The Top Stories of 2008

Posted by Jesse Reynolds January 6, 2009
Biopolitical Times

Now that 2008 is behind us, below I try to capture the top ten news stories in  reproductive and genetic technologies.

Consumer genetic testing received and enormous amount of media coverage. Most media accounts fawned over the purportedly recreational wide-genome scans such as 23andMe, in part due to these companies' efforts to present their products as the must-have item of the hip and intellectual elite (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Some looked forward to, and even purchased, complete genome scans (1, 2, 3). Consumers also saw a greater number of over-the-counter products, such as a paternity tests and test that supposedly assesses children's talents (1, 2), as well as a rise in direct-to-consumer advertising. Many experts expressed concerns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), particularly about how people may respond to medically significant information in the absence of counseling as well as the tests' accuracy (1, 2). Regulators in California and New York intervened (1, 2, 3), but eventually backed off. In perhaps-related developments, the Internet giant Google, which was something of a launching pad for 23andMe, entered the health records market and backed an effort to scan thousands of genomes (1, 2, 3).

The first clonal and genetically modified human embryos were reported. The former was created by a small southern California biotech firm, Stemagen (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Although it was intended for research, Stemagen scientists did not attempt to derive stem cells from it. This task appears to have been recently replicated by a team in China. The first genetically modified human embryo was created in 2007, but uncovered in 2008 (1, 2, 3).

The new reprogramming method of creating fully pluripotent stem cells from normal body cells continued to make progress (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), although some scientists and observers seemed to resist acknowledging their potential and progress (1, 2, 3).

DNA forensics came under fire. Maura Dolan and Jason Felch at the Los Angeles Times produced an impressive investigative series about the limitations of DNA forensic databases (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and other papers published pieces as well (1, 2, 3). After expanding its database, as well as hearing recommendations that children be included, the United Kingdom was rebuked by the European High for Human Rights. Meanwhile, both the US federal government and California are expanding their forensic DNA databases to include people arrested but not convicted (1, 2).

Surrogacy made the news (1, 2, 3, 4) particularly the outsourcing of commercial surrogacy to India (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) That nation later took steps towards regulation of the half-billion-dollar industry (1, 2).

The first "race-based medicine" flopped. NitroMed stopped marketing BiDil, which had failed meet expectations, and then sold it off entirely. However, more race-based drugs are in development.

The global financial crisis struck the biotech industry, causes strains at enterprises including the controversial stem cell company Advanced Cell Technology (1, 2), a prominent consumer genetics firm, and the California stem cell research agency. Meanwhile, there were several reports of increased numbers of women lining up to provide eggs and surrogacy for cash (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The United Nations seems to be gearing up for reviving attempts towards a binding international treaty prohibiting human reproductive cloning (1, 2)

The United Kingdom overhauled its regulation of reproductive technologies and embryo research (1, 2, 3, 4). The most contentious point was the permissibility of creating animal-human hybrid embryos for stem cell research, which scientists succeeded in creating just before the bills' debate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). The prime minister got squarely behind the bill (1, 2, 3), which was highly controversial.

Pet and animal cloning made a surprising comeback after a relatively quiet 2007. Europe and the US debated whether to allow cloned meat in their food supplies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The feasibility of cloning endangered and extinct species - such as a mammoth - were discussed in serious fora (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The research team behind disgraced researcher Woo-Suk Hwang split into two competing factions, each with its own dog cloning company, and each with its publicity gimmicks (1, 2, 3, 4). The public face of this endeavor was a former beauty pageant queen who is on the lam. And while you are getting a pet cloned, you can consider having him or her genetically enhanced. A strange year indeed.