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Advocates for Children and Childhood Mobilizing on Concerns about GM Babies

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on April 17th, 2014


Last week's Global Summit on Childhood in Vancouver, a gathering of some 500 advocates for children and childhood, included a session titled "Genetically Modified Babies? An Immediate Threat to Children and What Advocates Can Do Right Now"

Mothers for a Human Future's Enola Aird and I spoke about the proposal pending in the UK for clinical trials of the "three-person embryo" technique that would constitute inheritable genetic modification. Draft regulations are being finalized now, and will be delivered to Parliament as soon as next month. 

Information for delegates to the Summit - and anyone else - who would like to communicate about this proposal to MPs and other authorities in the UK can be found here. Also online are the flyer for our session and our PowerPoint presentation.

Concern about the safety, efficacy, familial and societal implications of such socially and biologically radical procedures has been growing among advocates for children and childhood. Recent commentaries include several by Enola Aird  at MomsRising.org:

Peggy O'Mara, former editor and publisher of Mothering, has also written on the issue:

For more information on "three-person embryos" - the technology, policies, social and ethical implications - please see CGS's resource page.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Now They're Selling Synthetic Biology as Food?

Posted by Pete Shanks on April 16th, 2014


Friends of the Earth Vanilla campaign

Synthetic biology is a fascinating area of research, but its practitioners really seem to be flailing when it comes to commercial justification. The most highly publicized product has been synthetic artemisinin, a malaria treatment, which reached the market last year but seems to be of little commercial value and is probably socially harmful — all in all, a mistake, for various reasons described below. Right behind that has been the on-again, off-again, now on-again, attention given to biofuels, which have long been "the fuel of the future, and always will be."

Now it seems that the artificial food industry is taking up the tattered banner. New Scientist recently published a useful overview of the commercial market for synthetic biology products. Colin Barras, who wrote it, identifies a variety of synthetic food additives and flavorings that are on or close to market. Unsurprisingly, none of them seems likely to feed the starving.

Valencene, a citrus flavor, is already quietly on sale, from Allylix (a California company with investment from the German chemical giant BASF) and Isobionics, which is based in the Netherlands. The same two companies also make nootkatone, a flavor (and insect repellent) originally derived from grapefruit. Other food-type products that are in the pipeline for synthetic production include:

  • saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, thus ripe for replacement
  • stevia, a zero-calorie sweetener
  • resveratrol, a grape-based health supplement of unproven value

But the big struggle may be about vanilla. Evolva, a Swiss company, has found a biological way to make synthetic vanillin that it claims tastes better and costs less than the chemical version that has been on sale since the 19th century. Friends of the Earth is doing sterling work alerting the public, and encouraging a consumer backlash, focused in particular on ice cream. (Their efforts include a petition to Haagen Dazs, Dreyer's, Edy's, Baskin Robbins and other ice cream makers; more information with links to a social-media campaign is here.)

Despite some obligatory greenwashing, these food-type products are being made for purely commercial reasons; the hope is that they will be cheaper than the currently sold alternatives. (Synthetic resveratrol flopped once, but Evolva hopes to improve manufacturing efficiency.)

That puts them in a different category than artemisinin, whose development was financed by a $42 million grant from the Gates Foundation; no pharmaceutical company would put up the cash. It was touted quite deliberately as a flagship product, as these three quotes from the Barras article, taken together, demonstrate:

  1. "We thought, gosh — this is something we could make." — Jay Keasling, founder of Amryis, the company that developed artemisinin, when assessing possible molecules to synthesize
  2. "What's more inspiring than trying to benefit that many people on the planet? It's almost like the Apollo project — it's going to get kids into science and technology." — Rob Carlson, Biodesic
  3. "The artemisinin project is most useful because it reminded people that biology is not just a science but also a technology for making stuff." — Drew Endy, Stanford

Note that none of these even suggest that artemisinin is a good product. It's not. This article (like others before) lays out clearly that synthetic artemisinin is not needed and is hurting small farmers. Moreover, even if it were justifiable, chemical rather than biological synthesis would have been an easier and quicker approach. But making the product was never really the point; the point was to prove that the science could be commercialized — and heal the sick too. As Michael Pollan wrote in 2001 about "golden rice" (which is still not ready), it is a "purely rhetorical technology."

Amyris, the company, keeps stumbling on (check the stock price over the last five years), though there has been talk of bankruptcy. Keasling left years ago, having made some $17 million when the company went public, and the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi took over the artemisinin project. Sanofi almost tripled the efficiency of the final process with better chemistry, and is committed to "a no-profit, no-loss production model." Amyris is now working on cosmetics, fragrances, polymers, solvents and lubricants as well as fuels, with a variety of partners. Something may hit!

Artemisinin did succeed in putting synthetic biology into the public consciousness, albeit under a false flag. These food additives may be sneakier. They too may devastate the economy of large numbers of small landholders; they may or may not have negative environmental or even health effects; but, unless a sustained campaign highlights them, they are likely to fly under the radar.

And then, someone will point to them and say, "What's the problem with <my product>, nootkatone's been on the market for years?"

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





How Long Is Immortality?

Posted by Pete Shanks on April 15th, 2014


Dmitry Itskov

Richard Koo at the Bioethics blog of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai reminds us that we were remiss last year in chronicling the ambitions of Dmitry Itskov. If the name rings a bell, it's probably because Itskov made a big splash in the U.S. in June 2013, with the "second annual 2045 Global Future Congress" held at Manhattan's Lincoln Center. (The first was held in Moscow, in February 2012.) The theme was:

Towards a New Strategy for Human Evolution

Itskov was then a 32-year-old Russian internet millionaire (not, he insisted, a billionaire) who felt unfulfilled by the prospect of mere material success. His slightly spacey shtick combined technological optimism with an emphasis on spirituality. He envisaged creating — by the year 2045 — "avatars" into which we can upload our personalities and loosen the shackles of mere corporeal reality. Spiritual self-improvement would then become the proper work of humanity. "The strategy is based on carrying out two revolutions: spiritual and sci-tech." There is still a promotional video on YouTube, detailing the path to the the era of neo-humanity.

With that, and a willingness to lay out an estimated $3 million, he gathered an endorsement from the Dalai Lama, a feature in The New York Times, and interesting speakers for his $800-a-head extravaganza, which "nearly 800" attended. The event attracted a number of the usual suspects in transhumanist circles (Peter Diamandis, Ray Kurzweil, Martine Rothblatt, Natasha Vita-More), some academics (Marvin Minsky, George Church, Roger Penrose), religious people of various persuasions, and others including James Martin, who gave the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute its start.

The man behind all this explained, in a video interview, that he himself was more of a catalyst and a visionary than a scientist:

I'm creating the concept which can further cause the public demand which can further significantly increase the speed of development of the science.

So: big splash, lots of press (in addition to The New York Times, Forbes, Motherboard, HuffPost, GEN, CNN, MIT Technology Review and more). And since then? Well, pretty much bupkis, far as I can tell. There is a website, 2045.com, which claims to have 33,816 members enrolled (via Twitter or Facebook, or any of three Russian sites). It's been updated with a few relevant news articles (none of the latest ones mention the project), but I see no hint there of a Third Congress. Maybe Itskov fell out with Putin or is off in a retreat in Dharamsala or something.

Koo's Bioethics post also mentions the recent life-extension efforts by Google and Craig Venter, and asks some sensible questions:

  • Should we humans be going down this road at all to seek immortality or longer life?
  • Do these three projects, announced within the span of a year, portend the privatization of the quest for immortality or longer life?
  • Can privatizing the quest for immortality and long life become problematic?
  • How about regulating it?

There are serious questions about relying upon the capricious whims of rich individuals to perform actual research. If Itskov has indeed dropped out of sight, that should remind us just how short an attention span can be. But … why did so many take him so seriously?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Weighing the Scales on Genetic Information

Posted by Jessica Cussins on April 15th, 2014


By now the rhetoric of genetic testing enthusiasts is well entrenched. Knowledge is power. Knowing your genome means knowing yourself. Sharing is caring (The Circle, anyone?).

But the fault lines are spreading. It turns out that a lot of genetic information is actually not very accurate, and that not everyone wants to know about their increased chances of dying young or that their future child will have a disability. Many people are realizing they do not wholly control their genetic data and should not expect privacy, and people are rightly suspicious that insurance companies will use their genetic data against them.

This emerging backlash bespeaks the urgency of improvements in the field. We need better science, better oversight, and better protection.

We should probably also stop assuming that everyone would want genetic testing if only they had the means and access.

The good news is that bringing these facts to light is powerful. The FDA no longer allows 23andMe to offer health services, at least until it proves its accuracy. The American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG) has had to reverse its earlier recommendation that required patients to learn about incidental genetic findings.

But warning letters from the FDA, voluntary guidelines, and the significant but limited Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act are struggling to keep up with this fast-moving field.

As costs drop and plans for the use of genetic testing expand to embryos, fetuses, and newborns, it’s a powerful moment for reflection.

The policy of the future should not only be informed by clever marketing schemes of biotech firms, but also by the voices from the fault lines.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





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