Saturday, February 13, 2016

LA Times on California's Stem Cell Agency, Biotech Gold Rush and Genetically Altering Human Embryos

The Los Angeles Times, which largely ignores the $3 billion California stem cell agency in its news columns, is carrying a piece this weekend that says the agency is considering “work so controversial that the federal government won’t pay for it.”

The reference is to the possibility of the state of California financing research that involves the editing of genes in human embryos, which the agency began to explore at some length at a Feb. 4 meeting in Los Angeles.

The Feb. 12 Times story, written by Melody Petersen, is straight news piece that recaps the controversy about the possibility of making heritable changes in human beings through the use of CRISPR technology. She also covered how the agency intends to proceed with its review.

Peterson described how businesses are embracing CRISPR,

“It has set off a biotech gold rush as scientists imagine its commercial uses and found start-up companies that are attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital.”

Peterson also wrote about the likelihood of heritable changes in embryos, interviewing Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley. She quoted Darnovsky as saying,

"This is not safe. It's still way too early to try such an experiment on a human being."

Peterson continued,

“The agency's current regulations say that no money can be used to transfer a genetically modified human embryo to a woman to start a pregnancy. But some experts worry that agency-funded researchers could later turn to other sources to finance the reproductive stage of their work.

"'If you have genetically modified embryos in labs around the state,’ Darnovsky said, ‘what's to stop them from being used to initiate a pregnancy?"

Peterson quoted Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications at the stem cell agency, as saying, "So far we have not funded any research that involves CRISPR, nor have we received any proposals for funding using that technology. But that's probably just a matter of time."

The stem cell agency has longed struggled with a lack of news media attention. It would like to spread the word about what it considers its good works, such as the well over $500 million it has pumped into enterprises in the immediate Los Angeles area. The LA Times is an especially important medium because it is the largest circulation newspaper in the state, has an enormous Internet presence and helps to drive what is covered by other outlets.

But given the state of the media nowadays and the shrinkage in science reporting, about all the agency can really expect for now is coverage when something extraordinary happens or when there is the likelihood of something extraordinary happening such as genetic changes being made in human embryos.

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