The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

April 23, 2008



“How tricky it can be to use psychotropic drugs during adolescence—when the brain is still developing, when one’s identity is still a work in progress....”


Who Are We? Coming of Age on Antidepressants

by Richard A. Friedman, MD



Courtney Wotherspoon

“‘I’ve grown up on medication,’ my patient Julie told me recently. ‘I don’t have a sense of who I really am without it.’


“At 31, she had been on one antidepressant or another nearly continuously since she was 14. There was little question that she had very serious depression and had survived several suicide attempts. In fact, she credited the medication with saving her life.


“But now she was raising an equally fundamental question: how the drugs might have affected her psychological development and core identity....


“Julie could certainly remember what depression felt like, but she could not recall feeling well except during her long treatment with antidepressant medications. And since she had not grown up before getting depressed, she could not gauge the hypothetical effects of antidepressants on her emotional and psychological development.


“Her experience is far from unique....”


Richard A. Friedman is a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.


The New York Times – April 15, 2008




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Coming this fall to a brain near you...


Head Games: Video Controller Taps into Brain Waves

by Peter Sergo


Emotiv Systems introduces a sensor-laden headset that interprets gamers’ intentions, emotions and facial expressions



Courtesy of Emotiv Systems

Emotiv's $299 EPOC headset (with 14 sensors) will enable gamers to use their own brain activity to interact with the virtual worlds where they play.

“No matter how hard you try, your mind can’t bend a spoon or channel the powers of a Jedi knight. Thanks to a new headset under development by neuroengineering company Emotiv Systems, however, you may soon be able to do this and more via the magic of video games.


“By the end of this year, San Francisco–based Emotiv’s sensor-laden EPOC headset will enable gamers to use their own brain activity to interact with the virtual worlds where they play. The $299 headset’s 14 strategically placed head sensors are at the ends of what look like stretched, plastic fingers that detect patterns produced by the brain’s electrical activity. These neural signals are then narrowed down and interpreted in 30 possible ways as real-time intentions, emotions or facial expressions that are reflected in virtual world characters and actions in a way that a joystick or other type of controller could not hope to match....”


Scientific American – April 14, 2008


“In a world where private thoughts are no longer private, what will our protections be?”


The Government Is Trying to Wrap Its Mind Around Yours

by Nita Farahany



“Imagine a world of streets lined with video cameras that alert authorities to any suspicious activity. A world where police officers can read the minds of potential criminals and arrest them before they commit any crimes. A world in which a suspect who lies under questioning gets nabbed immediately because his brain has given him away.


“Though that may sound a lot like the plot of the 2002 movie ‘Minority Report,’ starring Tom Cruise and based on a Philip K. Dick novel, I’m not talking about science fiction here; it turns out we’re not so far away from that world. But does it sound like a very safe place, or a very scary one?


“It’s a question I think we should be asking as the federal government invests millions of dollars in emerging technology aimed at detecting and decoding brain activity. And though government funding focuses on military uses for these new gizmos, they can and do end up in the hands of civilian law enforcement and in commercial applications. As spending continues and neurotechnology advances, that imagined world is no longer the stuff of science fiction or futuristic movies, and we postpone at our peril confronting the ethical and legal dilemmas it poses for a society that values not just personal safety but civil liberty as well....”


The Washington Post – April 13, 2008


Two studies that “show how drug companies can use academic collaborators and journals as tools to market their drugs.”


Merck’s Publishing Ethics Are Questioned by Studies



“Two medical-journal studies suggest Merck & Co. violated scientific-publishing ethics by ghostwriting dozens of academic articles, and minimized the impact of patient deaths in its analyses of some human trials of a top-selling drug later linked to cardiac problems.


“The reports, based on internal Merck documents that surfaced during litigation over its withdrawn painkiller, Vioxx, reprise some allegations the company faced in courtroom testimony. But researchers said the studies provide an unusual inside look at how pharmaceutical companies can use academic collaborators and medical journals as important tools to market their drugs. They also fuel a growing debate over drug companies’ conduct in controlling and reporting results of clinical trials.


“Merck vigorously defended its performance, calling the articles ‘misleading’ and saying many of the authors’ conclusions ‘are incorrect.’ The drug maker said none of its procedures were improper.


“The studies appear in Wednesday’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association....”


Wall Street Journal – April 16, 2008


Major new funding for the new field of regenerative medicine...


U.S. Teams Aim to Grow Ears, Skin for War Wounded



“Teams of university scientists backed by U.S. government funds hope to grow new skin, ears, muscles and other body tissue for troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department said on Thursday.


“The $250 million effort aims to address the Pentagon’s unprecedented challenge of caring for troops returning from the war zones with multiple traumatic injuries, many of which would have been fatal years ago.


“‘We’ve had just over 900 people, men, some women with amputations of some kind or another since the start of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq,’ said Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Many have also suffered burns, spinal cord injuries and vision loss....


“Their goal is to develop within five years therapies for burn repair, wound healing without scarring, facial reconstruction and limb reconstruction or regeneration....”


Reuters – April 18, 2008


A few of the legal complexities produced by new genetic technologies...


Lawyers Fight DNA Samples Gained on Sly



David Duprey/Associated Press

Altemio Sanchez was arrested in Buffalo last year after DNA extracted from a glass he had used at a restaurant matched DNA from a series of murders and rapes.

“The two Sacramento sheriff detectives tailed their suspect, Rolando Gallego, at a distance. They did not have a court order to compel him to give a DNA sample, but their assignment was to get one anyway—without his knowledge.


“Recently, the sheriff’s cold case unit had extracted a DNA profile from blood on a towel found 15 years earlier at the scene of the murder of Mr. Gallego’s aunt. If his DNA matched, they believed they would finally be able to close the case.


“On that spring day in 2006, the detectives watched as Mr. Gallego lit a cigarette, smoked it and threw away the butt. That was all they needed.


“The practice, known among law enforcement officials as ‘surreptitious sampling,’ is growing in popularity even as defense lawyers and civil liberties advocates argue that it violates a constitutional right to privacy....”


The New York Times – April 3, 2008


What can the movies tell us about out biotech future?


The 10 Most Prophetic Sci-Fi Movies Ever

by Erik Sofge


When Arthur C. Clarke died last week at the age of 90, science fiction... lost one of its greatest, most forward-looking masters. In his honor, Popular Mechanic’s resident geek and sci-fi buff analyzes the most eerily predictive, prescient films of the future. They’re not necessarily the best movies—just the ones that got the science right, or will sometime soon.


# 1 Gattaca

Released: 1997 | Set in the year: Unspecified



“The mark of a truly prescient sci-fi film is when, after stumbling over a lengthy description of the complex moral dimensions surrounding a given topic, you realize you’ve been wasting your time. ‘Oh, right. It’s like Gattaca.’ Since this slow-burn cult classic was released, the murky bioethics of genetic profiling have snapped into focus. Relegated to the status of ‘in-valid’ due to a subpar DNA profile, Ethan Hawke’s protagonist sets up a complicated identity-swapping scheme to secure a spot as an astronaut. The technology on display in the movie is still years away, but the central message—that genetic oppression can become institutionalized before anyone notices—is increasingly relevant. I should also point out that the writer and director of Gattaca, Andrew Niccol, wrote the screenplay for one of my other picks, The Truman Show. It’s not that I'm a Niccol groupie, but he seems to have a knack for getting to some of the biggest issues of our time, just barely ahead of schedule.




“Genetic profiling: The fear factor has been working the edges for years: Will the babies of tomorrow be selectively bred for certain traits? Is eliminating Down syndrome worth the ethical dilemma of allowing parents to choose their child’s gender? Still, what Gattaca poses is an even more plausible crisis: If we can use genes to find out who’s biologically suited to specific tasks, and to calculate estimated life spans for every newborn, how would that reorganize our society?...  




“Manned exploration: Since Gattaca isn’t set in a particular time, there’s no way to gauge the plausibility of the protagonist’s dream, which is to get his genetically inferior, possibly short-lived self into space. His first assignment is to reach Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, which would set this movie way into the future. But since there are no pop-culture references, and everything is so perfectly fascist and minimal, Gattaca is adrift in its own timeline. It’s wherever you want it to be, which is one of the reasons it’s so successful in its sci-fi ambitions....”


Editor’s Note:  All ten films are briefly reviewed, in reverse order, at the link below.


Popular Mechanics – March 28, 2008


How do we protect the innocent while pursuing criminals in the genetic age?


U.S. to Expand Collection Of Crime Suspects’ DNA

by Ellen Nakashima and Spencer Hsu


Policy Adds People Arrested but Not Convicted



“The U.S. government will soon begin collecting DNA samples from all citizens arrested in connection with any federal crime and from many immigrants detained by federal authorities, adding genetic identifiers from more than 1 million individuals a year to the swiftly growing federal law enforcement DNA database.


“The policy will substantially expand the current practice of routinely collecting DNA samples from only those convicted of federal crimes, and it will build on a growing policy among states to collect DNA from many people who are arrested. Thirteen states do so now and turn their data over to the federal government.


“The initiative, to be published as a proposed rule in the Federal Register in coming days, reflects a congressional directive that DNA from arrestees be collected to help catch a range of domestic criminals. But it also requires, for the first time, the collection of DNA samples from people other than U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who are detained by U.S. authorities....”


The Washington Post – April 17, 2008


Can we wisely use all this genetic knowledge?  Or will it turn us into hypochondriacs?


On the Retail Frontier, Another Shop in SoHo for the Person Who Has Everything

by Patrick McGeehan



A temporary shop in SoHo offers DNA analysis for $2,500, plus $250 a year for updates.

“Michael Hall said he was in SoHo on Saturday to do what people do in SoHo: meet friends, have a meal, browse the galleries and boutiques. But along the way, he stumbled upon something completely different—a storefront offering to analyze his genes.


“Mr. Hall, a visitor from Switzerland, was immediately intrigued when he walked into the showroom set up on Greene Street by Navigenics, a California company that recently started selling genetic scans. He said he was curious about his risk of getting the type of cancer that killed his grandparents, but he was not in a hurry to pay the going rate for the information.


“For a fee of $2,500, Navigenics will use a saliva sample to analyze a person’s DNA and gauge the risk of contracting one of 18 conditions, including breast cancer, a heart attack and Alzheimer’s disease, company officials said. After that, the company will charge $250 a year to provide updates based on the latest findings about those and other illnesses.


“Navigenics is the latest entrant into the new field of genetic testing for consumers....”


The New York Times – April 13, 2008


Worth considering...


From Self-Construction through Consumption Activities

by David J. Burns



“One of the primary qualities of the postmodern self is the weakening of each of its historical bases—the family, community, and religion.  With the weakening of these historical bases, a new foundation for the self needs to be developed.  Specifically, instead of being conferred through relatively stable external forces, the self is formed increasingly through the choices and actions of individuals....


“Although the freedom experienced by individuals in the process of self-construction has undoubtedly provided some benefits while providing for a virtually limitless array of opportunities for marketers, at what costs does this freedom come?  While the search for identity has become pervasive in society, the result has been a significant degree of insecurity and uncertainty about who we are—what Elliott and Wattanasuwan call a ‘looming state of personal meaninglessness.’  Some have even questioned whether a singular self exists for most individuals anymore....


“The freedom afforded individuals in self-construction...comes at a price.  Instead of living a life confined within a conferred self, life becomes a process of self-construction and self-maintenance.  In other words, instead of a life imprisoned within a difficult-to-change conferred self with the freedom to operate within that self, life has become trapped in the self-construction process in which the only freedom is the pursuance of the self.  Since the self-construction process is carried out primarily through consumption, the self becomes the slave to this activity.... It would appear...that instead of providing individuals with increased freedom and autonomy, self construction through consumption acts to enslave individuals to a much greater extent than other bases of the self, namely the historical foundations of family, community, and religion....” [Italics in the original.]


“Self-Construction through Consumption Activities,” by David J. Burns, is one of the essays collected by Paul C. Vitz and Susan M. Felch in The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis (ISI Books, 2006).




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