Author Archive | Russell Korobkin

Exciting Stem Cell News:

Two publications (Science and Cell) published papers today showing that scientists have succeeded in reprogramming human adult cells to behave much like human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Following on findings published several months using mouse rather than human cells, the researchers responsible for today’s results were able to spur the reprogramming by inserting four genes into the adult cells.

The big question is whether this new technique will quell the stem cell research controversy, which arises largely from the fact that the stem cells scientists believe have the greatest medical potential are today derived from 5-day old embryos. The answer is “maybe.” Scientists interviewed in today’s New York Times article were ebullient about the results, but it is worth remembering that there have been two major scientific discoveries in the last 18 months that promised to end the debate and then quickly faded from public view. In the summer of 2006, scientist Robert Lanza showed that it was possible to produce hESC lines without destroying embryos by carefully removing single cells from many 8-cell embryos. Although long term effects are unknown, we know that removing a single cell from an embryo at that stage does not prevent it from developing. This technique is routinely used to obtain genetic material for preimplantation genetic testing, and the embryos (less one cell) are successfully used for implantation by in vitro fertility clinics. In January of this year, scientists from Harvard and Wake Forest Universities reported that they had discovered stem cells in amniotic fluid that possessed many traits of hESCs.

I am optimistic about today’s discovery, but three questions remained to be answered, two scientific and one philosophical.

The scientific questions: First, will further research show that these reprogrammed cells actually have all the features of hESCs that make the latter [...]

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Stem Cell Vote in New Jersey:

[In conjunction with the release this month of my new book, Stem Cell Century: Law and Policy for a Breakthrough Technology” (more info here), I’ll be blogging about policy issues related to stem cell research and regenerative medicine occasionally over the next several weeks.]

Election season in the 21st Century seems to inevitably bring a battle over stem cell research, and 2007 is no different. Tomorrow, New Jersey residents will vote on a proposal to issue $450 million dollars in bonds over the next 10 years to fund stem cell research, a plan quite similar in design to California’s Proposition 71, the enactment of which in 2004 provided $3 billion in state funding over a decade. (Although frivolous legal challenges delayed the implementation of Prop. 71, appeals were exhausted in May and California’s stem cell agency is now providing funding in earnest.) Along with $270 million that New Jersey has already authorized to build five stem cell research facilities, tomorrow’s initiative, if passed, would make that state’s financial commitment to stem cell science second only to California’s in size, putting the Garden State’s effort comfortably ahead of New York’s and increasing the distance between it and far smaller financial commitments made by handful of other states including Connecticut, Maryland, and Illinois.

The race among states to publicly fund stem cell research is a response, of course, to President Bush’s prohibition on the use of federal funds to support research on any human embryonic stem cell lines derived from embryos after August 9, 2001. But even assuming that it is not immoral to destroy 5-day old embryos in the cause of medical research, that embryonic stem cells have particularly valuable therapeutic potential, and that the Bush funding policy is internally illogical (future posts will explain why all three of [...]

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Fidel Castro Endorses Clinton-Obama Ticket.–

Reuters is reporting that Cuba’s ailing Fidel Castro has suggested a Clinton-Obama ticket for the US general election:

HAVANA (Reuters) – Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro is tipping Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to team up and win the U.S. presidential election.

Clinton leads Obama in the race to be the Democratic nominee for the November 2008 election, and Castro said they would make a winning combination.

“The word today is that an apparently unbeatable ticket could be Hillary for president and Obama as her running mate,” he wrote in an editorial column on U.S. presidents published on Tuesday by Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper, Granma.

At 81, Castro has outlasted nine U.S. presidents since his 1959 revolution turned Cuba into a thorn in Washington’s side by building a communist society about 90 miles offshore from the United States.

He said all U.S. presidential candidates seeking the “coveted” electoral college votes of Florida have had to demand a democratic government in Cuba to win the backing of the powerful Cuban exile community.

Clinton and Obama, both senators, called for democratic change in Cuba last week. . . .

Castro said former President Bill Clinton was “really kind” when he bumped into him and the two men shook hands at a U.N. summit meeting in 2000. He also praised Clinton for sending elite police to “rescue” shipwrecked Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives in 2000 to end an international custody battle.

But even Clinton was forced to bow to Miami politics and tighten the U.S. embargo against Cuba in 1996, using as a “pretext” the shooting down of two small planes used by exile groups to overfly Havana, Castro wrote.

He said his favorite U.S. president since 1959 was Jimmy Carter, another Democrat, because he

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How Homicidal Was the Old West?–

Randy Roth (Ohio State), the leading historian studying homicide rates, has a piece in Reviews in American History [available only to some readers logging on through their university libraries] that examines two items of academic folklore. In this post, I address the widespread myth that homicides were rare in the “Old West.”

In recent years it has become fashionable for historians (such as Robert Dykstra and Michael Bellesiles) to claim that it was a myth that the Old West was particularly violent. Notheless, other historians, such as Clare McKanna and David Peterson Del Mar, have reported very high rates of homicide in the West in the late 19th century (compared to current rates in the US).

Who is right?

Roth carefully reviews the data and confirms the work of McKanna and Peterson Del Mar, showing it to be consistent with recent work by Kevin Mullen, John Boessenecker, and (the late, great) Eric Monkkonen, .

Roth concludes:

Because the counties in McKanna’s study reflect the diversity of rural
southern and central California as a whole, there is reason to believe that the
homicide rate in the southern two-thirds of the state (excluding San Francisco)
was between 66 and 80 per 100,000 adults per year—the 99% confidence interval
for McKanna’s seven counties combined. If we include San Francisco and
Los Angeles counties, the interval for all of southern and central California
was between 60 and 70 per 100,000 adults per year—seven times the homicide
rate in the United States today (and 28.7 standard deviations away)
. An
adult exposed to that rate for sixteen years stood a 1 in 96 chance of being
murdered, and an adult exposed to that rate for 45 years would have stood
a 1 in 34 chance of being murdered. We cannot make assumptions about the

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Abigail Alliance and therapeutic cloning

What is most interesting about Rogers’ dissent in Abigail Alliance (which in its essentials was the original panel’s majority opinion) is that it would interpret a historical record showing a lack of regulation as evidence of a “tradition” supporting unrestricted liberty. (The dissent is correct that the historical record of regulation laid out by the majority shows only a tradition of prohibiting fraud, not a tradition of regulation to ensure efficacy and/or safety.) This move, if it had ultimately carried the day, would have provided support for finding a fundamental right of unimpeded access to new technologies, because there is no historical tradition of regulating these technologies.

I’ve thought about this argument in the context of attempts by Congressional conservatives to pass a law that would prohibit therapeutic cloning, the technique by which scientists seek to create an embryo with the genome of an adult cell and then harvest embryonic stem cells for research. No one has been able to make this process work in humans yet, but most scientists think it is possible and will be perfected sooner rather than later. The ultimate goal of therapeutic cloning is to one day be able to take a skin cell from a patient, create an embryonic stem cell line with the patient’s genome, and then create individualized stem cell treatments that won’t subject the patient to the problem of immune system rejection.

Would a Congressional prohibition of therapeutic cloning infringe a fundamental right? If we were to interpret a historical absence of regulation as equivalent to a history of affirmative support for an individual freedom, perhaps so: there is no tradition of the states or the federal government attempting to prevent anyone from seeking the health benefits of therapeutic cloning!

The Rogers’ approach never had much of chance to survive review [...]

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The NBA Gambling Scandal:

In a New York Times op-ed piece today, Justin Wolfers, a very smart Wharton Business School professor, argues that legalization of a certain type of betting can reduce the risk of players or referees acting to affect betting outcomes. Wolfers’ key assumption is that most gambling scandals involve point shaving but not throwing of games. That is, players take money to do something like miss a shot (or not take one) in the last few seconds when their team is behind by ten points and they are nine point underdogs, or the referee calls a foul on the nine-point favorite with a few seconds left, enabling the underdog to add two points and beat the spread. The solution to this problem is to legalize gambling but only on the question of which team will win the game. This type of bet, sometimes called a “moneyline” bet, gives the gambler who bets on the underdog favorable odds on the bet rather than “points,” or a “spread.” You can make such “odds” bets rather than “spread” bets in many places, although betting with a spread is much more common in basketball and football. (I believe that moneyline betting is the predominant approach for baseball).

Wolfers’ suggestion is clever, and it just might work. Of course, off-shore bookies would still take spread bets, but if odds bets were legal and regulated, perhaps the market for spread bets wouldn’t be very big. What is more interesting to me, however, is an implication that Wolfers does not address: if he is correct that nearly all gambling corruption involves only shaving points in a way that doesn’t affect who wins, the public shouldn’t be too concerned about the current NBA scandal. Sure, it isn’t anything to be happy about if the corrupt referee was blowing the [...]

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Language as Social Signal:

I agree with what Sasha and Eugene have said about the descriptivist view of language, but I think language serves an instrumental goal that has yet to be explicitly described. By speaking (or at least attempting to do so) proper English, I not only potentially impress the elites with my intelligence, I send a signal to the population broadly that I am the type of person who knows and conforms with social norms. This signal labels me as a probable “cooperator” rather than “defector” in human interactions, and thus a good bet to treat them in a trustworthy way in a variety of social or business interactions that might arise. Someone who speaks improper English, much like someone who sports an eyebrow ring, signals a disinclination to comply with customary social norms, and marks themselves as a bad candidate for trust. [...]

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Regulating Dangerous Dogs:

An article in today’s New York Times (here) discusses a Virginia law governing dogs that have been declared dangerous by a court for attacking a person. The dogs go on a public registry, similar to a sex offender registry, and the owners are required to carry a $100,000 liability insurance policy.

The registry seems a bit silly: are people really going to consult the directory and make a housing purchase decision because a dog who has bitten lives nearby? It might be somewhat more useful for someone choosing a jogging route, but if you’ve never seen the felonious canine where you jog or walk, you probably aren’t going to change your behavior based on the small chance that Cujo might jump over the fence when you are passing by.

The liability insurance requirement, on the other hand, is an excellent idea. If you want to own a dangerous dog, why should the rest of us bear the risk? Homeowners insurance often covers dog bites, but many policy have exclusions and, of course, many dog owners are not home owners. I don’t have data, but I would hazard a guess that a fair number of “dangerous dog” owners are judgment proof.

The idea of the insurance requirement might even be a way to break the longstanding stalemate over “dangerous breed” regulation. A number of localities have passed laws against the ownership of dangerous breeds — usually pit bulls and Rottweilers. I have no problem with these laws. Dog bites are a serious problem: they send 800,000 people to the emergency room every year, half of them children. And these two breeds are responsible for 1/2 to 2/3 of fatal or near fatal bits, depending on the study. I love dogs (and own one), but I don’t think that prohibiting people from [...]

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Waivers of Liability for “Gross Negligence”:

The California Supreme Court issued an interesting decision this week on the enforceability of liability waivers in standard form contracts. At issue in City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, — Cal.Rptr.3d — (2007 WL 2027806), was a release from liability for “any negligent act” signed by a parent as part of an enrollment contract that allowed her daughter to participate in a camp for disabled children run by the city of Santa Barbara. The court ruled, 6-1, that the contract was enforceable as to allegations of ordinary negligence, but not gross negligence. This wasn’t surprising; it is standard hornbook law that such waivers in the context of recreational activities are enforceable as to ordinary negligence but not as to gross negligence, although a few jurisdictions won’t even enforce waivers for ordinary negligence. But it is interesting that, according to the court, it had never actually addressed this issue (although for decades Witkin on California Law has claimed that the majority rule applies in the Golden State).

One interesting issue is the logical coherence of the doctrine in this area. Why enforce liability releases even for ordinary negligence? It might make sense to enforce releases of narrow waivers of liability concerning specific conduct, on the ground that the consumer might be able to avoid some harms more cheaply than the seller can prevent it, and the parties should be able to contract for this efficient state of affairs: for example, a ski resort operator might state that it does not check the slopes daily for rocks, and the customer is precluded from suing if he crashes into one. But when the customer waives liability for all negligence, he usually will have no idea what precautions the seller otherwise would be taking but is declining to take as a result [...]

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