‘The prevention of preterm and low birthweight delivery, and especially very preterm and very low birthweight delivery, should be central to efforts to further lower the U.S. infant mortality rates,’ writes MacDorman.”


WebMD/ – January 24, 2005


Finally, paying attention to an old problem with embryonic stem cells…


Stem Cell Lines Compromised? 



“The human embryonic stem cells available for research are contaminated with nonhuman molecules from the culture medium used to grow the cells, researchers report…. 


“Stem cells form very early in an embryo’s development. They can develop into numerous types of cells to form organs and other parts of the body. Researchers hope to use these cells to repair damaged organs and cure diseases.


“The work is controversial because the cells are taken from days-old embryos, which then die. Opponents say this is unethical. President Bush has limited federal funding to cell lines already in use, but not to newly developed ones. [Ed. Note: Federal funds can be used for research only on those stem cell lines developed prior to August 9, 2001]


“Currently available stem cell lines have been grown in materials derived from animals. Such materials include connective tissue cells, called feeder layers, from mice and fetal calf serum….”


Associated Press/ – January 23, 2005


Assessing the health risks of in vitro fertilization…


Defect Risk is 40pct Higher with IVF



An egg being fertilized naturally (NIH).

“Babies conceived through IVF are up to 40 per cent more likely to suffer birth defects including cleft palate, spina bifida and heart problems.


“Researchers at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth analysed 25 studies from around the world and concluded that IVF babies consistently showed a 25 to 40 per cent greater risk of abnormalities. However, the researchers do not know why the birth defects are more common among IVF babies.


“Researcher Michelle Hansen said the defects could be caused by the IVF procedure, or couples who struggle to become pregnant could have an underlying medical condition that caused birth defects.


“‘We don’t know why yet, because it’s very difficult to tease out the fact they come in with an underlying cause of infertility anyway,’ Ms Hansen told The Australian.


“‘It would be a lot easier if a fertile couple had IVF, because then we could work out if it was just the treatment, or if it was something to do with an underlying disease. At the moment we don’t know.’


“‘Other causes could be something to do with the treatment itself, the way the egg, sperm or embryo are manipulated, or the medications that are given to induce ovulation or to sustain pregnancy….’”


The Australian – January 28, 2005


Photo – NIH/Current Science and Technology Center


Providing the particulars for what we already knew intuitively…


Risky Sex Habits Linked to Early Death, Disability



“Risky sexual behavior among Americans is putting the public’s health at risk, according to a new CDC study.


“Researchers found that the rates of early death and disability attributed to sexual behavior in the U.S. are triple those of any other industrialized country, and women bear the brunt of this public health burden.


“The study showed that sexual behavior accounted for nearly 30,000 deaths and around 20 million adverse health consequences in 1998, such as infertility, abortions, and sexually transmitted infections.


“Researchers found cervical cancer and HIV infection were the leading causes of sexual behavior-related death among women and HIV was the single biggest cause of death among men.


“They say the findings highlight the range of adverse effects that sexual behavior has on public health….” – January 26, 2005


Putting a face on the utilitarian ethic—killing some for the supposed good of others…


Confessions of an Abortion Doctor

by (as told to) Cheryl Alkon


Ten years after the bloody Brookline clinic attacks, one doctor explains why she still performs abortions.



“When I started medical school in upstate New York, I didn’t want to do terminations of pregnancies at all. My mom is Catholic and my dad is Jewish, and the church we went to had a pretty strong stance on it: The message I got was that abortion was wrong. As a first-year medical student, I took an ethics class and we talked about abortion. I wrote a paper about how I believed in the right, but would never perform an abortion myself, because it was against the way I was brought up….


“That all changed later on, when I had a crush on this guy who was a leader of Medical Students for Choice. At the time, I thought abortion was strictly a women’s issue. But he convinced me that abortion is a civil rights issue, that if you have injustice for some members of your population, your whole population has injustice. I remember thinking that was really profound. Still, I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable doing abortions, but I was pro-choice. So he gave me these two films to watch, and they changed my life. They were about different providers and patients, men and women, who talked about what life was like before abortion was legal. They really changed my views—I suddenly thought, Yeah, I have to do that….


“I have the utmost respect for life; I appreciate that life starts early in the womb, but also believe that I’m ending it for good reasons. Often I’m saving the woman, or I’m improving the lives of the other children in the family. I also believe that women have a life they have to consider. If a woman is working full-time, has one child already, and is barely getting by, having another child that would financially push her to go on public assistance is going to lessen the quality of her life. And it’s also an issue for the child, if it would not have had a good life. Life’s hard enough when you’re wanted and everything’s prepared for. So yes, I end life, but even when it’s hard, it’s for a good reason.


“…I feel like I’m doing something so right. How could people think it’s wrong?” – December 2004


Editor’s Note:  For a poignant discussion of the emotional cost of doing abortions and for several first-person accounts of those who “woke up to the reality of what they were doing,” see “The Nightmares of Choice: The Psychological Effects of Performing Abortions,” by Rachel M. MacNair (Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, September 2003).


Shopping around the world for babies…


Driven by Costs, Fertility Clients Head Overseas



“A bride at 49, Kathryn Butuceanu longed for children. But at her age, her best hope lay in fertility clinics and an egg donor, a quest she soon found could easily cost up to $72,000 for repeated tries.


“That figure seemed like a deal breaker. Ms. Butuceanu (pronounced boo-tuh-CHAH-noo), an administrator at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and her husband, Cornel, a doctoral student, lived on about $55,000 a year.


“But help came through a call to Dr. Sanford Rosenberg, a fertility specialist in Richmond, Va., who had started a program capitalizing on lower medical costs overseas. By using an egg donor from Romania and having the eggs fertilized in Bucharest and shipped back to the United States, the Butuceanus cut their costs to $18,000, including enough fertilized eggs for repeated efforts….”


New York Times/


Reading the human mind…we’re getting closer…


Brain Scans for Sale

by David Dobbs


As brain imaging spreads to nonmedical uses, will commerce overtake ethics?



A dyslexia study participant in the fMRI machine at Georgetown University Medical Center.

“The brain-imaging technology developed over the past three decades—first positron emission tomography, or PET, and more recently the faster, simpler functional magnetic resonance imaging known as fMRI—has given neuroscience a tool of unprecedented power. By tracing blood flow associated with neuronal activity, scanning methods enable researchers to see how different regions of the brain activate as a person thinks or acts. A subject, lying in a scanner, completes mental tasks or responds to various stimuli—solving a simple word puzzle, say, or a more complex task like characterizing facial expressions. As the subject works, the scanner tracks changes in blood flow to create images showing distinctive patterns of neuronal activation. The result is a visual representation of the ‘neural correlates’ of various mental states.


“At first this technology served primarily to refine a basic map of the brain’s main functional areas—showing, for instance, that certain regions in either hemisphere process and generate language or that the amygdala, an almond-sized area near the brain’s center, acts as a sort of hub connecting sensory perception, emotion, and memory. Researchers also discovered patterns characteristic of difficult-to-diagnose afflictions ranging from autism to schizophrenia. But perhaps the most intriguing progress, most of which has come in the past five years, has been researchers’ increasing ability to identify patterns distinctive to many of our more complex mental processes. Scan studies have tracked the maturation of decision-making regions during adolescence; clarified how we store, retrieve, and lose memories; and identified the neural correlates of fear, distraction, and affection, as well as of various character traits, including extraversion, empathy, and persistence. They’ve even seen patterns of alarm when volunteers viewed faces of people of another race—a sort of neural correlate of racism. Researchers find new correlations every month….


“Despite [numerous reasons for caution], some entrepreneurs and researchers are carrying brain imaging into new, nonmedical territory that could be ethically treacherous. Some of these uses, such as lie detection, are already upon us; others, such as the use of brain scans to screen job applicants, seem almost certain to be explored or developed. Close behind the neuroentrepreneurs are neuroethicists….” – Jan. 25, 2005


fMRI Photo – Georgetown University Medical Center


Avoiding conflicts of interest…


Iowa Doctors Say No to Drug Companies



“A group of doctors say they’ll no longer accept free coffee mugs, pens or other trinkets and free lunches from pharmaceutical representatives in an effort to keep their brand names in view, along with hopes the doctors will prescribe the drugs.


“‘It’s just plain ethically wrong and it’s designed to color our judgment,’ Dr. Dean Abramson of Gastroenterologists P.C. said of the practice. ‘I don’t think patients realize how much drug companies spend on this.’


“According to a report by the California Public Interest Research Group, U.S. spending on ‘detailing’ efforts by drug representatives to reach doctors directly totals nearly $5 billion annually, costs that are passed on to consumers.


“A notice posted at the Cedar Rapids office notes the ‘exorbitant’ price patients pay for drugs, adding: ‘Although we are fully aware that discontinuing our lunches will not lower this cost, we feel it is necessary for our company to do so.’


“The American Medical Association guidelines, which govern what doctors can accept, include items valued under $100 and the lunches drug representatives bring to office staffs.


“The six Gastroenterologists P.C. doctors voted last month to no longer accept the trinkets and lunches or meet with drug representatives who come to the office….” – January 24, 2005


When newer isn’t better…


New Study Criticizes Painkiller Marketing


Arthritis Drug Ads A Factor in Overuse



“A majority of the patients who were persuaded to use prescription arthritis drugs such as Celebrex and Vioxx would have done just as well on older, cheaper medications and would have avoided the potential risks of heart attack and stroke now linked to those blockbuster drugs, according to a study of how they were marketed and used.


“The two COX-2 inhibitors were promoted with aggressive direct-to-consumer advertising campaigns after their approvals in 1998 and 1999, and the researchers conclude that the marketing played a significant role in leading both doctors and patients to overuse them. Merck & Co.’s Vioxx was withdrawn last year after a clinical trial linked it to an increased risk of serious heart attacks and strokes, and Pfizer Inc.’s Celebrex remains under a cloud following similar, though less dramatic, reports of the same problem.


“The new study finds that more than 70 percent of patients prescribed the COX-2 drugs in the first three years they were available were at low or very low risk of developing ulcers and gastrointestinal problems—the conditions that the COX-2 class of drugs was designed to prevent.


“‘The fast growth of the COX-2 market took place to a significant extent with patients who could have used nonprescription alternatives,’ said study author G. Caleb Alexander of the University of Chicago. ‘In fact, there are clinical reasons to say they should have been using the alternatives.’


“The COX-2 drugs ‘were heavily marketed to physicians and the public, and both are known to be susceptible to the impression that newer is better when it comes to medications,’ he said. ‘But we know that is not always the case….’” – January 25, 2005 (free registration required)


Worth considering…


From the Preface

Human Dignity in the Biotech Century

by Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron



“Christians have been playing key roles in [the biotechnology] debates, since we are acutely aware of the dignity of human life—made in the image of God—and the limitless capacity of fallen men and women to do evil.  We also believe that God has given us ‘dominion’ over creation, to rule it as his stewards; so while we are aware of its dangers, we are not anti-technology….


“The biotechnology agenda is already long, and it is getting longer.  Beyond cloning and embryo research lies the sinister question of ‘germline’ genetic engineering—making inheritable changes in human genes.  The patenting of genes and other human tissue has already begun to turn human nature into property.  The misuse of genetic information will enable insurers and employers to exercise the ultimate form of discrimination.  Meanwhile, advances in nanotechnology and cybernetics threaten to ‘enhance’ and one day perhaps rival or replace human nature itself—in what some thinkers are already calling ‘transhumanism.’


“How are Christians to prepare themselves and engage, under God, in what promises to be a vast struggle in the coming decades?  At one level, we are already uniquely prepared, because in a culture that has lost it bearings on what it means to be human, we have not lost ours.  To be human is to be made in God’s image; and if we find that amazing truth hard to grasp, we are reminded of it by God himself—since in his son he took human form as Jesus of Nazareth, a fellow member of our species, Homo sapiens.  So as believers our worldview gives us the key to the uniqueness and dignity of human nature.  Yet at another level, we are woefully unprepared.  Decades of ‘pietistic’ withdrawal have left the church little engaged in public questions, disinterested in science and technology, and wide open to the secular values that constantly creep into the thinking of Christian men and women.  We face an enormous educational task:  to build on Christian commitment to the pro-life cause a broad understanding of the biotech challenge and the kind of cultural and political response that will make a difference for Jesus Christ.  If ever there was need and opportunity for Christians to shape culture, it is now.”



Human Dignity in the Biotech Century:  A Christian Vision for Public Policy, by Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, editors (InterVarsity Press, 2004).


Human Dignity in the Biotech Century is available for purchase at




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