FRC Blog

The Most Effective Peacekeepers

by Michael Leaser

August 6, 2008

A former deputy director of children and family services in Illinois recently described her disturbing encounter with a bunch of young children witnessing, but apparently doing nothing to stop, a neighborhood fight. Visibly disturbed by the incident, she offers several solutions to reducing student violence, at the core of which is good parents building their own neighborhood.

The latest Mapping America lends support to these suggestions and demonstrates with federal survey data that married parents are the most effective peacekeeping force.

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Celebrity Stem Cells

by David Prentice

August 6, 2008

Thumbnail image for SuzanneSomersByPhilKonstantin.jpgActress Suzanne Somers has forged an alliance with the company Neostem for a multi-year awareness program. The idea is to educate the public about adult stem cell collection and storage. As part of the promotion campaign, she will have her adult stem cells (from her bloodstream, mobilized from her bone marrow) collected and stored, complete with filming of the collection procedure. The educational campaign, to start in September 2008, is apparently meant to coincide with the opening of several new Neostem collection centers.

There is certainly an increasing use of adult stem cells for treatments, with one estimate that approximately 11,000 patients in the U.S. have received adult stem cells as part of their conventional treatment in the past two years. The vast majority of these have been for various cancers and blood disorders, but an increasing number of adult stem cell clinical trials are seeing patients receiving treatment for autoimmune diseases and heart damage, which are showing published success in patients.

Still, it’s not certain whether it’s worth storing your adult stem cells at this point, especially given the cost. In most cases, your own adult stem cells can still be harvested even after diagnosis of cancer (see, e.g., Carol Franz’s story with multiple myeloma.) There IS a great need for storing cord blood, though, instead of throwing away the umbilical cord; for cord blood stem cells there is only the one chance for collection.

But Suzanne Somers is excited: “Stem cell therapy is the most exciting new breakthrough in medicine. It gives me great peace of mind to know that my own stem cells will be banked as bio-insurance for me.” So I guess having your cells already in the bank gives some people additional reassurance.

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Cloned Boogers!

by David Prentice

August 5, 2008

Five puppy clones of the deceased pit bull Booger were born July 28 and publicly unveiled today (requisite cute puppy pictures at above link, and also here.) Bernann McKinney of California paid the South Korean biotech firm RNL Bio $50,000 (a discount price from the usual $150,000) to clone her beloved dog. In cloning (technically termed “somatic cell nuclear transfer”, SCNT) the nucleus (DNA) of a body tissue cell is transferred into an egg (that has had its chromosomes removed), creating a new cloned embryo. The clones are then transferred to the womb of a surrogate mother for gestation.

Dogs have been cloned before, but these are the first commercial clones. RNL has been in a patent dispute with another dog cloning firm in the U.S. RNL was started by South Korean scientists who had worked with the cloning fraudster Hwang; Hwang (who was recently denied an application to clone humans) is the hired cloner of the U.S. firm. As a commercial cloning operation, RNL has had some orders for dog cloning, but still is searching for a big commercial payoff. Its CEO, Ra Jeong-Chan, says “For my next project, I will consider cloning camels for rich people in the Middle East.”

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Perkins’ Perspective: Greetings from Honduras!

by Tony Perkins

August 5, 2008

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As reported in the Update, I am taking a week off to join my oldest daughter, Kendal, on a medical and humanitarian mission trip to the impoverished areas surrounding Tela, Honduras. This was her 16th birthday present. There has not been much downtime to blog on our activities as the doctors, nurses and others from our church have treated nearly 1,500 people in three days. The team has provided the people, mostly women and children (more on that topic later), with basic medicines, food and, in some cases, glasses (we had a limited supply of them). Of course, everyone heard and saw the gospel in action. Sunday night I had the opportunity to preach at Antioquia Evangelica Bautista Iglesia in Tela, which is a mission of our home church of Greenwell Springs Baptist.

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It has been pretty hot but the afternoon rain showers help cool things off in this subtropical climate. It is a beautiful country and the Honduran people are extremely hospitable, receptive to us and grateful for what we are doing.

One thing I noticed right off in the various communities that we’ve been in, besides the abject poverty, is the absence of the men. I began asking around, talking to the local pastors through our interpreters. Two reasons were given. First, a number of the young men have gone to America (illegally) in search of job opportunities. Unfortunately, according to those I’ve spoken to, few of the men are sending money back in support of the children and their mothers. The second reason given was the influence of the messages sent from the United States through our television programs. It’s not just our families that are affected by what American entertainment puts out.

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Sister, can you spare an egg?

by Michael Fragoso

August 4, 2008

Stories have been floating around—probably thanks to Drudge—about more women donating eggs because they’re strapped for cash. Leaving aside the possible risks of egg donation and the ethics of in vitro fertilization, this speaks to a potentially growing problem of what happens when human life — in the form of human tissue or organs — is commoditized.

I once spoke on a panel dealing with the question of whether we should change the existing laws to provide monetary incentives for organ donations. A co-panelist of mine argued that a grave danger in monetizing body parts comes from a radical reevaluation of self-worth to reflect actual cash value. He gave the dystopian hypothetical of a student applying for financial aid, and being denied by the college administrator, “Well, your bank account is lean, but you still have 2 kidneys and a whole lot of eggs, so we calculate your net worth at $30,000.” The fact that some women see cashing in on their eggs as the logical step when the economy tightens does not reassure that such a hypothetical and ironic devaluation of human life is an impossibility.

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The Lie of the Needle

by Tom McClusky

August 2, 2008

A group of liberal Congressmen, joined by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), are looking for cosponsors for H.R. 6680, a bill to increase federal funding for controversial needle exchange programs. They make a rather questionable claim in their “Dear Colleague”:

With approximately 12,000 Americans contracting HIV/AIDS directly or indirectly each year from the sharing of contaminated syringes, it is critical that we make federal dollars available to programs that effectively reduce the number of contaminated syringes on our streets.”
While most of my experience with needle exchange program is more anecdotal from my time in Washington, DC (which has allowed for private funding for years and just recently allowed for taxpayer funded needle exchanges), it has not been pleasant. The areas where the needle distribution trucks would gather generally became high crime areas and also drew in a lot of drug dealers knowing they had a gathered customer base. Scientific evidence about the efficacy of needle exchange programs has been imprecise. The truth is giving needles to illegal drug users is like giving matches and gasoline to a pyromaniac. Instead of reducing cases of HIV/AIDS many cities that have needle exchange programs find higher rates among drug users.

Vancouver, Canada, has the largest needle give-away program in North America. Two million syringes are distributed each year.

Since the program started in 1988, HIV prevalence among intravenous drug users has gone from 1% to 2% to 23%, and deaths from drug overdoses have increased fivefold, giving Vancouver the highest heroin death rate in the United States and Canada.

In a Montreal study, 39% of those who participated in its needle-exchange reported sharing dirty needles, compared to 38% of nonparticipants.”

The city of Baltimore has had a taxpayer funded needle exchange for over a decade. A recent report from the Baltimore City Commission on HIV and AIDS has found that Baltimore now ranks second among cities in the nation for HIV/AIDS cases. The study also showed that AIDS cases are most prevalent in areas with high drug abuse and among injection drug users.

Congress’ newest effort would result in facilitating an extermination program of the addicted - I’m sure that is not their intention, however that would clearly be the result.

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iPS Cells from ALS Patient an Advance, But Not the First Patient-Specific Stem Cells

by David Prentice

August 2, 2008

A team of scientists from Harvard University and Columbia University has reprogrammed skin cells from two elderly patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), producing iPS cells, an embryonic-type stem cell. Then from the iPS cells, they produced cells resembling motor neurons, the type of neurons that are attacked in the disease. This is the first time any embryonic-type stem cell has been created directly from a patient. The iPS cell technology, developed by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan, directly reprograms normal cells such as skin cells into an embryonic stem cell type, using the addition of 3-4 genes. No embryos, eggs, or cloning are used in the process. Yamanaka first developed the technique in mice, then transferred the same process to use with human cells. The first human iPS cells were announced in November 2007 by Yamanaka and by Dr. James Thomson. In the few months since then over 100 human iPS cell lines have been created by various labs, but this is the first published instance where iPS cells were created from a patient with a specific disease. Further work will be needed to show whether the immature neurons that were produced can mature to functional motor neurons in the lab dish, whether they are similar to the motor neurons in ALS patients, and if they can provide any clues to the development of the disease. The team hopes that they can use the iPS-derived neurons to study the disease in the lab.

The Harvard team, led by Kevin Eggan, had been attempting to create patient-specific stem cells for over two years, by trying to produce embryonic stem cells from human embryos by cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer, SCNT) but had failed, in part because of the scarcity of human eggs (see Pining for Clones, Whining for Eggs) as well as the tremendous inefficiency of the cloning process. One of Eggan’s co-authors, Christopher Henderson, noted that if the iPS technique holds its promise in producing neurons and other cells for research, it will probably replace the cloning approach. Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch of MIT, another cloning scientist, noted that the iPS cell technology “is so much easier, [with] so many fewer restrictions and problems - ethical as well as others.” Jaenisch’s lab had also tried the cloning concept in mice and failed, but succeeded with the iPS cells. These same reasons led Prof. Ian Wilmut, cloner of Dolly the sheep, to give up on cloning in favor of Yamanaka’s technique.

The results of this study should put another nail in cloning’s coffin. Eggan still insists that he will continue with cloning research, but all the results are flowing from iPS cells. The New York Stem Cell Foundation, previously a die-hard supporter of cloning and very critical of iPS cells, wasted no time in trumpeting their “critical funding role” in the new study. One of Eggan’s major funders, the Stowers Institute, has relentlessly pushed cloning. Stowers poured $30 million into Missouri in 2006 to pass Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment to secure the right to create cloned human embryos. Stowers CEO, William Neaves, has said that “the ultimate goal is not to create therapies with somatic cell nuclear transfer” but also that “The ultimate goal of all lines of this research is to be able, eventually, to reprogram ordinary body cells so that they could be used for therapy to replace cells that have been destroyed by injury or disease.” Sounds like iPS cells are achieving that goal. One company that rejected the iPS technique is Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). William Caldwell, CEO, had said in January 2008 that iPS “is not a substitute for what we’re doing now.” ACT was recently reported on the verge of bankruptcy. Similarly, Thomas Okarma, CEO of Geron, ignoring the facts and statements of the scientists, said that the iPS technique was “too complicated and too expensive.” (Maybe he should look at what happened to ACT.) Cloning continues to fail, iPS cells keep delivering results.

Back to some inaccuracies in most of the news reports on this latest study. What they did was show for the first time that iPS cells, an embryonic stem cell, could be made directly from patients with a disease (without harming the cell donor, and without using eggs, embryos, or cloning), and also that they could produce in the lab a specialized cell type similar to that affected in the disease. But is this the first instance of a disease-specific human cell line? No, there are lots of those, going all the way back to 1952 and the very first cultured human cell line, the HeLa cell line (the disease in that instance was cancer.)

But isn’t this the first instance of a patient-specific stem cell line? No. That honor belongs to the Australian group led by Professor Alan Mackay-Sim of Griffith University, that already made patient-specific and disease-specific stem cell lines. They isolated adult stem cells from the nasal tissue of patients, including Parkinson’s patients. AND they turned those stem cell lines into the type of tissue affected in the patient,. AND they have already gone beyond the iPS result; they used their adult stem cell lines in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease. AND the adult stem cells successfully treated the disease in the animals. Without tumor formation.

So the current iPS cell result is a nice advance, but it’s not the first evidence of patient-specific or disease-specific stem cells, and certainly not the best.

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Pining for Clones, Whining for Eggs

by David Prentice

August 2, 2008

Would-be cloners continue to complain that they cannot get enough human eggs for their experiments to create human clones. AP reporter Marcus Wohlsen reports that scientists and biotech entrepreneurs are pushing for payments to women who donate eggs for research.

The push has been especially strong in California and Massachusetts, where payments to egg donors for research are prohibited, and where several research groups continue to push for human clones. Wohlsen accurately lays out the experimental science as well as the controversy. As the article notes, “The conflict centers on an effort to create stem cells from embryos that are exact clones of adults.” Cloning (technically termed somatic cell nuclear transfer, SCNT) involves transferring the nucleus of a body cell such as a skin cell (a “somatic” cell) into an egg that has had its own nucleus/chromosomes removed. The result is creation of an embryo.

But one of the problems with cloning is that it is a famously inefficient technique. This means that a huge number of eggs are required to create just a few embryos. Hence the problem with human cloning—where to get all of the human eggs? As Wohlsen notes, “One of the problems is that there is a significant risk to the health of a woman who donates eggs.” High doses of hormones are used to “hyperstimulate” a woman’s ovaries, to produce not 1 or 2, but 10, 20, or 30 eggs at a time. And the hyperstimulation can lead to serious consequences for the women.

As Wohlsen says, “Even under normal doses, drugs used to coax eggs for use by fertilization clinics can occasionally lead to serious complications caused by excessive stimulation of the ovaries. In rare instances, the condition can be fatal.”

Stanford professors Magnus and Cho give these figures:

Between 0.3 and 5% or up to 10% of women who undergo ovarian stimulation to procure oocytes experience severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause pain, and occasionally leads to hospitalization, renal failure, potential future infertility, and even death.”

For a sample of what can go wrong, see the story of Calla Papademas; for more info see the website of Hands Off Our Ovaries, a feminist group opposed to risking women’s health for risky experiments.

In their June 2005 article in Science, Magnus and Cho also address the hype associated with cloning and potential cures, what they term the “therapeutic misconception”:

…researchers must make every effort to communicate to these volunteers that it is extremely unlikely that their contributions will directly benefit themselves or their loved ones. Also, it is nearly certain that the clinical benefits of the research are years or maybe decades away. This is a message that desperate families and patients will not want to hear.”

Perhaps coincidentally, the Magnus and Cho article appeared in the same issue of Science as one of the fraudulent human cloning papers of Woo-Suk Hwang, where he claimed he had cloned patients to create “patient-specific embryonic stem cells”.

Still the whining continues that many more eggs are needed for cloning. Kevin Eggan at Harvard has complained loudly that two years and $100,000 in advertising brought in a total of only one egg donor. Cloning proponents also claim that the lack of eggs is “preventing medical breakthroughs”. One of their claims is that cloning will create embryonic stem cells that will match the patient who has been cloned, the so-called “patient-specific stem cells”.

Actually two simpler, more straightforward, and cheaper ways to get patient-specific stem cells have already been proven. Interestingly, one result was just announced by… Kevin Eggan of Harvard, making induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from the skin of patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). The other way has been published by an Australian team, using nasal adult stem cells from patients.

One might wonder, then, why the continued angst about getting eggs and human cloning. One answer may be economic. The only team to publish verified cloning of a human embryo is the company Stemagen, in January 2008. No stem cells were obtained at all, but they are supposedly continuing to try cloning in the hopes that they can market the cells from cloned embryos, or maybe the embryos themselves. Part of their success apparently resulted from getting fresh human eggs direct from the fertility clinic. Conveniently, one of the Stemagen cloners, Wood, runs the Reproductive Sciences Center in San Diego, the in-vitro fertilization clinic that obtains the eggs.

This brings up the question of conflict of interest for those harvesting the eggs, torn between caring for the health of the women donating eggs vs. the incentive to retrieve as many eggs as possible. According to a recent story, more women are donating eggs to fertility clinics, but often to help their financial situation. Supporters of restrictions on payments for egg harvesting for research note that the restrictions are necessary to avoid creating a market for human eggs that encourages women to risk their health for speculative science. Whether the push for egg payments in California is related to creating a market for eggs to allow cloning, and relationships between Stemagen and Alan Trounson, the President of California’s stem cell quango, was recently examined by the California Stem Cell Report. Questions about Trounson have surfaced before, especially in relation to his attempted rat-trick with Australian MP’s during their embryo research debate in 2002.

Given the easier, cheaper, and much more successful alternatives, and the significant ethical problems related to getting human eggs, it would seem the idea of SCNT cloning should be quickly dropped.

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No Cloning Around with Humans for Hwang

by David Prentice

July 31, 2008

In his dogged determination to continue cloning, Woo-Suk Hwang had requested that he be allowed to resume human cloning work. But now South Korea’s National Committee on Bioethics has denied Hwang’s request to work with human eggs and embryos. Hwang is still on trial for fraud, embezzlement, ethical breaches and other charges stemming from his human cloning fraud. As part of the fallout, South Korea’s parliament recently tightened its bioethics laws somewhat, prohibiting cross-species cloning to form animal-human hybrid embryos (using animal eggs and human nuclei.) While Hwang awaits the verdict on his charges, he has occupied himself with animal cloning, such as cloning dogs, including Booger. No word yet on when the cloned mammoth will be ready.

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