HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Monday, December 31, 2007

Bleak Bioethics Forecast for 2008

Writing at, Arthur Caplan predicts a bleak year on the bioethics front for 2008.  He writes,

Biggest disappointment

One of the most exciting breakthroughs to occur last year was the simultaneous discovery of how to make a type of skin cell behave as if it were an embryonic stem cell. Teams in Japan and Wisconsin announced that they had induced pluripotency in skin fibroblasts, meaning the cells had the power to turn into virtually any kind of human tissue. Most of those in the United States involved in the national hair pull over the morality of using human embryos as a source of stem cells for medical research heaved a huge sigh of exhausted relief.

Who on either side could stand one more round of overly heated debate? Inducing pluripotency to turn skin cells in embryo-like cells is a compromise we can all support, right? 

Well, kind of. While plenty of research will get done on this new source of stem cells in 2008 and beyond, it will quickly become evident that the techniques used to switch on the genes in adult skin cells are fraught with problems that make transplanting induced pluripotent cells into the human body a highly dangerous and highly unlikely thing to try. As a result, we'll be back to human embryos and cloned human embryos as the most promising sources of transplantable cells. It will be back to the new president and the new Congress to figure out whether they are going to spend money in this area or watch as the rest of the scientific world passes by the USA.

Easiest to predict disappointment

It is obvious that the American health care system is broke. It costs too much and for too many yet too often delivers poor quality of care. As the presidential campaign moves along, many are looking forward to an intelligent debate about how finally to fix it. Uh, not so fast. 

The American health care system has been broken for the past three decades and nothing radical has been done to fix it yet. Moreover, the nation is running a huge debt from its overseas wars and profligate loan and credit habits. This is not a formula for fixing anything about health care anytime soon. . . . .

Biggest continuing frustration

In a recent column I noted with some sadness that the latest trial of an HIV vaccine by Merck had to be stopped prematurely due to a higher rate of deaths in the placebo arm of the study. I did not get this right. Instead there was a higher rate of HIV infection among those who got vaccinated than in the placebo group. Analysis of what actually happened is expected in 2008. It is still not likely to be good news. . . . .

And it continues . . . . well, I myself preferred listening to the Science Friday on NPR's Talk of the Nation about the biggest science stories of this past year - even if I am being naive (and I should note that it wasn't focused exclusively on bioethics issues so more positive stories were included) - it was a big more hopeful about the future.

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