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Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

November 15, 2007



The scans “show people it was worth carrying on even though my body was unresponsive.”


Silent Minds

by Jerome Groopman


What scanning techniques are revealing about vegetative patients.



Brain scans showed one patient was able to imagine playing tennis.

Brain scans showed one patient was able to imagine playing tennis.

“Ten years ago, Adrian Owen, a young British neuroscientist, was working at a brain-imaging center at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, at the University of Cambridge. He had recently returned from the Montreal Neurological Institute, where he used advanced scanning technology to map areas of the brain, including those involved in recognizing human faces, and he was eager to continue his research. The imaging center was next to the hospital’s neurological intensive-care unit, and Owen heard about a patient there named Kate Bainbridge, a twenty-six-year-old schoolteacher who had become comatose after a flulike illness, and was eventually diagnosed as being in what neurologists call a vegetative state. Owen decided to scan Bainbridge’s brain. ‘We were looking for interesting patients to study,’ he told me. ‘She was the first vegetative patient I came across.’


“For four months, Bainbridge had not spoken or responded to her family or her doctors, although her eyes were often open and roving. (A person in a coma appears to be asleep and is unaware of even painful stimulation; a person in a vegetative state has periods of wakefulness but shows no awareness of her environment and does not make purposeful movements.) Owen placed Bainbridge in a PET scanner, a machine that records changes in metabolism and blood flow in the brain, and, on a screen in front of her, projected photographs of faces belonging to members of her family, as well as digitally distorted images, in which the faces were unrecognizable. Whenever pictures of Bainbridge’s family flashed on the screen, an area of her brain called the fusiform gyrus, which neuroscientists had identified as playing a central role in face recognition, lit up on the scan. ‘We were stunned,’ Owen told me. ‘The fusiform-gyrus activation in her brain was not simply similar to normal; it was exactly the same as normal volunteers....’”


Jerome Groopman, M.D. is Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Chief of Experimental Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.


The New Yorker – October 15, 2007




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“His mother rejected the reigning cultural paradigm that a life with profound cognitive dysfunction is not worth living....”



by Wesley J. Smith


The Schiavo case revisited.



“On October 19, only months after being nearly dehydrated to death when his feeding tube was removed, Jesse Ramirez walked out of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix on his own two legs. Ramirez is lucky to be alive. Early last June, a mere one week after a serious auto accident left him unconscious, his wife Rebecca and doctors decided he would never recover and pulled his feeding tube. He went without food and water for five long days. But then his mother, Theresa, represented by lawyers from the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, successfully took Rebecca to court demanding a change of guardianship on the grounds that Rebecca and Jesse’s allegedly rocky marriage disqualified her for the role.


“The judge ordered that Jesse be temporarily rehydrated and nourished. Then Jesse regained consciousness. Now, instead of dying by dehydration, he will receive rehabilitation and get on with his life—all because his mother rejected the reigning cultural paradigm that a life with profound cognitive dysfunction is not worth living.


“Ramirez is only the latest instance of an unconscious patient waking up after being consigned to death by dehydration....”


The Weekly Standard – November 5, 2007


“Roughly 40 percent of deaths in the US are now preceded by a period of enfeeblement, debility, and in many cases dementia...and that percentage will only increase...”


Aging with the Boomers

by Yuval Levin


The coming geriatric mindset.



“In an aging society, health care is bound to be an increasingly dominant political concern. And everybody knows American society is aging. The portion of our population over the age of 65 has nearly doubled in the last half century, and will just about double again in the next half century. The oldest of the old, Americans over the age of 85, are now the fastest growing portion of the population. Older people have more health problems, so a society with more older members will naturally be more concerned about medicine and health care.


“But beyond the simple demographics, there is a more profound and understated cultural force compelling our coming obsession with aging, decline, and health care. In the coming decades, American society is likely to age in another way, more subtle but no less crucial. Our self-image, which for more than five decades now has been a baby-boomer self-image, will likely grow old as the boomers do.


Defining America


“In countless ways large and small, America’s understanding of its recent history is a baby-boomer biography. There are of course many crucial exceptions, but the broad pattern is striking....”


Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of the The New Atlantis.


Ethics and Public Policy Center – October 18, 2007


An announcement with a political agenda—allow researchers to buy women’s eggs for human cloning research...


Cloned Monkey Stem Cells Produced

by David Cryanoski


Stem cells extracted from cloned primate embryos.



The skin cell inserted into a primate egg (shown) came from a monkey called Semos - also the name of the god in the popular sci-fi work Planet of the Apes.

The skin cell inserted into a primate egg (shown) came from a monkey called Semos - also the name of the god in the popular sci-fi work Planet of the Apes.  Shoukhrat M. Mitalipov

“Researchers have for the first time created cloned primate embryos and used them to make embryonic stem-cell lines. The achievement has led to speculation about when similar success in humans might open up the door for therapeutic cloning.


“Embryonic stem cells can differentiate into almost any cell in the body and so have tremendous potential for therapy. If they are taken from an embryo cloned from a patient, as they were here from monkeys, they would be genetically matched and thus avoid immune rejection....


“A team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, had been trying for nearly a decade to achieve reproductive cloning in primates, and had used some 15,000 eggs in the process. After [Korean Woo Suk] Hwang’s results turned out to be fraudulent, the group decided to move from reproductive cloning to try to establish a cloned embryonic stem-cell line instead—theoretically, a more achievable goal....”


Nature News – November 14, 2007


Corrupting both church and hospice—the United Churches of Christ include physician-assisted suicide in one of their end-of-life programs...


The UCC’s Ethical Suicide Parlor

by Dennis Di Mauro



“On September 18, United Church of Christ minister Kristi Denham announced that a new organization of clergy called the End of Life Consultation Service (ELCS) had been created that would be devoted to ministering to critically ill medical patients. Rev. Denham explained that this organization would ‘help terminal patients access hospice, pain treatment, and other excellent end of life care.’


“At first glance, the ELCS sounds like a charitable Christian group devoted to helping the sick and suffering, or another new ministry devoted to providing spiritual assurance to the gravely ill. Well, not exactly. What makes this organization different from many others is that the ELCS’s main purpose is to assist medical patients in planning their own deaths. And as might be expected, one of the options for a patient’s death offered by the ELCS includes committing suicide.


“The new organization plans to man a 1-800 hotline that would provide potential callers with ‘volunteers [who would] visit patients and families in the home, and together they [could] identify a path to peaceful dying, well-suited to an individual’s illness and circumstances.’ After the consultation, the clients would then be free to ‘obtain and self-administer the means’ of killing themselves....”


Dennis Di Mauro is secretary of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, president of Northern Virginia Lutherans for Life, and a doctoral student in church history at Catholic University.


On the Square, the blog of First Things – October 18, 2007


The insurance actuaries are paying attention...abortion affects their bottom line...


The Breast Cancer Epidemic


Patrick Carroll considers the risk factors and the challenges faced in forecasting

future incidence rates of breast cancer.



“The incidence of breast cancer is increasing. There are several reasons for actuaries to attend to this epidemic.


“The increase in incidence is considerable, averaging over 80% across all ages since the

1970s when registration was set up in Great Britain....


Risk factors driving the trends


“Most of the known risk factors are reproductive, pregnancy related or hormonal. There is hormonal activity and breast cell development during pregnancy. Induced abortion has a carcinogenic effect that is greater when the woman is nulliparous (no previous full-term pregnancy) by leaving the breast cells in a state of interrupted hormonal development where they are more susceptible to cancer. Full-term pregnancies leave breast cells more fully developed and resistant to breast cancer. Breast-feeding confers additional protection. Oestrogen, progestin and other female hormones, whether naturally produced or administered medically, fuel breast cancer development.


“Seven known reproductive risk factors could be driving the trends:

  • Abortion  Most British abortions (53%) are nulliparous and the subsequent breast cancer risk is greater here.
  • Age at first birth  A low age is protective, as made known by British epidemiologists.
  • Childlessness increases the risk  Nuns have long been known to have a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Fertility  More children increase protection.
  • Breast-feeding   This gives additional protection, now estimated by British epidemiologists.
  • Hormonal contraceptives  These contain oestrogen and progestin, and are conducive to breast cancer.
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)  This contains female hormones and is likewise conducive to breast cancer....”

The Actuary – November 2007


Editor’s Note:  Patrick Carroll’s research on the rising incidence of breast cancer was published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (Volume 12 Number 3, Fall 2007).


The advancing field of robotics—this week it’s robo-friends and  robo-insects...last week it was robo-sex...


Why a Child’s Best Friend is His Robotot



“Children could soon be making friends with robots at nursery school. Scientists have developed a childlike machine that toddlers can be taught to regard as human. It is hoped that the robots will help to improve the children’s behaviour and social skills.


“Scientists studied how children aged between ten months and two years reacted to a silver robot placed in a room with them. The robot, which is called QRIO and was built in Japan, can interact with humans, walk, sit down, stand up, move its arms, turn its head and even dance and giggle....


“The scientists, led by Dr Fumihide Tanaka, from the University of California, in San Diego, wrote: ‘We are now developing robots that interact with the children for weeks at a time....’”


The Times Online – November 6, 2007





The continuing effort to perfect the brain-machine interface...


‘Robo-Moth’ Melds Insect, Machine


A machine moves via impulses from an animal mounted on it. The process may one day help the paralyzed and amputees.



Moth meets machine

University of Arizona

MOTH MEETS MACHINE: The 6-inch-tall wheeled robot moves when the insect’s eyes look around, but only left and right.

“Harnessing the electrical impulses of sight, scientists have built a robot guided by the brain and eyes of a moth.


“As the moth tracks the world around it, an electrode in its tiny brain captures faint electrical impulses that a computer translates into action.


“The moth, immobilized inside a plastic tube, was mounted on a 6-inch-tall wheeled robot. When the moth moved its eyes to the right, the robot turned in that direction....”


Los Angeles Times – November 7, 2007 (Free registration required)





Though Fox News doesn’t say so, the porn industry is already at work developing robots...


Forecast: Sex and Marriage With Robots by 2050

by Charles Q. Choi



Once robots become more like humans, David Levy believes romance between the two, and even sex and marriage, will be possible.

“Humans could marry robots within the century. And consummate those vows.


“‘My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots,’ artificial intelligence researcher David Levy at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands told LiveScience.


“Levy recently completed his Ph.D. work on the subject of human-robot relationships, covering many of the privileges and practices that generally come with marriage as well as outside of it....


“Levy predicts Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize human-robot marriage.


“‘Massachusetts is more liberal than most other jurisdictions in the United States and has been at the forefront of same-sex marriage,’ Levy said....”


Fox News – October 15, 2007


Editor’s Note:  The photo above was in a similar article that ran recently in the Daily Mail.


Designing a stronger, meaner mouse...


The Lance Armstrong Mighty Mouse


See how they run! Watch the mouse leave its normal partner in the dust in this video.



New Picture (1).bmp

“Scientists’ latest improvement on nature is a ‘mighty mouse’ that can run at 20 meters a minute for up to six hours before stopping. This genetically engineered mouse eats 60% more than normal mice but is still fitter and lives and breeds for longer.


“‘They are metabolically similar to Lance Armstrong biking up the Pyrenees. They utilize mainly fatty acids for energy and produce very little lactic acid,’ says Richard Hanson, biochemist at Case Western Reserve University and the man behind the new mice. In the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Hanson details how over-expression of the gene for the enzyme phosphoenolypyruvate carboxykinases produces these effects, although it isn’t clear yet exactly what this enzyme does....


“A rather excitable article in the UK’s Independent says the new mouse is ‘raising the prospect that the discovery may one day be used to transform people’s capacities’. Personally I hope not, as the researchers also found the new mice were ‘markedly more aggressive’ than controls....”


The Great Beyond, the blog of the journal Nature – November 02, 2007


Editor’s Note:  A news release from Case Western University provides additional information on the genetic makeup of the new “mighty mouse.”


“We will have the power to animate the inanimate, the power to create life itself...but will we also have the wisdom of Solomon?”


Future of Science: ‘We will have the power of the gods’


A leading theoretical physicist has tapped the best scientific brains of the age to provide a startling vision of the future.



Welcome to the future: Michio Kaku and a robot - advanced technology appears closer to reality than ever

Welcome to the future: Michio Kaku and a robot

“Just before Sir Isaac Newton died, he described how humbled he felt by the thought that he had glimpsed only a fraction of the potential of the great scientific revolution he had helped to launch: ‘I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’


“Three centuries later, that great ocean of truth is not so mysterious. According to the theoretical physicist Professor Michio Kaku of the City College of New York, we are entering an empowered new era: ‘We have unlocked the secrets of matter.’


“‘We have unravelled the molecule of life, DNA. And we have created a form of artificial intelligence, the computer. We are making the historic transition from the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery in which we will be able to manipulate and mould nature almost to our wishes.’


“Among the technologies he believes will change our lives in the coming decades are cars that drive themselves, lab-grown human organs, 3D television, robots that can perform household tasks, eye glasses that double as home-entertainment centres, the exploitation of genes that alter human ageing and the possibility of invisibility and forms of teleportation....”


The Telegraph – November 23, 2007


Worth considering...


from Technologies of Humility

by Sheila Jasanoff


Researchers and policy-makers need ways for accommodating the partiality of scientific knowledge and for acting under the inevitable uncertainty it holds.



Technologies of humility

D. Parkins

“The great mystery of modernity is that we think of certainty as an attainable state. Uncertainty has become the threat to collective action, the disease that knowledge must cure. It is the condition that poses cruel dilemmas for decision-makers; that must be reduced at any cost; that is tamed with scenarios and assessments; and that feeds the frenzy for new knowledge, much of it scientific.


“For a long time we accepted lack of certainty as humankind’s natural lot. What has happened to reverse that presumption...?


“Science fixes our attention on the knowable, leading to an over-dependence on fact-finding. Even when scientists recognize the limits of their own inquiries, as they often do, the policy world, implicitly encouraged by scientists, asks for more research. For most complex problems, the pursuit of perfect knowledge is asymptotic. Uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy are always present.


“We need disciplined methods to accommodate the partiality of scientific knowledge and to act under irredeemable uncertainty. Let us call these the technologies of humility. These technologies compel us to reflect on the sources of ambiguity, indeterminacy and complexity. Humility instructs us to think harder about how to reframe problems so that their ethical dimensions are brought to light, which new facts to seek and when to resist asking science for clarification. Humility directs us to alleviate known causes of people’s vulnerability to harm, to pay attention to the distribution of risks and benefits, and to reflect on the social factors that promote or discourage learning....


“This call for humility is a plea for policy-makers to cultivate, and for universities to teach, modes of knowing that are often pushed aside in expanding scientific understanding and technological capacity. It is a request for research on what people value and why they value it. It is a prescription to supplement science with the analysis of those aspects of the human condition that science cannot easily illuminate. It is a call for policy analysts and policy-makers to re-engage with the moral foundations for acting in the face of inevitable scientific uncertainty.”


The remainder of “Technologies of Humility” is available online.  Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.


Nature – November 1, 2007




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