What I’m Reading: Stem Cell Century
Research on human stem cells has been at the centre of one the more ferocious science policy debates in the US, only partially cooled off by recent claims that the necessary cultures can be generated from samples taking from adults, rather than from human embryos destroyed in the process.
by Russell Korobkin (with a joint chapter on patents by Stephen Munzer) is a useful guide to the way the debate evolved in the US. There doesn’t seem to have been anything like the same controversy in Oz, although there has been at least one notable example of what might be called common or garden scientific misconduct.
Perhaps because the US stem cell debate is a bit remote for me, I found more interest in the chapters showing how commercial interests in research collided with general scientific ideals of free communications and with donors’ anger when they found that their donated (or appropriated) body tissue had been used to make highly profitable products.Kieran Healy of CT
Much of the debate about the relationship between donors and researchers on these issues has been cast in the framework of “informed consent”, which I think is not very helpful here. Neither I think is a focus on property rights over body parts. The real issue is how to finance the provision of public goods like medical research, characterized by highly uncertain returns.
I’ve looked at how to pay for medical research before and generally reached the conclusion that patents are not the best way to go, a view that is strengthened by a reading of Stem Cell Century. Looking at the conflicts discussed here, it seems that they might be less severe if successful research were rewarded by prizes, including ex gratia payments to crucial participants such as tissue donors.