The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

November 30, 2007



Finally conceding the truth about embryonic stem cell research:  “For all the hopes invested in it over the last decade, embryonic stem cell research has moved slowly, with no cures or major therapeutic discoveries in sight.”


Scientists Bypass Need for Embryo to Get Stem Cells

by Gina Kolata



University of California,

San Francisco

Shinya Yamanaka began research on mice that led to use of human skin cells.

Jeff Miller

James A. Thomson and his colleagues did research at the University of Wisconsin.

“Two teams of scientists reported yesterday that they had turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo—a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.


“All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process....


“The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary....”


The New York Times – November 21, 2007




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Adding perspective to the big stem cell breakthrough...


After Stem-Cell Breakthrough, the Work Begins

by Andrew Pollack



“If stem cell researchers were oil prospectors, it could be said that they struck a gusher last week. But to realize the potential boundless riches they now must figure out how to build refineries, pipelines and gas stations.


“Biologists were electrified on Tuesday, when scientists in Japan and Wisconsin reported that they could turn human skin cells into cells that behave like embryonic stem cells, able to grow indefinitely and to potentially turn into any type of tissue in the body.


“The discovery, if it holds up, would decisively solve the raw material problem. It should provide an unlimited supply of stem cells without the ethically controversial embryo destruction and the restrictions on federal financing that have impeded work on human embryonic cells.


“But scientists still face the challenge of taking that abundant raw material and turning it into useful medical treatments, like replacement tissue for damaged hearts and brains. And that challenge will be roughly as daunting for the new cells as it has been for the embryonic stem cells....”


The New York Times – November 27, 2007



Editor’s Note:  For a brief analysis of how this article signals a dramatic shift in the stem cell debate, see Yuval Levin’s “The Real Power of Stem Cells” in Commentary.


The Humanitas Forum on Christianity and Culture...



Recordings from the recent Humanitas Forum with Peter Lawler are now available on the Humanitas Project website as mp3 downloads.



Listening to Biotechnology:

What It Tells Us about Our Souls



Peter Augustine Lawler, PhD


October 5-6, 2007


Belmont Church, Nashville, Tennessee



Selling Embryos, Buying Kidneys: The Problem of Human Dignity in America


Longer Life, Perfect Health, Pleasant Moods: How It Became a Sin to Be Normal


Individualism: The Democratic “Heart Disease” and Why Christianity is the Cure



Peter Augustine Lawler is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and Dana Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.  He is also executive editor of the acclaimed journal Perspectives on Political Science and the author of several books, including Postmodernism Rightly Understood and Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future.  His latest book, published in July, 2007, is Homeless and at Home in America:  Evidence for the Dignity of the Human Soul in Our Time and Place.


The challenge of developing stem cell therapies for the brain...


Stem-cell Therapies For Brain More Complicated Than Thought



“An MIT research team’s latest finding suggests that stem cell therapies for the brain could be much more complicated than previously thought.


“MIT scientists report that adult stem cells produced in the brain are pre-programmed to make only certain kinds of connections—making it impossible for a neural stem cell originating in the brain to be transplanted to the spinal cord, for instance, to take over functions for damaged cells.


“Some researchers hope to use adult stem cells produced in the brain to replace neurons lost to damage and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The new study calls this into question.


“‘It is wishful thinking to hope that adult stem cells will be able to modify themselves so that they can become other types of neurons lost to injury or disease,’ said Carlos E. Lois, assistant professor of neuroscience in MIT’s Picower Institute for Leaning and Memory....”


ScienceDaily – November 29, 2007


“The future of stem cell research is not in cloning...”


Dolly Creator Prof Ian Wilmut Shuns Cloning



Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the Sheep

Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the Sheep

“The scientist who created Dolly the sheep, a breakthrough that provoked headlines around the world a decade ago, is to abandon the cloning technique he pioneered to create her.


“Prof Ian Wilmut’s decision to turn his back on ‘therapeutic cloning’, just days after US researchers announced a breakthrough in the cloning of primates, will send shockwaves through the scientific establishment.


“He and his team made headlines around the world in 1997 when they unveiled Dolly, born July of the year before....


“Prof Wilmut, who works at Edinburgh University, believes a rival method pioneered in Japan has better potential for making human embryonic cells which can be used to grow a patient’s own cells and tissues for a vast range of treatments....


“His announcement could mark the beginning of the end for therapeutic cloning, on which tens of millions of pounds have been spent worldwide over the past decade....”


Telegraph – November 16, 2007


Economic and political tremors in states that invested heavily in embryonic stem cell research...


States Assess Breakthrough On Stem Cells

by Rick Weiss


Those With Big Investments Vow to Continue Research



“Tuesday’s announcement that scientists had found a noncontroversial way to make cells equivalent to human embryonic stem cells did not just change the scientific and ethical landscape. It generated economic and geopolitical tremors through California, New York and about half a dozen other states that have invested—in some cases heavily—in embryonic stem cell programs and research centers.


“States have together committed billions of dollars to fill the research vacuum left by the Bush administration, which in 2001 declared embryonic stem cell research largely off-limits for federal funding. Their hope has been to attract the best scientists and build research infrastructures, giving them a leg up on efforts to develop promising new stem cell therapies and assuring them futures as biomedical and economic powerhouses.


“The possibility that embryonic stem cells will be eclipsed by ‘ips’ cells—or ‘induced pluripotent stem cells,’ ‘pluripotent’ meaning ‘able to become virtually every kind of’—which can be created with relative ease and with abundant funding from the National Institutes of Health, could undermine those state-level ambitions and bring an early end to a novel experiment in scientific federalism, experts said....”


Washington Post – November 22, 2007


The big cloning story that disappeared because of the breakthrough with stem cells in humans...


Cloning: A Giant Step


For the first time, scientists have created dozens of cloned embryos from adult primates. But what are the implications of this technical breakthrough for the future of mankind?



“A technical breakthrough has enabled scientists to create for the first time dozens of cloned embryos from adult monkeys, raising the prospect of the same procedure being used to make cloned human embryos.


“Attempts to clone human embryos for research have been dogged by technical problems and controversies over fraudulent research and questionable ethics. But the new technique promises to revolutionise the efficiency by which scientists can turn human eggs into cloned embryos.


“It is the first time that scientists have been able to create viable cloned embryos from an adult primate – in this case a 10-year-old male rhesus macaque monkey – and they are scheduled to report their findings later this month.


“The scientists will also demonstrate that they have been able to extract stem cells from some of the cloned embryos and that they have managed to encourage these embryonic cells to develop in the laboratory into mature heart cells and brain neurons....”


The Independent – November 12, 2007


“It’s scary to me as a physician that some cosmetic companies are slipping in a prescription drug.”


Drug That Lengthens Eyelashes Sets Off Flutter




Before and after using Lumigan daily for 10 weeks

“In the latest blurring of the line between cosmetics and drugs, new products that promise to make eyelashes look longer are causing a stir among physicians and regulators because they contain ingredients that are the same or similar to those in prescription drugs for an eye disease.


“Doctors and patients alike have noticed that eyelash growth is a side effect of a glaucoma drug called Lumigan, sold by California drug maker Allergan Inc. That phenomenon has set off a race among cosmetics companies to create new eyelash treatments that contain either bimatoprost—the active ingredient in Lumigan—or other so-called prostaglandins found in glaucoma drugs....”


Wall Street Journal Oneline – November 19, 2007


Once you get past the technology’s “gee-whiz factor,” what do you do when you learn that you have a genetic variation at rs4712523? 


23AndMe Will Decode Your DNA for $1,000.  Welcome to the Age of Genomics

by Thomas Goetz



“...I won’t reach 65 till 2033, but I have long assumed that, as regards heart disease, my time will come. My genes have predetermined it. To avoid my father’s surgery, or my grandfather’s fate, I try to eat healthier than most, exercise more than most, and never even consider smoking. This, I figure, is what it will take for me to live past 65.


“Turns out that my odds are better than I thought. My DNA isn’t pushing me toward heart disease—it’s pulling me away. There are established genetic variations that researchers associate with a higher risk for a heart attack, and my genome doesn’t have any of those negative mutations; it has positive mutations that actually reduce my risk. Like any American, I still have a good chance of eventually developing heart disease. But when it comes to an inherited risk, I take after my mother, not my father.


“Reading your genomic profile—learning your predispositions for various diseases, odd traits, and a talent or two—is something like going to a phantasmagorical family reunion....


“The experience is simultaneously unsettling, illuminating, and empowering. And now it’s something anyone can have for about $1,000. This winter marks the birth of a new industry: Companies will take a sample of your DNA, scan it, and tell you about your genetic future, as well as your ancestral past....”


Wired – November 17, 2007


Editor’s Note:  Another article that discusses mail-order genetic tests was written by Nicholas Wade for The New York Times:  “Experts Advise a Grain of Salt With Mail-Order Genomes, at $1,000 a Pop.”


A promising but risky therapy...and questions about proper informed consent...


Targeted Genetics Restarts Trial after Woman’s Death

by Ángel González



“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has allowed Targeted Genetics to restart its gene-therapy trial for rheumatoid arthritis after an investigation indicated the treatment did not contribute to the death of an Illinois woman in July.


“The trial was put on hold when 36-year old Jolee Mohr died of a massive fungal infection weeks after being injected with the second dose of a treatment designed to fight arthritis by weakening the immune system in targeted areas.


“A post-mortem analysis by University of Chicago researchers concluded that the Seattle-based company’s drug didn’t wildly spread through the patient’s body, nor did it significantly increase the immune suppression produced by another anti-arthritis drug she was taking.


“The FDA’s decision clears some concern about the future of gene therapy, a field considered promising but risky. It also helps restore confidence in Target Genetics’ clinical pipeline, which relies on gene-therapy products....”


The Seattle Times – November 26, 2007


“We need to improve 106-fold or more—this would shrink the three billion person years it would take to trace a cortical column down to about two years...”


A Wiring Diagram of the Brain

by Emily Singer


The emerging field of connectomics could help researchers decode the brain’s approach to information processing.



Scientists are developing new ways to study the tangled web of neurons in the brain. This image shows a partial reconstruction of the rabbit retina.

“New technologies that allow scientists to trace the fine wiring of the brain more accurately than ever before could soon generate a complete wiring diagram—including every tiny fiber and miniscule connection—of a piece of brain. Dubbed connectomics, these maps could uncover how neural networks perform their precise functions in the brain, and they could shed light on disorders thought to originate from faulty wiring, such as autism and schizophrenia....


“With an estimated 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses in the human brain, creating an all-encompassing map of even a small chunk is a daunting task. Using standard methods, it would take roughly three billion person years to generate the wiring diagram of a single cortical column, a narrow functional unit of neurons in the cortex, estimates Winfried Denk, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany.


“Denk, Seung, and their collaborators are now developing sensitive new imaging techniques and machine-learning algorithms to automate the construction process. They have already generated a partial wiring diagram of part of the rabbit retina. But they’ll need to make their technique a million times faster to finally bring larger maps—like that of a cortical column—into the realm of reality....”


November 19, 2007


“Boomer demands on the health care system are unlike anything the nation has seen...they expect cures, not just treatments...”


Aging Boomers: Me Generation’s Health Concerns Expected to Propel Biotech

by Lisa Rosetta



“By 1989, a boomer’s median net worth was $36,000, according to Paul Root Wolpe, president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. By 2001, it swelled to $107,000. Home equity included, that number now is about $400,000.


“‘Never before has an older generation controlled so much wealth of the country,’ he said. ‘We [at 50, Wolpe is a boomer himself] have the largest discretionary income of all age groups of any time in American history. We control 60 percent of the nation’s wealth....’


“The Greatest Generation, those stalwart patriots who saw the ‘Roaring ’20s,’ suffered the Wall Street crash of 1929 and fought valiantly during World War II, are now grappling with old age and disease.


“They’re headed into the winter of their lives.


“But their children, the baby boomers, aren’t going to follow them.


“‘We have made the decision that that is not going to happen to us,’ said Paul Root Wolpe, president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities....”


The Salt Lake Tribune – November 19, 2007


Worth considering...


Christopher Lasch and the Limits of Hope

by Patrick J. Deneen



“...Seen by elites as superstitious and unwarranted, religious belief is derided as intellectual pabulum and false emotional security, while public policies that arise from religious traditionalism (including limits upon divorce, abortion, and efforts to protect the cohesion of local communities) are viewed as irrational, inegalitarian, illiberal, arbitrary, and oppressive.


“[Christopher] Lasch wrote with particular vehemence in disputing this portrayal of religious belief, arguing that religion is profoundly misunderstood by its liberal opponents, as well as by some religious adherents. Religious belief is not to be understood as a source of complacent self-righteousness or easygoing comfort and security, but rather as a source of profound challenge. Lasch wrote that the standard liberal caricature of religion


misses the religious challenge to complacency, the heart and soul of faith. Instead of discouraging moral inquiry, religious prompting can just as easily stimulate it by calling attention to the disjunction between verbal profession and practice, by insisting that a perfunctory observance of prescribed rituals is not enough to ensure salvation, and by encouraging believers at every step to question their own motivations. Far from putting doubts to rest, religion has the effect of intensifying them. It judges those who profess faith more harshly than it judges unbelievers. It holds them up to a standard of conduct so demanding that many of them inevitably fall short.... For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. Self-righteousness, indeed, may be more prevalent among skeptics than believers. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion.


“Lasch’s theological understanding, drawn from a variety of sources, but prominently dependent upon a tradition of Augustinian Calvinism that found an American voice in Jonathan Edwards, advances a complex interplay of belief and doubt, faith and anxiety, affirmation and renunciation. Belief in a beneficent divinity does not result in the easygoing conclusion that God’s creation is aligned in humanity’s favor or that His will exists in seamless accord with human desires. The immediate and chastening consequence of such belief is the unavoidable acknowledgment, in the words of Leszek Kolakowski, that ‘God owes us nothing.’ Rather than suggesting humanity’s centrality in divine creation or lending support to a view of humanity that endorses efforts to conquer nature and render fortune and tragedy altogether tractable, real religious belief forces the religious penitent to acknowledge human dependence and weakness, and to regard temptations toward mastery as forms of sinful and hubristic pride....”


Patrick J. Deneen is Associate Professor of Government and holds the Markos and Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair in Hellenic Studies at Georgetown University.  “Christopher Lasch and the Limits of Hope” appeared in the December 2004 issue of First Things and is available online.




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