Archive for March, 2009

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New Zealand not so good anymore

Monday, 23 March, 2009

It’s a shame too. The Bioethics Council of New Zealand (aka ‘Toi te Taiao’), the same council that last year published such sensible opinions on parents genetically selecting their children,  has apparently been disestablished. A press release states:

It is with regret that Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council announces it has been disestablished by the Government.

Such a stupid thing to happen to such a clearly wise group of people. I hope New Zealanders make a big fuss about this.

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Enhancing memory and learning in mice

Monday, 23 March, 2009

Recently, a review article by Yong‑Seok Lee and Alcino J. Silva was published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, with the title ‘The molecular and cellular biology of enhanced cognition‘. If you are lucky enough to have a subscription, or know a library that can get this journal article for you, do.

The review lists 33 genetic modifications that lead to some level of enhanced memory and learning in mice. It also discuses the general methods by which these modifications work, focussing on enhancement of a form of neuronal plasticity known as long-term potentiation. NMDA receptors, the role of calcium as a messenger and the various enzymes and transcription factors that are recruited to create the cellular basis of a memory. The review also discusses other mechanisms, like epigenetics, growth factors, the involvement of glia, and also presynaptic signalling. Finally, the review looks at caveats in the current research in cognitive enhancement.

The authors also make a nod in the direction of bioethics, saying:

[I]t is also important to stress that memory enhancing manipulations raise a number of ethical issues that are outside of the scope of this Review, but that merit careful consideration and discussion170,171.

For interests sake, references 170 and 171 are:

170: Rose, S. P. ‘Smart drugs’: do they work? Are they ethical? Will they be legal? Nature Rev. Neurosci. 3, 975–979 (2002).
171. Farah, M. J. et al. Neurocognitive enhancement: what can we do and what should we do? Nature Rev. Neurosci. 5, 421–425 (2004).

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NIH-funded embryonic stem cell research is now ALMOST legal

Tuesday, 10 March, 2009

I really, really don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but you still can’t get federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in the US. But with President Obama signing an executive order yesterday (my time) overturning President Bush’s 2001 statement that banned federal funding for embryo-destructive research, it is one step closer.

It would be good, however, to remember that the ban on federal funding for such research did not orginate with President Bush. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which was enacted by Congress in 1996 (during Clinton’s years) and renewed every year since. This law prohibits the US Health and Human Services (of with the National Insitute of Heatlh is a part) from using funding for

(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
(2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death

So Obama himself hasn’t pulled down all the barriers, contrary to most uninformed media reports (The New York Times gets it right, though it is a bit unfair on Obama. And scientific journals like Nature, of course, get this right as well). In addition, Obama has not said anything expressly approving federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, so the matter is far from settled legally.

But don’t despair just yet. The removal of the Bush ban on funding this research, and the fact that Obama is supportive of such research, means that when new legislation does appear to permit such funding, President Obama will likely not veto the changes like Bush did (twice).

An important battle has been won, but the war is not over yet. I wouldn’t be celebrating freedom of research just yet.

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Fertility clinic backs down from allowing cosmetic ‘design’ of babies

Saturday, 7 March, 2009

The Fertility Institutes LA, an American IVF clinic that recently announced that it would be offering parents the opportunity to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select hair and eye pigmentation, has decided not to go ahead with this (excepting for selecting against albinism). The reason? Public opinion, of course.

[W]e […] feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer are far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved.

A total shame, to let the public pressure decide what sort of children people can or can’t have. With all the cries that selecting one’s babies will lead to a situation like that portrayed in Gattaca, nobody seems to realise that the situation portrayed in that movie — public coercion to have a particular sort of baby — is already happening. The only difference is the ‘sort’ of baby that parents are being pushed, by social pressures, to have.