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Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

November 6, 2004



Could classical music someday join the Olympics and other athletic events in scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs?


Better Playing Through Chemistry


Ruth Ann McClain, a flutist from Memphis, used to suffer from debilitating onstage jitters.



“‘My hands were so cold and wet, I thought I’d drop my flute,’ Ms. McClain said recently, remembering a performance at the National Flute Convention in the late 1980’s. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, she added; her mind would not focus, and her head felt as if it were on fire. She tried to hide her nervousness, but her quivering lips kept her from performing with sensitivity and nuance.


“However much she tried to relax before a concert, the nerves always stayed with her. But in 1995, her doctor provided a cure, a prescription medication called propranolol. ‘After the first time I tried it,’ she said, ‘I never looked back. It’s fabulous to feel normal for a performance.’


“Ms. McClain, a grandmother who was then teaching flute at Rhodes College in Memphis, started recommending beta-blocking drugs like propranolol to adult students afflicted with performance anxiety. And last year she lost her job for doing so.


“College officials, who declined to comment for this article, said at the time that recommending drugs fell outside the student-instructor relationship and charged that Ms. McClain asked a doctor for medication for her students. Ms. McClain, who taught at Rhodes for 11 years, says she merely recommended that they consult a physician about obtaining a prescription.


“Ms. McClain is hardly the only musician to rely on beta blockers, which, taken in small dosages, can quell anxiety without apparent side effects. The little secret in the classical music world—dirty or not—is that the drugs have become nearly ubiquitous. So ubiquitous, in fact, that their use is starting to become a source of worry. Are the drugs a godsend or a crutch? Is there something artificial about the music they help produce? Isn’t anxiety a natural part of performance? And could classical music someday join the Olympics and other athletic organizations in scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs?


“Beta blockers—which are cardiac medications, not tranquilizers or sedatives—were first marketed in 1967 in the United States for disorders like angina and abnormal heart rhythms. One of the commonest is propranolol, made here by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and sold under the brand name Inderal. By blocking the action of adrenaline and other substances, these drugs mute the sympathetic nervous system, which produces fear in response to any perceived danger, be it a sabre-toothed tiger or a Lincoln Center audience….”


The New York Times – October 17, 2004



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Death by removal of vital organs…


Dying to Donate?

by Wesley J. Smith


The transplant-medicine community should reassure the public.



“As I travel the country speaking about the many ongoing controversies in bioethics, I am occasionally approached by grieving people who believe that a catastrophically injured relative who had been declared ‘brain dead’ did not die from injuries but was actually killed during organ procurement. I always assure these emotionally devastated folks that as far as I have been able to determine, vital-organ procurement in the United States is only performed on people who have truly died—either after suffering ‘brain death,’ meaning their whole brain and each constituent part have ceased completely to function as a brain, or after being taken off life support and experiencing irreversible cardio/pulmonary failure.


“But now a very disturbing event has occurred in western Colorado: It may be the first identifiable case of death by organ procurement in the United States. On September 26, William Thaddeus Rardin, age 31, shot himself in the head in a suicide attempt. He was rushed to Montrose Memorial Hospital, where he was declared brain dead. Determining this requires specific medical tests. But according to the Denver Post report, no testing was done at Montrose.


“Rardin was then air lifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where surgeons removed his heart, liver, pancreas, and two kidneys for transplantation. A St. Mary’s spokesperson insists that appropriate neurological testing confirmed the diagnosis of brain death before the organs were procured.


“But Mark Young, the Montrose County coroner, didn’t see it that way. In consultation with the local district attorney, he determined that the two hospitals did not follow proper procedures in determining that Rardin was really dead. He therefore declared the cause of Rardin’s death to be homicide. Indeed, Young told the Rocky Mountain News, ‘The cause of death was removal of the internal organs by an organ-recovery team.’…”


NationalReviewOnline – October 20, 2004


Using body parts from a 13-week-old aborted baby to treat a patient who “doesn’t believe in abortion”…


Fetal Tissue Graft Restores Lost Sight



“Three years ago Elisabeth Bryant believed she would be blind for the rest of her life. ‘I couldn’t see anything,’ she says. Now, although her vision is not perfect, she can see well enough to read, play computer games and check emails.


“Bryant has retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that has blinded four generations of her family. What has saved the sight in one of her eyes is a transplant of a sheet of retinal cells. The vision in this eye has improved from 20:800 to 20:84 in the two-and-a-half years since the transplant—a remarkable transformation.


“So far, six patients with either advanced retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration have had similar transplants. Together, these degenerative diseases are the biggest cause of blindness in rich countries, affecting tens of millions of people. While Bryant’s improvement is the most dramatic, four other patients have also had good results….


“No other technique has come close to achieving this. The team has received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to carry out further transplants on people with less advanced disease, and Aramant believes the results will be even better.


“There is a catch, of course. The sheets of retinal cells used by the team are harvested from aborted fetuses, which some people find objectionable.


“There is also a practical problem. Although millions of terminations are performed each year in the US alone, the fetal tissue is rarely donated. If further trials are successful and the technique starts to be widely used, there will not be enough tissue to meet demand….” – October 4, 2004


For more information about Elizabeth Bryant and her decision to receive a fetal tissue implant, see “Fetal-tissue Transplant Rescues Woman’s Sight,” in The Courier-Journal (October 30).


The culture of death evades the culture of laws…


‘Back-Alley Abortions’ in the 21st Century

Christianity Today Weblog – Compiled by Ted Olsen


A British newspaper finds a late-term conspiracy between country’s largest abortion provider and a Spanish clinic.



“As Weblog has noted earlier, Britain seems to be in the middle of a soul-searching moment when it comes to abortion, and is seriously considering an extension of its limits on late-term abortions. The country currently bans abortion past the 24th week of gestation, but may roll that back—even to as early as 12 weeks.


“But would it really matter? Would it stop a single abortion? A horrific exposé in The Telegraph newspaper yesterday suggests that it might not. But the exposé itself might lead to some important and positive changes in changing British minds about late-term abortions and the country's abortion industry.


“Here’s the bottom line from yesterday’s [Oct. 10] Telegraph package:


“The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the NHS-funded charity that is the country’s largest abortion provider, is facilitating illegal late terminations of healthy pregnancies for hundreds of women without medical justification, an investigation by The Telegraph has revealed.


“Extensive covert video and audio recordings exposed a horrific underground industry in which women carrying healthy fetuses beyond the 24-week legal cutoff and who want to end their pregnancies for ‘social’ reasons, travel to an abortion clinic in Spain on the recommendation of BPAS. The organization refers them there as a matter of ‘policy.’

That violates both British and Spanish law, the newspaper notes….  [T]he paper reveals, staff at the Spanish clinic falsely certify that every woman who comes to the clinic is in grave danger. ‘There is a loophole in the law,’ a staff member flatly explained to the paper’s undercover, pregnant reporter. ‘If you have a normal pregnancy but still you want to do it, what we do is put on the paper that there was a gynecological emergency.’…”


Christianity Today Weblog – Posted October 11, 2004


For additional details on this story, see the excellent article, “Carnage in the Womb: An Abortion Scandal Rocks Britain,” by Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Britain expands the private eugenics license…


Cancer-free ‘Designer Babies’ Get Approval



“People with inherited forms of cancer have won the right to select embryos free from genes that might trigger the disease in future generations, The Times has learnt.


“Four couples affected by a genetic form of bowel cancer will start the procedure by the end of the year, after the Government’s fertility watchdog allowed a London clinic to screen IVF embryos for the disorder….


“The ruling by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority deepens the controversy over designer babies. It sets a precedent that will allow doctors to ‘cherry-pick’ embryos for a much wider range of traits than at present. Applications to extend the procedure are expected within months.


“Such tests can potentially eradicate some disorders, enabling parents to be certain of having healthy children. But critics said that the decision will push Britain farther towards ‘designer babies’ chosen for social reasons.


Paul Serhal, of University College Hospital, will be allowed to screen embryos for the gene that causes familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) — an aggressive colon cancer. Only embryos free of the faulty gene will be implanted. Infants would otherwise have a 50 per cent chance of inheriting it.


“The test was previously approved only for childhood or untreatable disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease….”


The Times –  November 1, 2004


Therapeutic forgetting…


Is Every Memory Worth Keeping?


Controversy Over Pills to Reduce Mental Trauma



“Kathleen Logue was waiting at a traffic light when two men smashed her car’s side window, pointed a gun at her head and ordered her to drive. For hours, Logue fought off her attackers’ attempts to rape her, and finally she escaped. But for years afterward, she was tormented by memories of that terrifying day.


“So years later, after a speeding bicycle messenger knocked the Boston paralegal onto the pavement in front of oncoming traffic, Logue jumped at a chance to try something that might prevent her from being haunted by her latest ordeal.


“‘I didn’t want to suffer years and years of cold sweats and nightmares and not being able to function again,’ Logue said. ‘I was prone to it because I had suffered post-traumatic stress from being carjacked. I didn’t want to go through that again.’


“Logue volunteered for an experiment designed to test whether taking a pill immediately after a terrorizing experience might reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study is part of a promising but controversial field of research seeking to alter, or possibly erase, the impact of painful memories—a concept dubbed ‘therapeutic forgetting’ by some and taken to science fiction extremes in films such as this summer’s ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’


“Proponents say it could lead to pills that prevent or treat PTSD in soldiers coping with the horrors of battle, torture victims recovering from brutalization, survivors who fled the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and other victims of severe, psychologically devastating experiences….


“Skeptics, however, argue that tinkering with memories treads into dangerous territory because memories are part of the very essence of a person’s identity, as well as crucial threads in the fabric of society that help humanity avoid the mistakes of the past.


“‘All of us can think of traumatic events in our lives that were horrible at the time but made us who we are. I’m not sure we’d want to wipe those memories out,’ said Rebecca S. Dresser, a medical ethicist at Washington University in St. Louis who serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics, which condemned the research last year. ‘We don’t have an omniscient view of what's best for the world.’…” – October 19, 2004 (free registration required)


Developing the brain-computer interface…


Brain Chip Offers Hope for Paralyzed



“A team of neuroscientists have successfully implanted a chip into the brain of a quadriplegic man, allowing him to control a computer.


“Since the insertion of the tiny device in June, the 25-year-old has been able to check email and play computer games simply using thoughts. He can also turn lights on and off and control a television, all while talking and moving his head….  Up to five more patients are to be recruited for further research into the safety and potential utility of the device….


“John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown and a co-founder of Cyberkinetics in 2001, said that BrainGate could help paralyzed peopled control wheelchairs and communicate using email and Internet-based phone systems.


“‘Our ultimate goal is to develop the BrainGate System so that it can be linked to many useful devices,’ said Donoghue, who this month received an innovation award from Discover Magazine for his work on BrainGate.


“‘This includes medical devices such as muscle stimulators, to give the physically disabled a significant improvement in their ability to interact with the world.’


“The four-millimeter square chip, which is placed on the surface of the motor cortex area of the brain, contains 100 electrodes each thinner than a hair which detect neural electrical activity. The sensor is then connected to a computer via a small wire attached to a pedestal mounted on the skull….” – October 21, 2004


An interview with John Donoghue, winner of one of the 2004 Discover Awards for Innovation, can be found in the current issue of Discover (Vol. 25 No. 11, November 2004).


Advancing the biotech revolution…


All Bio Systems Are Go



“The next advances in biology may rely on networked systems research, but will have little to do with computers or telecommunications infrastructure.


“Instead, if an influential group of researchers has its way, techniques used to analyze interconnected systems will provide a better understanding of the most complex network of all:  the human body.


“That’s the ambition of scientists in systems biology, a burgeoning field which aims to understand the workings of the nuts and bolts of living organisms through the interactions of the thousands of pieces of DNA, RNA and proteins that network together in each cell of our body.


“According to its proponents, systems biology will revolutionize medicine, transforming it from something that is mainly reactive (with an emphasis on treating diseases) into something that is predictive and will eventually prevent diseases getting hold in the first place….” – October 21, 2004


Surprise that something as complex as the human body could be built from such a modest number of tools…


Human Gene Number Slashed



“Human beings have far fewer genes than originally thought, a consortium of scientists have claimed in Nature.


“The researchers compared the draft human genome with the ‘gold standard’ version, published last year, to work out how they are different. They found the most up-to-date human genome contains only 20,000 to 25,000 genes—which is about 10,000 less than indicated in the draft.


“This suggests that gene regulation is far more important than gene number.


“‘It means that each gene can be used in a variety of different ways depending on how it is regulated,’ said Dr Tim Hubbard, of the Human Genetics group at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK.


“‘The big thing is regulation.’…”


BBC News – October 20, 2004


Subverting the organ donor system…


Internet Kidney Op Gets Go-ahead


Doctors have put aside ethical concerns to carry out a kidney transplant between two men who met online.



“A hospital in Denver originally postponed the operation amid worries that the recipient might have paid the donor for his organ.


“It has now ruled the transplant should go ahead on Wednesday [Oct. 20], after both men swore the kidney was not being bought.


“The hospital said it was making a ‘compassionate exception,’ but that the issue needed urgent debate.


“Bob Hickey, who is in need of a new kidney, found a donor, Rob Smitty, using the website MatchingDonors.


“The website charges patients up to $290 a month to post their profiles on the internet.


“Jeremiah Lowney, medical director of, said the operation was believed to be the first transplant ever arranged through such a site….


“Mr. Hickey told Reuters: ‘This has been an emotional roller coaster.’


“He said he has had to spend four hours a day on dialysis after losing one kidney to cancer and having the other deteriorate.


“Mr. Hickey said he had paid Mr. Smitty about $5,000, but that this was for his family’s trip to Denver and other expenses, as allowed by US law.


“The CEO of the hospital, Mimi Roberson, said its decision to go ahead did not mean it was endorsing the website.


“There is significant opposition to such resources among the US medical community.


“The United Network for Organ Sharing, which matches donor organs to patients, says it subverts the equal allocation of organs.


“Mark Yarborough, the director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, said: ‘This kind of system potentially may make the overriding criteria the ability to pay.’…”


BBC News – October 20, 2004


Developing the artificial brain...


Scientist Build a 'Brain' From Rat Cells



“Using 25,000 neurons from the brain of a rat, scientists at the University of Florida in Gainesville have created a living ‘brain’ that can fly a simulated high performance aircraft.


“The ‘brain in a dish’ is the brainchild of Thomas DeMarse, professor of biomedical engineering at the university, and it is a remarkable bit of work in that it allows researchers to study how a brain functions on a cellular level. That could lead to all sorts of improvements in the treatment of various mental illnesses, because it could become a valuable tool in the drive to understand one of the most complex and amazing devices in the universe, the human brain….


“But beyond all that, it really can fly that F-22 fighter jet. Or perhaps more accurately, it can keep the aircraft on course in all kinds of weather, acting as an autopilot as it corrects any change in the plane’s course.


“And the brain in the dish learns how to do that in an amazingly short period of time.


“‘Usually, within 10 to 15 minutes, it’s pretty much flying the plane,’ DeMarse says.


“The research is another step in one of the hottest areas of science these days. Computer wizards and biologists and neurologists around the world are trying to fabricate artificial brains, or neural networks, that can function on a human scale, taking over such tasks as piloting rescue aircraft into enemy territory….”


ABC News – October 27, 2004


Worth Considering…


Romano Guardini on the modern view of human nature…



“No man truly aware of his own human nature will admit that he can discover himself in the theories of modern anthropology—be they biological, psychological, sociological or any other.  Only the accidents of man—his attributes, his relations, his forms—make up these theories; they never take man simply as he is.  They speak about man, but they never really see man.  They approach him, but they never truly find him.  They handle him, but they never grip him as he actually is….  Mechanical, biological, psychological or sociological abstractions are all variations of a basic urge to make man one with ‘nature,’ even if it be a ‘nature of the spirit.’  But a vital reality escapes this type of mind; namely, man’s very act of being which constitutes a man in the primitive, absolute sense, which makes man a man at the very core of his self, which makes him a finite person existing.  This is what the existing man is even when he does not want to be, even when he denies his own nature.”


The End of the Modern World:  A Search for Orientation, by Romano Guardini (Henry Regnery Company, 1968), pp. 99-100.  The End of the Modern World is currently available, in both cloth and paperback editions, from ISI Books.  This new edition also includes Guardini’s Power and Responsibility, the sequel to The End of the Modern World.




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