The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

October 6, 2004



Developing the brain-machine interface…


Artificial Retina


Blindness has defied doctors’ search for a cure for decades. Joseph Rizzo and John Wyatt have developed an electrical implant that could finally help millions of people see again.



“In the mid-1980’s neuroophthalmologist Joseph Rizzo III was researching retinal transplants to restore blind people’s vision. One day, removing a lab animal’s retina, a tissue-thin membrane that lines the back of the eyeball’s interior, he had an epiphany. ‘The moment I made the cut, I said to myself, “What in the hell are you doing?”’ Rizzo recounts.  He realized he was cutting nerve connections that are actually spared in many forms of blindness. The retina’s light-sensing cells die off in retinitis pigmentosa and agerelated macular degeneration, which affect millions worldwide; but the nearby neurons that ferry the signals from those cells to the brain remain intact. So Rizzo conceived of a retinal prosthesis—an implant that would take a wireless signal from a video camera, bypass the light receptors, and stimulate the healthy nerve cells directly to feed the image to the brain. Rizzo, working at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Boston VA Medical Center, teamed up with MIT electrical engineer John Wyatt Jr. to pursue the scheme. In 1988, they launched the Boston Retinal Implant Project, which today comprises 27 researchers at eight institutions. The team has already done short-term human tests and hopes to test a permanent prosthesis by 2006.Wyatt and Rizzo recently gave TR contributing editor Erika Jonietz a peek at their progress….”


Technology Review – September 2004


Another very informative article on this project, “Electric Eye Under Development:  Artificial Retina Nearly in Sight,” appeared earlier this year in the Harvard Gazette.


"Gendercide" — term coined for “the phenomenon caused by millions of families in China resorting to abortion and infanticide to make sure their one child was a boy.”
China Grapples with Legacy of Its ‘Missing Girls’


Disturbing demographic imbalance spurs drive to change age-old practices



“China is asking where all the girls have gone.


“And the sobering answer is that this vast nation, now the world’s fastest-growing economy, is confronting a self-perpetuated demographic disaster that some experts describe as ‘gendercide’—the phenomenon caused by millions of families resorting to abortion and infanticide to make sure their one child was a boy.


“The age-old bias for boys, combined with China’s draconian one-child policy imposed since 1980, has produced what Gu Baochang, a leading Chinese expert on family planning, described as ‘the largest, the highest, and the longest’ gender imbalance in the world….


“From a relatively normal ratio of 108.5 boys to 100 girls in the early 80s, the male surplus progressively rose to 111 in 1990, 116 in 2000, and is now is close to 120 boys for each 100 girls at the present time, according to a Chinese think-tank report.


“The shortage of women is creating a ‘huge societal issue,’ warned U.N. resident coordinator Khalid Malik earlier this year. 


“Along with HIV/AIDS and environmental degradation, he said it was one of the three biggest challenges facing China….”


NBC News – September 14, 2004


Do it yourself “gendercide” at American fertility clinics…


Sex Selection Goes Mainstream



“Several times over the past few months, a small but striking ad from a Virginia-based fertility clinic has appeared in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. Alongside a smiling baby, its boldface headline asks, ‘Do You Want To Choose the Gender Of Your Next Baby?’


“If so, the ad continues, you can join ‘prospective parents...from all over the world’ who come to the Genetics & IVF Institute (GIVF) for an ‘exclusive scientifically-based sperm sorting gender selection procedure.’ The technique, known by the trademarked name MicroSort, is offered as a way to choose a girl or boy either for the ‘prevention of genetic diseases’ (selecting against the sex affected by an X-linked or Y-linked condition) or for ‘family balancing’ (selecting for a girl in a family that already has one or more boys, or vice versa)….”


AlterNet – Posted on September 25, 2003


Having a baby to save a baby…and sacrificing other embryos in the process…


Couple Allowed to Select an Embryo to Save Sibling



“A couple whose son suffers from a rare blood disorder have been become the first parents in the United Kingdom to be given the go ahead to use preimplantation tissue typing solely to try to create a donor sibling who could save their child’s life.


“Joshua Fletcher’s case is the first to be approved since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) relaxed its rules in July.


“Before then, under rules made in 2001, tissue typing could be carried out only on cells that had been taken from embryos for the purpose of excluding inherited diseases. Tissue typing was seen as just an additional procedure.


“Under these rules the parents of Zain Hashmi, from Leeds, who had an inherited blood disease, were given permission in 2002 to try to create a tissue matched sibling. But the authority decided in July to allow preimplantation tissue typing to be used on its own, after a through review of the subject, including testing of public opinion….”


British Medical Journal – September 11, 2004


He sticks his tongue out, he smiles...


The Womb as Photo Studio



“It’s a rite of passage for many expectant parents: baby’s first ultrasound. The fuzzy images of the fetus, produced during an examination in an obstetrician’s office, are prized by couples, passed around proudly among friends and relatives….


“Parents-to-be typically pay from about $80 for a short ultrasound session primarily to determine the fetus’s sex to $300 for a half-hour session that is recorded on a videocassette or DVD and includes color photos.


“While medical professionals warn of potential health risks from unnecessary ultrasounds, those who offer the elective examinations say they are safe and fulfill a need.


“‘Women love it,’ said Matt Evans, a lawyer, who started his company, Baby Insight (baby, about a year and a half ago. ‘They get to see their baby and have an emotional experience with their baby.’


“Mr. Evans said his technicians have performed more than 2,000 ultrasounds at the company’s only location, in Potomac, Md. Baby Insight's highest-priced package, for $260, includes a video with background music, one 8-by-10, two 5-by-7, and 10 wallet-size color photos, four announcement cards and a chance for friends and family members to view the ultrasound images as they are produced on a large screen in the company’s theater room….


“‘He’s yawning, he sticks his tongue out, he smiles,’ she said. ‘It gives you a realization of what’s going on when your stomach is moving around and bouncing around.’


“While doctors typically conduct ultrasounds at 20 weeks (when the fetus is large enough to show abnormalities), nonmedical ultrasounds are generally performed later, when the fetus is more developed and more photogenic….”


New York Times – September 23, 2004


Another success with adult stem cells…


Bone Marrow Cells Regenerate Heart in Brazil Test



“Infusing patients with bone marrow cells can reinvigorate their dying hearts and grow tiny new arteries and heart muscle tissue, a treatment that may one day make many heart transplants unnecessary, Brazilian researchers said on Friday.


“Dr. Hans Fernando Dohmann, coordinator of the research carried out at the Pro-Cardiac Hospital in Rio de Janeiro, told Reuters four patients out of the five studied no longer needed transplants after being treated with stem cells.


“‘It was the first time we saw that stem cells actually generate new arterioles, although we have indirectly observed that before via tests. That eliminated the need for transplants in four patients who had had indisputable transplant indications,’ he said.


“The experiment, to be detailed to a weekend meeting of heart researchers and submitted to the journal Circulation, adds to a growing body of research that suggests such treatments can someday avoid the need for many transplants….” – September 25, 2004


Advancing the reproductive revolution…


First Birth After Ovarian Tissue Transplant


Procedure could extend fertility after menopause



“A Belgian woman has given birth to the first baby born after an ovarian tissue transplant, a medical advance that gives hope to young cancer patients whose fertility may be damaged by chemotherapy.


“The baby, a healthy girl named Tamara, was born at 7:05 p.m. on Thursday in a hospital in Brussels and weighed 8.2 lb. Her mother is Ouarda Touirat, 32, a hospital spokeswoman said.


“The birth, announced by The Lancet medical journal, which is to publish the results of the procedure Friday, marks the first time fertility has been restored to a woman after doctors cut out and froze some of her ovarian tissue and transplanted it back into her body years later.


“‘The mother and baby are in excellent health,’ the spokeswoman told Reuters. ‘This astonishing feat gives tremendous hope to all women rendered infertile by cancer treatments,’ the hospital added in a statement.


“Doctors led by Professor Jacques Donnez, head of the Department of Gynecology and Andrology at the Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, removed and froze ovarian tissue from Touirat in 1997, when she was 25.


“Five years after she was cleared of cancer, the tissue was grafted back onto her fallopian tubes….”


MSNBC – September 24, 2004


The paper describing this transplant, “Livebirth after orthotopic transplantation of cryopreserved ovarian tissue,” was published in the September 25, 2004 issue of The Lancet (Volume 364, Number 9440). (subscription or fee for use required)


Is this one for real, or just more embryonic stem cell hype?


Stem Cells May Open Some Eyes 



“Scientists have derived retinal cells from embryonic stem cells for the first time, in a breakthrough that could lead to the first therapeutic use of the controversial cells.


“If animal studies go well, the researchers said they could begin testing the replacement cells in human eyes in as little as two years.


“The researchers, who are from Advanced Cell Technology, Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the University of Chicago, said that while previous studies in retina replacement cells have shown promise only to ward off future vision deterioration, retinal cells derived from embryonic stem cells could actually give vision to those who are already blind.


“‘These cells actually make the cones and rods,’ said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology and lead author of the paper. ‘We’re in a position to not only maintain vision so you don’t get further loss, but these cells appear to want to form entire eyeballs.’


“The cells could help treat people with macular degeneration, which affects more than 30 million people worldwide. The disease gradually causes complete loss of sight and is the leading cause of blindness in people older than 60 in the United States. The cells could also help people with retinitis pigmentosa, which afflicts about 75,000 people in the United States….” – September 24, 2004


The technical paper announcing this research, “Derivation and Comparative Assessment of Retinal Pigment Epithelium from Human Embryonic Stem Cells Using Transcriptomics,” was published in Cloning and Stem Cells (Volume 6, Number 3, 2004).


Revamping the human body in search of self-esteem…


How Young Is Too Young to Have a Nose Job and Breast Implants?



“Thanks in part to television shows like ‘I Want a Famous Face’ on MTV, ‘The Swan’ on Fox and ‘Extreme Makeover’ on ABC, cosmetic surgery is more popular than ever. And children and teenagers are not immune to the trend.


“The number of cosmetic surgeries performed on people 18 and under reached 74,233 in 2003, a 14 percent increase from 2000, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Girls and boys as young as 6 get plastic surgery to flatten protruding ears. Adolescents of 13 or 14 have nose jobs. And nearly 3,700 breast augmentation surgeries were performed on teenage girls last year, according to the society. Almost as many teenage boys - 3,300 - had overly developed breasts reduced….”


The New York Times / — September 28. 2004


Alternative medicine joins the biotech revolution…


Acupuncture Moves Toward the Mainstream



“Three years ago, Alfred Szymanski could not seem to get his blood pressure under control. He ran 10 miles a week, stuck to a healthy diet and was on a hypertension medication, all to no avail. His doctor suggested switching medications, but Mr. Szymanski, wary of side effects, decided to try something he had always wondered about: acupuncture.


“After three 20-minute sessions, each covered by his medical plan, his blood pressure plunged 20 points.


“‘Every time I left I was so relaxed; it was like euphoria,’ said Mr. Szymanski, 61, who lives in New York. ‘My blood pressure stayed down for quite a while.’


“Acupuncture, long shunned by mainstream medicine but for centuries considered the crown jewel of alternative therapy, is slowly gaining ground in doctors’ offices around the country. While some experts still question its effectiveness, studies in recent years – including one at Duke last week - have thrown scientific weight behind its benefits, supporting its usefulness in alleviating conditions from morning sickness to carpal tunnel syndrome.


“In the past few years, the number of hospitals offering acupuncture and other alternative therapies has doubled. At the same time, postgraduate training programs in alternative medicine have sprung up at universities around the country, most recently at Harvard and the University of San Francisco….”


The New York Times – September 28, 2004


Worth considering…


From American Bioscience Meets the American Dream,
by Carl Elliott


Here and abroad, the road to self-fulfillment is lined with drugs and surgery.



Over the past half-century, American doctors have begun to use the tools of medicine not merely to make sick people better but to make well people better than well. Bioethicists call these tools enhancement technologies, and usually characterize them as cosmetic technologies or lifestyle drugs. But terms such as enhancement can be misleading, and not just because most enhancements can also be accurately described as treatments for psychological injuries or illnesses. They are misleading because the people who use the technologies often characterize them not merely as a means of enhancement but as a means of shaping identities. These are tools for working on the self.


Yet there is something puzzling about these tools. Even as we use medical technologies to transform ourselves, often in the most dramatic waysface-lifts, personality makeovers, extreme body modificationswe describe these transformations as a way of finding our true selves. Medical technology has become, in the popular imagination, a way of revealing and displaying an identity that has been hidden by nature, circumstance or pathology. If you want to understand America, you must first understand how a country whose citizens are known the world over for their outgoing self-confidence should emerge as a leading consumer of drugs for social anxiety; how a nation dedicated to the freedom of the individual should enforce standards for physical beauty with such rigidity that grown women race to restaurant toilets to throw up their dinners; and how a nation famed for its dedication to the pursuit of happiness should also be such a fertile market for antidepressant medication….


These technologies could not have taken off in the way they have without the traction provided by the American sense of identity. In America, technology has become a way for some people to build or reinforce their identity (and their sense of dignity) while standing in front of the social mirror. We all realize how critically important this mirror is for identity. Most of us can keenly identify with the shame that a person feels when society reflects back to him or her an image that is degrading or humiliating.  But the flip side to shame is vanity. It is also possible to become obsessed with the mirror, to spend hours in front of it, preening and posing, flexing your biceps, admiring your hair. It is possible to spend so much time in front of the mirror that you lose any sense of who you are apart from the reflection that you see....”


Read the complete article at The American Prospect (Volume 14, Issue 6. June 1 2003).




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