Friday, April 16, 2010

Teaching Kills Blogging: Somewhat Recent Developments...

Dear Faithful Readers: Teaching has cut my blogging to a trickle, though the teaching has now begun to taper off. My silence is not for want of major developments in the last two months. Among a few highlights:

Obama picks members for his Bioethics advisory panel: White house recently announced membership of its "Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues." The group is smaller than past Presidential panels. Its membership is lean on working bioethicists (3 or 4 who clearly fit the classic definition-- all others scientists, clinicians, federal employees, university administrators, or a disease advocate).

Health care reform (+ Translational Research) passes in the U.S.: Among the intriguing elements here is the relationship between reform and biomedical research. When Clinton proposed healthcare reform in the 1990s, there was much consternation in the research community that this would spell a retreat from investment in basic research. Indeed, failure to enact reform propelled a massive expansion of the NIH budget through the 1990s. This time around, healthcare reform has specifically integrated basic research. The law includes language creating a "Cures Acceleration Network" that would fund up to $15M/year in translational research (though the budget will depend on direct appropriation from Congress, and there is no certainty that it will be funded).

Gene Patents Voided: Following an ACLU challenge, a U.S. District Court Judge threw out Myriad Genetics' patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2 (genes associated with hereditary breast cancer; the company markets a $3K per pop test for mutations in the genes) by ruling that the genes are "products of nature." Products of nature are not patentable, though products purified from nature (e.g. enzymes, wood chemicals, etc.) are. The logic behind the decisions is that genes are better thought of as information rather than as chemicals, and that information extracted from the natural entities does not have distinct properties in the way that chemicals do. If ever there were a demonstration of the power of metaphors; suffice it to say, biotechnology companies will appeal. (photo credit: aurelian s 2008)

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