Thursday, June 11, 2015

California Stem Cell Agency Symposium: 'Vague Fears' vs. Potential Genetic Alteration of Human Race

California’s $3 billion stem cell agency has called a high-level meeting for next fall to examine a
"red-hot" issue that many prominent researchers say could lead ultimately to alteration of the human race.

The topic is a technique that makes it much easier to alter the genetic make-up of individuals in a way that can be inherited by their offspring.

In April, scientists in China reported genetically modifying human embryos in what was regarded as a “world first.” (See here and here.)

More recently Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, wrote on May 28 about how the subject was viewed at a meeting called, “Biotech and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit.”
Steven Pinker
“The far end of techno-enthusiastic perspectives, both on human germline modification specifically and on biotech in general, was represented by Harvard experimental psychologist and popular science writer Steven Pinker. In his opening remarks, Pinker counseled bioethicists to ‘stay out of the way of progress.’ In his closing comments, he cast ‘vague fears’ as standing in the way of saving millions of lives. In between, he epitomized the ‘bad boy scientism’ that too frequently characterizes the biotech field.” 
Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the stem cell agency, and Geoff Lomax, the agency’s main person on bioethics, wrote on June 1 about the matter and the upcoming meeting. In an item on the agency’s Stem Cellar blog, they said,
“Given CIRM’s support for research activities where genome editing may be employed, we believe it is important to have effective policies to guide our future funding decisions. Therefore, we have charged the CIRM Medical and Ethical Standards Working Group with convening a public workshop to elucidate the scientific and policy considerations surrounding genome editing in the context of CIRM supported research. This workshop is a first step in evaluating whether CIRM should make changes to its existing policies governing stem cell research.”
 CIRM’s standards group consists of some of the top bioethicists in the country. Early on, they developed the agency’s rules for research on stem cells, which were the most advanced in the country at the time. The chairman of the group is Bernie Lo of UC San Francisco.

The genome-editing issue to be discussed in November was originally scheduled to be brought up at an April meeting of the standards group. However, it was put off for a variety of reasons. Thomas subsequently called the meeting for next fall.

At the April meeting, Ted Peters of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and a member of the stem cell standards group, said the issue was “red hot.”  Jeff Sheehy, a member of the agency board and a communications manager at UC San Francisco, said the agency needed to clarify where it stood.  

Robert Taylor of the Emory School of Medicine and also a member of the standards group, said,
“There are companies that are offering to do this for your cell line, so it's really out there.”
Lo said,
“I think Jeff has raised a really important, complex and breaking topic. I think the idea of having a symposium to deal with both the science, and the ethics policy could be a really important thing to do.” 
 Suggestions regarding the meeting can be sent to Lomax at

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