News of the Year 2011

Posted by Pete Shanks December 22, 2011
Biopolitical Times

Looking back at 2011, a few clusters of stories stand out, some harkening back a century or more, some shaping the future that is hurtling toward us. Most of them we have discussed on Biopolitical Times, over the course of more than 150 blog posts. The links in what follows lead either to those posts (all of them linked to sources) or to archived news reports. Do follow them for more information.

Sex selection

Sex selection became a major news story, helped along by the publication of Mara Hvistendahl's Unnatural Selection and by the Council of Europe's attention to the growing problem of sex selection in Europe. In December, Armenia became the latest country to publicize the issue.

Exploiting concerns about the spread of sex selection, opponents of abortion rights in the U.S. introduced a federal bill to ban sex-selective and "race selective" abortions. Reproductive and racial justice leaders pushed back firmly.

Meanwhile, one California fertility clinic abandoned the fig leaf of "family balancing" with an offer of PGD for sex selection whether or not the family already had at least one child of the other sex. Earlier in the year, the FDA revoked its permission for using sperm sorting, another high-tech sex selection method, for family balancing. 

Gene tests

A "proof of principle" was reported for testing full fetal genomes via maternal blood tests very early in pregnancy, and a prenatal maternal blood test for Down Syndrome went on sale (via doctors).

Gene tests purporting to identify athletic talent were marketed to the general public, despite concerns from pediatricians and the FDA. An FDA panel recommended that genetic testing always be under a doctor's supervision, but firm rules have not yet been implemented.

Surrogacy and scandals

A major surrogacy scandal in Thailand involved Vietnamese women held against their will in a ring apparently run out of Taiwan. Several countries, mostly in Europe, postponed or withheld citizenship for children born to foreign surrogates. In California, the FBI uncovered a baby-selling scheme involving prominent surrogacy lawyers; sentencing of the principals has begun.

India continued to be the destination for surrogacy most often discussed, but news also surfaced about surrogacy in South Africa, where rules are being tightened; in Georgia, where dire economic conditions are leading to surges in the number of women seeking to be hired as surrogates; in Israel; and the Ukraine.

Gamete donors and assisted reproduction

The rights of "donor offspring" and anonymity of gamete donors became a public issue, sparked by a British Columbia ruling, as well as by a front-page New York Times story and wide publicity given to sperm donors with up to 150 children. New warnings emerged about the risks involved in egg retrieval, and also in egg freezing, which attracted mainstream attention and concern.

Nadya Suleman's fertility doctor Michael Kamrava, who transferred 12 embryos in a procedure that led to the birth of octuplets, was stripped of his medical license. Robert Edwards, who in 2010 was awarded a Nobel Prize for establishing the first IVF pregnancy despite his discriminatory views on disability, was knighted.

Stem cells and regenerative medicine

The most surprising news of the year was that Geron — a pioneer in the embryonic stem cell field — abruptly quit the business in the middle of the first-ever clinical safety trial of it. One observer asked, "Isn't this a bit like Disney pulling out of the business of children's movies?"

Shortly before Geron's announcement, a new cloning technology was announced, though it is not yet "therapeutically relevant" and, like previous methods, would require large numbers of women's eggs. Women's health advocates criticized the way the researchers obtained the eggs they used. Meanwhile, research continued on induced pluripotent stem cells, though reports of compatibility issues and unexpected mutations dampened optimism.

California's CIRM, which had backed Geron with a loan of up to $25 million, got new high-paid leadership and said it would focus on helping businesses bring therapies, not necessarily ESC-based, to market, apparently with an eye on trying to extend its funding with another California ballot initiative. Blog and news stories reported, generally critically, that CIRM officials are talking about going back to voters for another $4 billion.

Gene therapy and genomics in medicine

Gene therapy reported a success in treating hemophilia, and experiments with mice showed promise for reversing liver disease and increasing resistance to HIV. This led to renewed optimism for the field, though it could yet be another false dawn.

The tenth anniversary of the publication of the human genome led to some boosting of the prospects for genomics in medicine, but it was tempered by concerns that it was coming much more slowly than anticipated. Later, data handling and interpretation rather than sequencing were said to be the new bottleneck for genomic personalized medicine.

Genetics and the law

An appeals court reversed a lower court ruling against Myriad Genetics in the ongoing gene patent lawsuit, but ACLU and others are appealing to the Supreme Court, which has already agreed to hear the Prometheus case. In Europe, the Court of Justice denied patents for some stem cell techniques.

Controversy in the US grew over collecting DNA from people arrested but not convicted, and police officers in several jurisdictions expressed concerns about being included in the databases, whose racial disparities also attracted attention. The UK agreed, in principle, to delete the DNA of innocent people from its forensic database. Familial searching was boosted by a success in California, and touted for its minor role in identifying Osama bin Laden.

Eugenics, its history and immediate consequences

Proposals to compensate victims of eugenic sterilizations in North Carolina gained national attention. Eugenics archives in both Philadelphia and London were published online. Fragments of an unpublished novel by Francis Galton serve as a reminder than some issues never seem to disappear entirely. Even more vivid were the testimonies of victims in North Carolina and elsewhere. Some "news" really should not be forgotten.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: