Home > Books and culture, Science > What I’m Reading: Stem Cell Century

What I’m Reading: Stem Cell Century

February 24th, 2008

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.


“Stem Cell Century: Law and Policy for a Breakthrough Technology”

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


wrote the book on the latter topic

.

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.

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  1. February 24th, 2008 at 15:01 | #1

    prizes get my vote, if i had a vote. but of course, i don’t. [insert monomania here]

    these currently ‘big’ questions will soon be of trivial importance, when the children of the rich begin to be born with nearly eternal lifespans. i suppose the garden variety homo sap will fold his hands and accept a real low class, based on genetic inferiority.

  2. February 24th, 2008 at 20:55 | #2

    when the children of the rich begin to be born with nearly eternal lifespans.

    Surely they will want long living serfs to save on the waste incurred by having to constantly train new ones. ;-)

  3. February 24th, 2008 at 21:04 | #3

    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.

    We could have a pledge system. So a whole stack of concerned citizens might pledge publicly via an online database to give a certain amount of dollars to the first person to discover a cure for disease XYZ. All we would need then was an impartial judge.

  4. Ken
    February 26th, 2008 at 14:16 | #4

    I think it’s remarkable that the biotech industry hasn’t managed a major disaster so far, although I think the patenting of life could well qualify as a disaster in it’s own right. Or is it only me that gets upset that the biological commons, including all that exploration, selection, breeding and experimentation that predated the analysis and direct manipulation of DNA counts for nothing, and being able to detect and codify the genetics of a life process can mean a right to ownership of said process and perhaps all variations thereof. That the pre DNA development of plant and animal varieties remained largely in the public domain means the recently patented versions owe much to prior art. And as far as I know the new GMO’s use pre-existing genes and have not invented new ones. The tools may be inventions but the genes are discoveries. My only consoling thought is that there is a use by date on patents. Meanwhile I await the biotech disasters with some apprehension – weeds and diseases can and do spread themselves.

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