Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Basic Income Studies

The first issue of the new journal Basic Income Studies (published by The Berkeley Electronic Press) has just been published and you can access it here.

This journal is dedicated to an important topic (the basic income proposal) and will bring scholars from diverse fields (e.g. economics, political science, philosophy, public policy, etc.) together to address a range of pressing societal concerns.

The first issue has articles that explore basic income and workfare, migration policy and global justice. This issue also contains my book review of Brian Barry's latest book Why Social Justice Matters. You can access the review here.



Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Effects of Deliberation

Via Legal Theory Blog I see that David Schkade , Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie have posted a new article on SSRN entitled "What Happened on Deliberation Day?". The abstract of the paper is as follows:

What are the effects of deliberation about political issues? This essay reports the results of a kind of Deliberation Day, involving sixty-three citizens in Colorado. Groups from Boulder, a predominantly liberal city, met and discussed global warming, affirmative action, and civil unions for same-sex couples; groups from Colorado Springs, a predominately conservative city, met to discuss the same issues. The major effect of deliberation was to make group members more extreme than they were when they started to talk. Liberals became more liberal on all three issues; conservatives became more conservative. As a result, the division between the citizens of Boulder and the citizens of Colorado Springs were significantly increased as a result of intragroup deliberation. Deliberation also increased consensus, and dampened diversity, within the groups. Implications are explored for the uses and structure of deliberation in general.

I haven't had a chance to read the article yet but it should have important implications for democratic theory. Recall my previous posts on group polarization and deliberative democracy. Deliberative democrats must take empirical considerations seriously. So this new paper by Schkade , Sunstein and Hastie is a must read.


Medical Diagnostic Patent

The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to consider a case (LabCorp v. Metabolite Laboratories) involving a medical diagnostic test patent. The decision not to hear the case effectively upholds the patent. This case involved "a patent that claims a process for helping to diagnose deficiencies of two vitamins, folate and cobalamin. The process consists of using any test (whether patented or unpatented) to measure the level in a body fluid of an amino acid called homocysteine and then noticing whether its level is elevated above the norm; if so, a vitamin deficiency is likely".

A brief report on the decision (in the NY Times) is here and the dissenting opinion is available here.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer argued that "those who engage in medical research, who practice medicine, and who as patients depend upon proper health care, might well benefit from this Court’s authoritative answer" (to these questions). Here are a few of the sage insights in Breyer's dissenting opinion:

If I am correct in my conclusion in Part III that the patent is invalid, then special public interest considerations reinforce my view that we should decide this case. To fail to do so threatens to leave the medical profession subject to the restrictions imposed by this individual patent and others of its kind. Those restrictions may inhibit doctors from using their best medical judgment; they may force doctors to spend unnecessary time and energy to enter into license agreements; they may divert resources from the medical task of health care to the legal task of searching patent files for similar simple correlations; they may raise the cost of healthcare while inhibiting its effective delivery.

....Even if Part III is wrong, however, it still would be valuable to decide this case. Our doing so would help diminish legal uncertainty in the area, affecting a “substantial number of patent claims.” See Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 12–14 (filed Aug. 26, 2005). It would permit those in the medical profession better to understand the nature of their legal obligations. It would help Congress determine whether legislation is needed.

In either event, a decision from this generalist Court could contribute to the important ongoing debate, among both specialists and generalists, as to whether the patent system, as currently administered and enforced, adequately reflects
the “careful balance” that “the federal patent laws. . . embod[y].”

Breyer's opinion captures a number of important insights about the impact patents have on innovation and the role the Courts should play in trying to enhance our deliberation on important societal concerns.

The topic of genomic intellectual property is immensely important for to the issue of genetic justice. I hope to spend a good deal of this coming academic year working on the topic of gene patents, so I will have more to say about this in future blogs.



Monday, June 26, 2006

Supreme Court decision on Campaign Finance

Today the American Supreme Court ruled against a Vermont law that limited the campaign spending and fundraising of candidates running for state office. Here is a link to a brief report of the decision. And here is the full Supreme Court decision itself.

The majority gave different justifications for the ruling. One opinion (Justice Breyer) ruled that the limit violated the First Amendment. More specifically, the First Amendment's requirement of "careful tailoring". In other words, the degree to which this law impeded free speech was not deemed (by the Court) to be proportionate given the likely benefits that might be realised by such legislation. I haven't read through the whole decision myself, but if I see some useful links to this decision (concerning its likely impact) in the future I will update this post with some links.

The issue of campaign finance reform is a great example of how our fundamental political ideals often conflict with each other and responsible legislative (and judicial) activism requires an appreciation of the stakes at issue on both sides and an ability to judge what constitutes a reasonable balance between fundamental conflicting values (rather than crowning one right or freedom as "supreme").

One the one hand, a vibrant, healthy democracy requires ample opportunity for citizens and political parties to engage in political debate and deliberation. Yet on the other hand, genuine self-government is jeopardized when money exerts such an influence on the political process. Consider this. Lets hope that this particular decision is not a setback to serious campaign finance reform in the U.S.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Personal is Political

Feminist (e.g. Susan Okin) and egalitarian (G.A. Cohen) critics of liberalism often invoke the slogan “the personal is political”. I also embrace this slogan and thus the version of liberalism I defend (i.e. civic liberalism) is what John Rawls calls a “comprehensive (or partially comprehensive) doctrine”. Civic liberalism invokes ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, and much else that is to inform our conduct. I believe a non-ideal theory of distributive justice must have this expansive scope as the choices we make in our individual lives will influence the range of real options collectively open to us as we aspire for a more humane social arrangement.

Recall that one of the central goals of civic liberalism is to reasonably balance concerns of partiality with prioritarianism. Such an aim is stifled by theories of justice that focus exclusively on the principles that apply to institutions. State-centric conceptions of justice focus on the principles that apply to the constitution or political economy, but they are not concerned (at least in any substantive sense) with the daily choices individuals make in their lives. For example, decisions about how domestic responsibilities ought to be divided, or how individuals will spend their spare time and money. Civic liberalism rejects the limited scope of so-called “political liberalism”.

Civic liberalism prescribes that we cultivate an informed and engaged reflective citizenry. Such citizens will have an accurate sense of their position within the distributive scheme as well as the needs of others. This requires some intimate knowledge of our own society- its history, socio-economic prosperity, the needs of the disadvantaged, etc. The reflective citizen will possess the ability to make others imaginatively present in their own minds. Such a citizen seeks to balance their personal and familial obligations with the prioritarian obligation to others.

Virtuous citizens will not engage in rampant consumerist behaviour that unnecessarily jeapordizes their own financial security or obscures the reality of their place in the distributive scheme. Responsible household borrowing will not leave families unduly vulnerable to changing circumstances (e.g. rising inflation, mortgage rates, etc.). Nor do responsible citizens resist increased taxation when such measures will promote important goals of social justice. Virtuous individuals do not demand reduced taxation so they can re-pay the debts they have voluntarily incurred to satisfy their consumerist preferences.

So civic liberalism prescribes that citizens consider the other-regarding implications of their household borrowing behaviour. Something as simple as our attitudes towards our debt can have important consequences for the range of social policies we can collectively pursue. A virtuous polity will not require politicians to make hollow promises of tax cuts in order to have a chance of winning popular support.

According to a recent survey from ACNielsen, Americans are among the world’s most cash strapped people (and Canada ranked #3). Of U.S. consumers who do have spare cash, their first priority for that money is debt repayment (42%). The fact that so many citizens in affluent countries are living in debt is arguably a major obstacle to securing a more just society. By living beyond their means many Americans and Canadians see tax relief as a welcomed short-term solution to paying off their own growing individual debts. And any suggestion that we should raise taxes on the middle class is met with hostility. Such hostility is not surprising given the fact that many citizens who live beyond their means may actually owe more in debt than they possess in terms of assets. Given such dire circumstances citizens are unable to accurately perceive their own position in the distributive arrangement and the best possible remedies of addressing pressing collective concerns of social justice.

So I agree with those who argue that the personal is political. But the story gets much more complex than saying that our household borrowing impacts others. We also need to bear in mind the fact that people are temporal, social beings. Beings that have limited time and resources and demanding commitments to others (e.g. spouses, children, aging parents, etc.). So the challenge of finding the mean between partiality and prioritarianism is complicated by a diverse range of considerations. I will say more about this in a future post.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Rise of Deliberative Democracy

Over the past few years I have become deeply disillusioned with the armchair theorising that runs rampant in a good deal of contemporary political philosophy. Such theorising is most prevalent in debates concerning distributive justice. When one constructs what Jeremy Waldron amusingly calls a “I-expect-you’d-all-like-to-know-what-I-would-do-if-I-ruled-the-world” (Waldron 1999, p. 1) theory one devalues the importance of democracy by presupposing that one can determine what justice requires independently of any real democratic process.

Furthermore, most contemporary discussions of distributive justice function at the level of “ideal theory”, which means they bracket a number of real-life constraints that complicate the story of what justice requires (e.g. the facts of non-compliance, pervasive disadvantage, indeterminacy, etc.). I think this is also problematic for a whole host of reasons (see here).

One way of reducing our armchair proclamations and overtly idealized assumptions is to bring democracy back into the fold. This has occurred over the past decade or so as the “deliberative turn” (Dryzek, 2000) in democratic theory has enjoyed greater prominence in discussions about distributive justice. But even discussions of deliberative democracy can fall prey to the same pitfalls that have plagued abstract philosophical discussions of justice. This is perhaps unavoidable given that deliberative democrats defend a moralized conception of democracy and thus some degree of armchair theorising is inevitable as deliberative democracy is meant to be a transformative ideal, not a defence of the status quo.

So, like discussions of distributive justice, deliberative democrats need to determine what the appropriate level of fact-sensitivity ought to be if they are to defend deliberative democracy as a viable political ideal (rather than as “pie in the sky”).

One important challenge is to address what John Dryzek calls the “problem of large scale”. Michael Walzer raised this problem when argued that "deliberation is not an activity for the demos… 100 million of them, or even 1 million or 100,000 can’t plausibly ‘reason together'" (Deliberative Politics, p. 68.) For more details on how some deliberative democrats have tried to address this issue see my review article “Making Deliberative Democracy a More Practical Political Ideal” European Journal of Political Theory, Vol. 4(2), 2005, pp. 200-208. (Sage Publications).

In addition to tackling the problem of large scale, deliberative democrats must also take seriously other empirical realities- like the problem of group polarization. See my discussion here (especially the links to the important work of Cass Sunstein).

I recently read Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s latest book Why Deliberative Democracy? and I think they present two important features of deliberative democracy that can help us ensure that deliberative democrats avoid becoming entrenched in the same problems that have plagued debates on distributive justice.

Firstly, they present deliberative democracy as a “second-order" theory. First-order theories are theories "that seek to resolve moral disagreement by demonstrating that alternative theories and principles should be rejected" (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 13). So most contemporary debates in ethics and political philosophy are first-order debates. Utilitarians champion the principle of utility. Along comes Rawls who claims that we should reject utility in favour of his two principles of justice. Then along comes Nozick who claims we should defend the principles of entitlement. And a diverse range of egalitarians are currently debating what the appropriate first-order egalitarian principles are- equality of resources, opportunity for welfare, democratic equality, complex equality, etc….

What is appealing about a second-order theoretical analysis is that one does not have to get drawn into these first-order debates. The aim of the theory is not to win a philosophical argument, but rather to help us enhance public deliberation about legitimate public policy in a morally pluralistic liberal democracy. Deliberative democrats will agree that the values of freedom, equality, inclusion, etc. are important but the real important task is trying to determine how we can fairly accommodate these fundamental values (rather than crowning one as the "supreme" principle). No one or two fundamental principles are going to win the day. So what do we do in this kind of scenario? Enter democracy!

A second distinctive feature of Gutmann and Thompsons’s version of deliberative democracy is that it takes seriously what they call “provisionality”. Deliberative democracy is both morally provisional and politically provisional. "A theory is morally provisional if its principles invite revision in response to new moral insights or empirical discoveries" (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 57). And they define political provisionality as follows:

Political provisionality means that deliberative principles and the laws they justify must not only be subject to actual deliberation at some time, but also be open to actual reconsideration and revision at a future time. Like the rationale for treating principles as morally provisional, the justification for regarding principles as politically provisional rests on the value of reciprocity. From the perspective of reciprocity, persons should be treated not merely as objects of legislation or as passive subjects to be ruled. They should be treated as agents who take part in governance, directly or through their accountable representatives, by presenting and responding to reasons that would justify the laws under which they must live. (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 116)

The stance Gutmann and Thompson take can be contrasted with the stance taken by, for example, John Rawls. Rawls serially orders the two principles of justice and the principles are arrived at via the construction of the hypothetical original position. Furthermore, Rawls invokes a number of simplifying assumptions, like society being closed and full compliance, that result in his bracketing many of the kinds of concerns that might lead real societies to revise their stance on liberty or equality.

Deliberative democracy now enjoys a prominent place in contemporary political theory. I think this is a welcome development as it has forced justice-theorists to consider more seriously the relation between democracy and justice. But deliberative democrats must also ensure that they do not place too much faith in armchair theory or ignore important empirical constraints. To do so would be to jeopardize the viability of deliberative democracy as a political ideal.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Jeremy Rifkin Endorses Biotech?

Jeremy Rifkin, prominent activist and critic of biotechnology, seems to have softened his opposition, according to this story in Science (subscription needed). Rifkin is the author of Who Should Play God? (1977) and The Biotech Century (1999) and was once desribed, in Time Magazine, as the most hated man in science. But now it seems that Rifkin is less hostile to agricultural biotechnology and actually supports marker-assisted selection (MAS). Here is an excerpt from the story in Science:

For years, activist Jeremy Rifkin was the bête noire of biotechnology. Beginning in 1983, he filed several lawsuits to block field trials of genetically modified (GM) organisms and grabbed headlines around the world. Rifkin, an economist who runs the nonprofit Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., said such actions were necessary to force an insulated research world to confront pressing ethical questions. To many in the scientific community, however, Rifkin was simply fanning irrational fears about biotechnology. A headline of a 1989 Time magazine profile called him "The Most Hated Man in Science" and captured the prevailing sentiment.

....In a white paper posted to his organization's Web site this week, Rifkin says MAS offers all the advantages of new genomic science without what he calls the great risks to human health and the environment posed by GM crops. Instead of transferring genes from one species to another, MAS simply speeds and improves traditional plant breeding. Researchers search through maps of a plant's genome for sequence markers that are consistently associated with desired traits such as improved yield or disease resistance. Those markers can then be used to screen breeding stock and the progeny of traditional crosses even before they are grown or planted in the field.

Rifkin touts MAS as a path toward cheaper organic food and more sustainable agriculture. And to ensure that all reap its benefits, he advocates that MAS be used in a patent-free, or "open source," system in which the genetic information and techniques used to assist breeding are freely exchanged. "It's not enough to know what you're against. … This paper is my effort to try to frame an opportunity to move into a new age for agriculture," says Rifkin, whose immediate goal is to "open a conversation" with scientists, industry, and policymakers about the future of MAS.



Pre-implantation Genetic Haplotyping

This article in today's Guardian reports that British scientists have announced an advanced screening test for embryos which uses a form of DNA fingerprinting called pre-implantation genetic haplotyping (PGH). PGH is different from PGD. With PGD the test tries to identify a specific altered gene linked to an inherited illness. But with PGH the the test looks for the more uniform chromosomal DNA fingerprints, or markers, near the gene. Here are some excerpts from the Guardian article:

It takes about two months and has the potential to detect many more disorders than the current standard screening test, known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which identifies specific mutations in genes.

For example, about 1,000 mutations are thought to cause cystic fibrosis, but only one, the most common, can be identified by PGD.

"We don't have to know the precise details of a mutation, just whereabouts it is in the genome," Professor Peter Braude, who developed the technique at Guy's hospital, said of the new method. "It is more accurate and reliable than PGD and could be available for a whole range of disorders."

....For the test, blood samples are taken from a couple and any affected children or relatives, and DNA from these samples is tested and compared.

Using a technique to create many more copies of chromosomes in the laboratory, scientists look for markers that show if an embryo carries the problem chromosome or a disease-free version.

"You can actually track the gene through the family without looking at the gene. You can see which embryos are affected and which are not," Alison Lashwood from Guy's told Reuters.

The technique is similar to forensic DNA tests, which search for specific short sequences of DNA from a suspect and compare them against patterns in DNA taken from a crime scene.



Saturday, June 17, 2006

Is Marx Still Relevant?

Is Marx still relevant? Via Normblog I see The (Online) Independent has asked this question of 9 commentators. That story is here.

I found the answers of Jack Straw (Leader of The House of Commons) and Alexei Sayle (Comedian and Writer) particularly insightful. Here is a sample from the article:

Question: Marx- Does He Still Matter?

Jack Straw Leader of The House of Commons:

"Karl Marx's legacy - not just for the Labour Party but for intellectual development - is his development of Hegel's more scientific approach to historical analysis and his elevation of the dialectical process. Both are, I think, enduring. Much of his analysis is accurate and his analytical tools are still respected by many historians.

His prescriptions were often widely off-beam, as we now know, and played down non-economic forces to a point where I think he made some grievous historical and political errors - for example, ignoring the role of nationalism and religion as political forces.
What we saw in 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet system, was that the Marxist-Leninist approach to running not only economies but also societies was unenduring. The point of Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History was not that history had ended but that we had reached a point of ideological hegemony which I think we probably had. So Marxist Leninism is not relevant in that respect but the analysis is still worth having".

Alexei Sayle Comedian and Writer:

"I think that the Marxist historical analysis is an accurate account of how society has developed. Although perhaps a little wide of the mark, it is definitely still relevant. When Marx spoke about the differences in society being based on economic structure he definitely had a point.

Marxism should be seen as a tool and therefore a method of analysing society and that can be relevant today. You can certainly be right-wing and still be a Marxist".

I recently posted some of my own thoughts on Marx here.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Taxation ≠ Slavery

This report in the Globe and Mail notes that June 19th is the date the Fraser Institute (a Conservative think tank) has labelled “Tax Freedom Day”. In other words, the Fraser Institute claims that from that day forward Canadians will be working for themselves for the rest of the year.

Such rhetoric only further entrenches the public’s hostility towards redistributive taxation and this jeapordizes the aims of distributive justice.

The very notion of “Tax Freedom Day” is incoherent. The assumption is that the income you receive (e.g. from working) would exist in the first place without government. But the natural baseline is not the utopian free market that libertarians and conservatives envision, but rather a Hobbesian state of nature (e.g. war of all-against-all). And a comparison of how we would fare without government versus how we fare with a liberal, democratic government is no contest. All Canadians are better off with government than without government. Look at the turmoil of countries that do not have a stable liberal, democratic government and ask yourself if their situation is what you really aspire for. It’s a shame that so many citizens take the benefits of government for granted. Canadians enjoy a standard of living unprecedented in human history. So the idea that we are in some sense “enslaved” is laughable.

This is not to say that things could not be better. The government should be vigilant to ensure that it spends our tax dollars in a responsible fashion (though citizens must also have realistic expectations concerning what constitutes this). But the mentality of those who trumpet “liberation from taxation!” is that taxation is inherently unjust. As if Canadians have simply been working “for the government”, not themselves. But this is false. Our taxes pay for the protection of our rights (including property!) and freedoms, our healthcare, our roads, our schools, etc; not to mention reducing our debt burden (rather than passing this on to future generations).

A breakdown of how the Canadian government spent taxpayer money in 2004-2005 is available here.

Rather that seeing June 19th as a day Canadians become “liberated” from the leviathan welfare state, Canadians should reflect on the enormous social benefits their hard work confers upon themselves, their family and friends and their compatriots. The Canadian government, and redistributive taxation, are key instruments in fulfilling our democratic aspirations and satisfying basic requirements of social justice. Instead of viewing June 19th as a day we discard the shackles of social justice, Canadians should ask themselves if there is yet more they can do to help improve the quality of life of those less advantaged (within Canada and globally). Perhaps we should postpone “Tax Freedom Day” for a few more days (or even weeks?) so that we promote the real freedom of all.

The Globe story notes that this year Tax Freedom Day comes 5 days earlier than last year. Well I for one do not think I deserve this 5 day reprieve from my redistributive obligations. So reading this story has convinced me that I need to increase my annual donations to charitable causes by at least this same amount to offset this difference. Rather than complaining about taxation we need a public ethic that cultivates both responsible government and responsible citizenship. And the latter will requires us to reject the claim that redistributive taxation is inherently unjust. Rather than complaining that we give too much (via taxation) the question we should really be asking ourselves is- do we give enough?


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Gene Therapy Injected into the Brains’ of Mice with Huntington’s Disease

Huntington's disease is a inheritable single-gene disorder. Onset of Huntington’s usually occurs in the 4th decade. The prognosis for the disease is progressive disability, with death occurring 10-12 years from the onset of the symptoms. You can find some useful information about Huntington's Disease at the Your Genes, Your Health website and Harvard's Centre for Neurodegeneration & Repair website. The latter website has the following passage which captures how tragic the disease is:

Huntington's disease was no stranger to Leonore Wexler. As a girl, she watched it afflict her father and brothers, taking over their minds and bodies before killing them by middle age. Somehow, she thought, she had escaped the disease. One day, however, Leonore's daughter Nancy noticed that her mother was changing. Nancy describes,

"Now she seemed completely overwhelmed by everything. … I noticed that her feet seemed to be constantly moving and she seemed almost sylphlike and disappearing before my eyes. … Later that year, while my mother was on jury duty in Los Angeles, a policeman accused her of being drunk at 8:30 in the morning. This really devastated her, for she knew what it meant. … I suddenly learned that my mother was dying, and that my sister … and I each had a one in two chance of getting Huntington's.”

From "Prognostications and Predispositions” by Nancy Wexler, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 882:22-31 (1999)

This story in Pharmalive is encouraging as it notes that researchers (at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, and Ceregene Inc., San Diego) have successfully used gene therapy to preserve motor function and stop the anatomic, cellular changes that occur in the brains of mice with Huntington’s disease. Here are some snippets from the story:

Researchers used a defective virus, adenoassociated viral vector, (AAV) to deliver gene therapy, glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), directly to the brain cells of mice.

....Three groups of mice were involved in the 4 month study. All mice were modeled to have the genetics of HD. The HD mice exhibited symptoms of motor deficits including loss of control, gait abnormalities, hypokinesia (abnormally decreased mobility and motor function), hind limb clasping behaviors and muscle weakness. One control group of mice did not receive any gene therapy. A second control group was injected with a placebo gene therapy. The third group received the active GDNF gene therapy.

To measure fine motor coordination, balance and fatigue, researchers evaluated mice walking on a rotating rod. Mice injected with the gene therapy performed significantly better than the other mice. These mice also showed diminished hind limb clasping (a simulation of motor control behavior in HD patients). Perhaps most importantly, gene delivery of GDNF provided neuroprotection in the brain, with reduced density of brain inclusions and less cell death.

....Kordower says the study suggests a new approach to forestall disease progression in newly diagnosed HD patients by delivering potent trophic factors with effects that are long-term and non-toxic. "If these results can be replicated in HD patients, it would represent a significant advance in the treatment of this tragic disease," agreed Dr. Jeffrey Ostrove, President and CEO of Ceregene.

The study is published in the June 13th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America and you can download the paper from here (subscription needed). Here is the abstract of the published article:

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a fatal, genetic, neurological disorder resulting from a trinucleotide repeat expansion in the gene that encodes for the protein huntingtin. These excessive repeats confer a toxic gain of function on huntingtin, which leads to the degeneration of striatal and cortical neurons and a devastating motor, cognitive, and psychological disorder. Trophic factor administration has emerged as a compelling potential therapy for a variety of neurodegenerative disorders, including HD. We previously demonstrated that viral delivery of glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) provides structural and functional neuroprotection in a rat neurotoxin model of HD. In this report we demonstrate that viral delivery of GDNF into the striatum of presymptomatic mice ameliorates behavioral deficits on the accelerating rotorod and hind limb clasping tests in transgenic HD mice. Behavioral neuroprotection was associated with anatomical preservation of the number and size of striatal neurons from cell death and cell atrophy. Additionally, GDNF-treated mice had a lower percentage of neurons containing mutant huntingtin-stained inclusion bodies, a hallmark of HD pathology. These data further support the concept that viral vector delivery of GDNF may be a viable treatment for patients suffering from HD.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Four Fundamental Convictions

As I mentioned in a few previous posts, I am in the final stages of completing my book Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement. This book has been in the works for a long time and represents a real transformation in my thoughts on distributive justice. The initial plan for the book was that it would be a defence of John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness”, building on the research from my PhD dissertation. My dissertation was a defence of Rawls and a number of my first publications were defences of Rawls against critics like Michael Sandel and Phillipe Van Parijs. But over time I slowly became dissatisfied with the number of “qualifications” (e.g. assuming full compliance, normal functioning, society is closed, etc.) I found myself making when defending contemporary accounts of liberal egalitarianism. I still consider myself a liberal egalitarian, but I no longer align myself with the prominent advocates of that position (e.g. Rawls and Dworkin).

This new book is an attempt to explain why I no longer support their theories and a plea for other liberal egalitarians to also jump ship. This is not to suggest that I think the contributions made by Rawls and Dworkin are unimportant. Of course they have made very important contributions to contemoprary liberal thought. But I think their theories have also limited contemporary liberalism in a variety of ways. One limitation is that abstract theoretical discussions of distributive justice are often detached from real politics and the dilemmas which real societies and citizens face. And when theory is detached from practice I think one is justified in questioning the value of political theory. Recall my previous post on “What is political theory?”. That post sums up the spirit of this new book.

In the book I advance a theory called “civic liberalism”. Civic liberalism is a non-ideal theory of distributive justice. It starts from where we are, in the “here and now”. So it is more fact-sensitive than ideal theories which assume a situation of full compliance, limited disadvantage or that societies are “closed”. In order to develop a viable non-ideal theory I propose we abandon the principled paradigm of ideal theory in favour of a non-perfectionist “virtue-oriented” theory of justice. I will say more about the details of the theory over the course of the summer months. But for now, I wish to highlight what I take to be the four fundamental moral/political convictions upon which civic liberalism is premised.

Principle-oriented theories of justice typically limit their appeal to one or two core moral/political convictions (e.g. self-ownership, democracy, equality, etc.). This can often be linked to the idealizing assumptions of justice-theorists. If we ignore the fact that most citizens have a deluge of obligations thrust upon them (e.g. parental obligations, spousal obligations, self-regarding obligations, etc.) we might believe it is reasonable to impose, for example, stringent democratic or egalitarian obligations on citizens. The ideal theorist might argue- "Citizens should care about politics/equality, what could be so important that they do not take their obligations of citizenship/egalitarianism seriously? Surely citizens who are uninformed about politics are simply lazy and indifferent/ The well-off are just greedy capitalists!".

In response to such charges we can point out that in the real non-ideal world, good democrats/egalitarians are also expected to be good parents, good spouses, etc. A whole range of considerations must be balanced against the obligations the ideals of democracy or equality might impose upon us. This is not to say that we should never question the legitimacy of our existing commitments, as they may stem from considerations that are not defensible (e.g. our consumption habits, attitudes towards work, etc.). We do not want a theory of justice to simply legitimize current injustices. Justice, argues Ronald Dworkin, is our critic not our mirror (Dworkin, 1985, p. 219). I agree with Dworkin on this. But I also believe that a defensible theory of justice will do justice to a diverse a range of considered judgements. And by doing so a theory of justice will be better equipped to function as a motive for our individual and collective action.
Civic liberalism seeks to take seriously four central moral and political convictions:

1. Limited Government: individual rights are important and the government and society should be constrained from violating those rights. Justice requires that we respect citizens as autonomous persons who are capable of determining for themselves how they wish to live their lives. (liberalism)

2. Self-Government: the authorization to exercise the use of state power should arise from a collective decision-making process that includes all those who are affected by the use of such power. (democracy)

3. Prioritarianism: benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are. (priority)

4. Ethical Particularism: relations between persons are part of the basic subject-matter of ethics, so that fundamental principles may be attached directly to these relations. (Miller, 1995, p. 50) (partiality)

I believe that most citizens in contemporary liberal democracies also share these convictions. These convictions inform some of our most important institutions and practices, ranging from the constitution and democracy to the welfare state and the family. But these convictions are often in tension with each other. I will blog a few posts about these convictions, how they conflict with each other, and how we could attempt to reconcile them, over the course of the summer months.

For those of us who believe, as I do, that each of these four moral and political convictions- liberalism, democracy, prioritarianism and partiality- are important, the real difficult and challenging project is to explore what the implications are for a public philosophy that seeks to give due consideration to each of them. Concerns for the priority we ought to place on toleration and rights, for example, leads many liberals to constitutionalism. Constitutionalism means ‘a system that establishes individual legal rights that the dominant legislature does not have the power to override or compromise’ (Dworkin, 1995, p. 2). But constitutionalism is often thought to be contrary to, or at least in tension with, our democratic aspirations. When we appeal to unelected and unaccountable officials (i.e. judges) to resolve contentious and important issues we violate the norm of inclusion entailed by our commitment to democracy.

It might also appear that prioritarianism and partiality are similarly conflicting commitments. The former requires us to be impartial, and to aid those who are in need (regardless of their nationality). Yet the latter commitment claims that relations between persons is part of morality, so that features like one’s familial connection or nationality are relevant considerations when determining how much weight to place on someone’s interests. Thus it seems that impartiality and partiality are, by definition, incompatible commitments.

Rather than dismiss the quagmire of convictions I have as being incompatible and inconsistent with each other, I felt that I had to search for a public philosophy that recognised both the appeal and the limits of each of the four convictions that I hold so dearly. This book represents my search for this public philosophy. Once one attempts to reconcile these convictions one soon realises that much of the alleged contradiction between constitutionalism and democracy, and prioritarianism and partiality, stems largely from the fact that these convictions are expressed in the form of principles or rules. If we modify the conceptual underpinnings of these convictions we shall see that much of the conflict between them dissipates.


Friday, June 09, 2006

The Limits of State Neutrality

The principle of state neutrality enjoys great prominence in contemporary liberal thought. It is espoused, perhaps most persuasively, by the political philosopher John Rawls. There are of course many different ways in which the principle of state neutrality can be stated, so it is important to first clarify what the principle entails before I address its limitations.

The kind of neutrality that liberals like Rawls have in mind is called “neutrality of aim” or justificatory neutrality. This version of neutrality maintains that the justification for a law or policy should be neutral. It should not presuppose, for example, values particular to one conception of the good. Piety is a clear example of a value which would violate justificatory neutrality. The religious state is the archetype of the non-neutral state.

Why do liberals argue for justificatory neutrality? In Beyond Neutrality George Sher (p. 15) identifies three reasons why liberals defend state neutrality. These are:

1. because non-neutral government decisions violate the autonomy of citizens.

2. because non-neutral government decisions pose unacceptable risks of oppression, instability, or error.

3. because non-neutral government decisions rest on value-premises that cannot be rationally defended.

By requiring the justification for a law or policy be neutral, the neutrality constraint ensures that only those laws or policies that rest on value-premises reasonable citizens of a pluralist society could accept are legitimate. The neutrality constraint thus rules out many intolerant measures. For example, it rules out laws against religious heresy. The religious state is non-neutral because its laws and policies are based on values (e.g. piety) particular to one conception of the good. A non-neutral value like piety should not trump the political values of liberty and equality.

The neutrality principle may be of some use in helping us avoid the oppression of a perfectionist state but it is important to recognise that it is principle whose usefulness tends to be overemphasised by liberals who make it the cornerstone of a liberal public ethic. Consider, for example, a repressive policy like the criminalization of homosexuality. Neutralist liberals might believe that the principle of neutrality can easily dismiss such policies as they will be premised on perfectionist values (e.g. religion). But the most influential arguments for such a prohibition are not usually framed in such a way that its violation of the neutrality constraint is so obvious.

In The Enforcement of Morals Lord Devlin (p. 10) criticised the Wolfenden Report (1957) which recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private be decriminalised. Devlin’s argument for such a prohibition was premised on a conception of legal moralism. He argued:

If men and women try to create a society in which there is no fundamental agreement about good and evil they will fail; if, having based it on common agreement, the agreement goes, the society will disintegrate. For society is not something that is kept together physically; it is held by the invisible bonds of common thought. If the bonds were too far relaxed the members would drift apart. A common morality is part of the bondage. The bondage is part of the price of society; and mankind, which needs society, must pay its price.

Neutralist liberals might dismiss Devlin’s argument on grounds that a prohibition on homosexuality is non-neutral. So liberals might argue that the real aim of such a measure is to promote a particular conception of the good life (i.e. heterosexuality). But such a characterisation of Devlin’s argument would be misleading. Devlin did not justify his argument on the grounds that heterosexuality is the good life or that homosexuality is merely offensive. His argument was that the decriminalisation of such behaviour would be harmful to society. His argument could thus be framed in terms more congenial with the neutrality constraint. Neutralist liberals themselves recognise that the state should not be neutral between all conceptions of the good, but only between permissible conceptions of the good. Devlin would argue that the behaviour targeted by such legislation is impermissible because it threatens the social cohesion necessary to maintain stability. By prohibiting homosexual behaviour the state is taking the steps necessary to establish and secure the minimal standards of behaviour necessary for society to be stable.

Framed in these terms, Devlin’s argument is perhaps more formidable to the neutralist liberal than one might have initially expected. But one does not have to establish that a prohibition on homosexuality violates the neutrality constraint in order to establish a persuasive case against such a provision. Emphasising this point is important for it highlights the other demands of public reason. Namely, that not only must the objectives of legislation be neutral, but the means chosen must be reasonable and demonstrably justified. Prohibitions on homosexuality fail these requirements. In order to substantiate that the means chosen in this instance are reasonable and demonstrably justified Devlin would have to support a number of claims he failed to substantiate. Firstly, he would have to provide evidence to show that decriminalising homosexuality would cause the harm he claims it would cause. Devlin’s failure to do this is more than sufficient grounds for rejecting the call for a prohibition on homosexuality. Secondly, Devlin would also have to show that less restrictive measures (e.g. education) are insufficient for establishing and securing the minimal standards of behaviour necessary for society to be stable. And thirdly, even if Devlin could substantiate his claim that such behaviour harms society, such a policy would only be reasonable if the benefits of the prohibition clearly outweighed its costs (this is the requirement of proportionality). Given the gross violation of individual liberty such a prohibition entails, the harm at issue would have to be very substantial. Devlin’s failure to establish these points reveals the different ways his proposal fails to satisfy the demands of public reason. The requirements of public reason go well beyond the requirements of the neutrality constraint.

The neutral state could pursue a number of oppressive measures in the name of promoting ‘neutral aims’. It could enforce, for example, overly stringent traffic laws or unreasonable building regulations, etc. Such laws or policies are legitimate, the neutralist liberal might argue, because they are premised on values no one could reasonably reject (e.g. public safety). But does the fact that they are neutral necessarily mean that these policies are publicly justified? There is nothing in the ideal of neutrality itself that ensures that measures be reasonable as well as premised on neutral values. The state could justify a number of repressive measures that are consistent with neutrality of aim. For example, the government could justify a prohibition on motorised vehicles on grounds of public safety. In this case we have a neutral aim but an unreasonable policy.

Two features of such a law are worth emphasising to reveal how, despite its being neutral, it is unreasonable. Firstly, while we recognise that the aim of public safety will require limitations on our freedom we also expect legislators to take a responsible approach to pursuing such an aim. Comparable levels of public safety can be secured by varying degrees of restrictive policies and we expect law-makers to opt for those measures that impair our freedom as little as possible. Opting for the most extreme form of restriction in the name of public safety is unjustified if a less restricted policy, say one that permitted motorised vehicles but imposed a number of various traffic laws, would secure a comparable level of public safety. Furthermore, even if a prohibition on motorised vehicles secured a substantially higher degree of public safety such a proposal would still qualify as unreasonable and unfair. Public reason demands that there be a proportionality between the effects of the measure and the objective in question (i.e. public safety). In the case of prohibiting motorised vehicles there is no such proportionality. The gains secured in public safety do not outweigh the burdens imposed on freedom and efficiency. People prefer to live with the higher degree of risk which comes with permitting motorised vehicles because it also brings with it benefits which outweigh these risks (e.g. greater mobility).

The coercive power of the state is not necessarily legitimate when it is consistent with the requirements of the neutrality constraint. In addition to pursuing neutral aims, the government must consider a diverse range of concerns which the neutrality constraint itself is silent about. The threat of oppression in liberal democracies often comes, not from perfectionism, by from an overzealous pursuit of neutral aims (e.g. public safety). In order to ensure that we pursue a reasonable balance between conflicting fundamental values, like liberty and safety, we need a public ethic that goes much further than simply prescribing justificatory neutrality. I say more about this topic in my paper "Neutrality, Toleration and Reasonable Agreement".


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Group Polarization and Extremism

One of the central concerns of the liberal/ communitarian debate of the 1980’s and 1990’s was the conception of the person (or self) that political theorists functioned with. Critics of liberalism, like Michael Sandel, argued that the conception of the self liberals espoused had important consequences for the public ethic liberalism inspired (e.g. state neutrality). Unlike the unencumbered conception of the self typical of contemporary liberalism, communitarians embraced a “social” conception of the person. A social conception of the self recognises the fact that humans are social beings and as such they are embedded in a web of social networks (e.g. family, neighbourhood, national identity, etc.) that shape their constitutive ends. This interconnected web of social relations is ignored by individualistic social theories that envision persons as rational agents operating behind a veil of ignorance (Rawls) or as rational utility maximizers who are placed in a prisoner’s dilemma (Gauthier).

The emphasis on our social nature enjoys a rich history in Western political thought, from Aristotle’s account of the political nature of man to Hegel’s ethical life thesis and Marx’s account of class. The social nature of human beings is an integral part of political theories that emphasize a thick communitarian ethos, whether that ethos is one that strives to foster democracy, socialism or cosmopolitanism.

I believe that we (i.e. political theorists) should function with a social conception of the person and that such a conception can inspire a viable liberal public ethic that helps us address a myriad of concerns that arise in real, unequal, multicultural, liberal democracies that exist in an era of rapid globalisation. A lot really depends on what we mean when we say that we need to function with a “social” conception of the person. Let me expand a bit on this here and draw out one of the implications this account of the self has for democratic theory.

As social beings we place significant weight on reputational considerations. Perhaps the obvious example is impressionable adolescents who, when seeking acceptance from their peers, will engage in behaviour that contravenes the moral values their parents and teachers have vigorously tried to engrain in them. Peer pressure might even lead people to engage in behaviour that endangers their own health and safety. But feeling the pressure to acquiesce to these reputational considerations is not limited to adolescents. Adults are also swayed by such factors. From the clothes we wear to the cars we drive, we (consciously or unconsciously) are influenced by reputational considerations of various sorts.

So what does this offer us in terms of useful insights for political theory, you might wonder? It has a number of important uses. These kinds of considerations have figured prominently into Cass Sunstein’s work on group polarization. See, for example, Sunstein’s article “Deliberative Trouble: Why Groups Go to Extremes” or his book Why Societies Need Dissent. “Group polarization means that members of a deliberating group predictably move toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by the members’ predeliberation tendencies” (Sunstein, 2000, p. 74). So, for example, if a group of like-minded individuals (e.g. environmentalists, conservatives, feminists, etc.) get together to deliberate they are likely to become more extreme in the position. This results, argues Sunstein, from social influences on behaviour (e.g. our desire to maintain our reputation, pressures to conform, etc.) and the effect of limited “argument pools”. Suppose you believe that the American invasion of Iraq was unjustified. If you only discuss and debate the war with like-minded people you are likely to become more extreme in your conviction that the war is unjust. Why? Chances are the pool of arguments you have entertained will be narrower than the pool of arguments you might have entertained if you deliberated with a group of people who support the war in Iraq. Supporters of the war might bring different information to the debate, they might invoke different principles or concerns than those who oppose the war. So to exercise the deliberative virtues one must not limit the deliberative process to homogeneous groups.

Sunstein appeals to the experiments of Solomon Asch as evidence of the influence group influences can have on us. Sunstein’s work has important implications for democratic theory, especially deliberative democracy. The dominance of conformity is an excellent example of a non-ideal consideration that must be incorporated into a social theory. How do we do this? This is part of my concern in my new book Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement in which I defend a “virtue oriented”’ account of justice entitled “civic liberalism”. Civic liberalism recognises that the virtue of civility is a multidimensional trait, and that the danger that civil aptitudes could give rise to vice (rather than virtue) is very real. This danger arises even in those associations that deliberative democrats might believe exemplify the deliberative virtues- associations where members are connected by bonds of affection, friendship, and solidarity. “In such groups, members are often less willing, or even unwilling, to state objections and counterarguments for fear that these will prove disruptive and violate the group’s internal norms. Families sometimes work this way” (Sunstein, 2003, p. 79). Virtuous families, friends, workplaces, legislatures, countries, etc. will recognise that dissenters often benefit others. And a non-ideal account of deliberative democracy will recognise that conformity does not necessarily promote societal interests.

The danger of group polarization is another reason why civic liberalism’s prescription that we avoid legislative or judicial supremacy (see my previous post) is judicious. Legislatures and courts are susceptible to the effects of limited argument pools. The dangers of group polarization are reduced when one endorses the dialogical model of judicial review. By dispersing power among independent deliberative bodies we ensure that opportunity exists for a diverse array of arguments and concerns to be raised. As a public ethic equipped to take non-ideal considerations seriously, civic liberalism prescribes that we guard against the potential dangers of group polarization. This has important consequences for the institutional design of a deliberative polity. Like Sunstein, I believe that deliberative democrats must take the empirical realities of non-ideal societies seriously. Otherwise we risk embracing a moral ideal that would lead to greater injustice (e.g. extremism) rather than a more humane society.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

New Therapy for Eye Disease

News@ Nature has this report that Bevasiranib, a trial drug tested on patients with eye disease, has had success. The report states:

The trial on 129 patients found that Bevasiranib reduced blood-vessel growth in the eyes and improved vision slightly. At the lowest doses, these effects lasted for several months; at higher doses the positive responses are still present, says Dale Pfost, Acuity's president. No adverse side effects were seen other than the anticipated swelling and inflammation at the site where the drug was injected into the eye.

....Bevasiranib turns off the gene for a molecule called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which stimulates blood-vessel growth across the retina of AMD patients. The drug uses short sections of RNA, the molecular cousin of DNA, which often ferries genetic information around cells.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Main Menu (June 2006)

Recent posts on "In Search of Enlightenment" include the following:

A Minimalist Court? Some comments on the role of judicial review in a liberal democracy.

Life Extension Some reflections on Aubrey de Grey's presentation on extending the human health span.

Google Alerts for Gene Patents

Reproduction Ethics A response to Velleman's critique of Ian Mucklejohn.

Marx and Human History Some reflections on Karl Marx's theory of historical materialism.

Genetics and Justice (Where to Begin?) Examines the challenges we face when trying to incorporate our genetic endowments into the "currency" of distributive justice.

The Genetic Revolution: A snapshot A snapshot of the genetic revolution, as told through Google Alerts on "Genetic Therapy"

Voluntarism and Tax Breaks Newsday article on tax breaks for volunteer firefighters.

What is Political Theory? A brief answer to the question.

Libertarianism and Rectification Would libertarian justice really legitimize a "minimal state"?

Our Enhanced Future Reflecting on our attitudes towards existing enhancing interventions is helpful when considering how we might regulate radical enhancing technologies.

Responsible Risk Management How do we prioritize the efforts to guard against the different kinds of risk which humans are susceptible to?


Cloned Mules Race

Via Bioethics Blog I see that the first clonned mules were in a professional race in Nevada. That story is here. Idaho Gem, the first member of the horse family to be cloned and the first clone of a hybrid animal (a cross between a female horse and a male donkey) came third in the race. The story of Gem is important because it could help advance research into human cancer. Some useful links to stories about Gem's birth are here and here. The latter is the link to Project Idaho at the University of Idaho.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Estate Tax Repeal? (For Real?)

Via Brad DeLong I was encouraged to read this story in the LA Times that the attempt to permanently repeal the Estates tax in the US is looking precarious. The report notes that "the Congressional Budget Office estimates that estate tax revenue will come to $28 billion in 2006". The mere fact that the prospect of permanently repealing the Estates tax is on the table is deeply troubling enough, and speaks volumes about the current ills of democracy in America. In particular the extent to which a few wealthy families can wield so much political power. Here are a few insights from the piece in the LA Times:

The ferocity of the fight is surprising in light of the fact that only a tiny slice of the population is affected by the tax, which applies to inheritances in excess of $2 million. Only 12,600 estates will be taxed this year, according to the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.

"How could a tax that's been around since 1916 that affects such a small handful of wealthy Americans be converted into such a populist issue?" asked Michael J. Graetz, a professor at Yale Law School and coauthor of a book — "Death by a Thousand Cuts" — addressing that question. "It is the genius of the proponents of repeal. They used all the modern tools available to political movements."Graetz gives the proponents credit for conducting a well-orchestrated, well-financed campaign that began in the early 1990s, when Republicans and other critics of the estate tax began calling it the "death tax" to make its elimination more politically palatable. A nonprofit group, the American Family Business Institute, was set up in 1992 for the sole purpose of advancing the cause.

A recent report by Public Citizen, a liberal watchdog group, identified 18 wealthy families who contributed to organizations promoting repeal of the estate tax. It calculated that at least 15 of those families' businesses paid $27 million since 1998 for lobbyists to promote repeal of the estate tax.Dick Patten, executive director of the American Family Business Institute, disputed the report, saying that his group's success was due less to wealthy people trying to reduce their tax bill than to businessmen and farmers who are worried that the estate tax would make it hard for them to pass on their businesses to heirs.

Supporters of the estate tax have also found allies among the well-heeled, including William H. Gates Sr. — the wealthy father of the even-wealthier Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft — who has been in the vanguard of the effort to block repeal. Proponents of the tax also have the support of the life insurance industry, which stands to lose business because it sells policies designed to reduce the impact of the tax on inherited wealth.

Let's hope the call for the estates tax repeal quickly (and permanently!) fades into the distant past.



Gene Therapy Experiment for Ovarian Cancer

This report via Reuters notes that gene therapy experiments to treat ovarian cancer in mice have been successful. Here is a snippet from the report:

The ovarian cancer study suggests a new route for treating a deadly cancer that kills 16,000 women a year in the United States alone. Most ovarian cancer patients live four years or less after they are diagnosed.

"Current treatments for ovarian cancer are fairly harsh. (Gene therapy) ... represents a potent, non-toxic alternative for treating this deadly disease," Dr. David Bartlett at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School said in a statement.

Speaking at a meeting of the American Society of Gene Therapy in Baltimore, Bartlett and colleagues said they injected mice with ovarian cancer cells.

They treated some of the mice immediately with a virus genetically engineered to carry cytosine deaminase, a so-called suicide gene that helps cancerous cells self-destruct.
Some other mice were treated with the gene therapy 30 or 60 days later, while a third group was given no treatment.

Tumors did not grew in the mice that were treated immediately with gene therapy, and those treated a month or two later had tumors that grew only very slowly. The untreated mice either died or had to be euthanized because of their quick cancer progression.

The National Ovarian Cancer Association has a useful website that contains some statistics and information about the symptoms and treatments for ovarian cancer. Click here.


Saturday, June 03, 2006

Gene Therapy and Immune System

The American Society of Gene Therapy are holding their Annual Meeting at Baltimore and have issued this press release on gene therapy applications of RNA interference. RNA interference is "a form of post-transcriptional gene silencing in which double-stranded RNA induces degradation of the homologous endogenous transcripts, mimicking the effect of the reduction, or loss, of gene activity" (Nature Reviews). You can view an animated tour through the process of RNA interference here.

One of the challenges facing the successful utilisation of gene therapy for diseases where the patient has a functioning immune system (like hemophilia) has been the human immune system itself. And this is why this latest study is encouraging. The press release explains:

A team of scientists led by Luigi Naldini, MD, PhD, and Brian D. Brown, PhD, at the San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy (HSR-TIGET) in Milan have developed a way to prevent the immune system from disturbing the efforts of gene therapists.

To accomplish this, they utilized a newly uncovered network of genes regulated by molecules known as microRNAs. Over the past 5 years, research has revealed that microRNAs have a role in almost every cellular process, including those involved in the development of cancer.

MicroRNAs downregulate the expression of specific genes in cells where the gene is not needed, and thereby have an important influence over the identity of a cell.

The HSR-TIGET group reasoned that they could use this natural function of microRNA to selectively turn off the identity of their therapeutic gene in cells of the immune system and prevent the gene from being found and destroyed. The researchers injected mice with the gene containing an immune-cell microRNA target sequence, and spectacularly, the mice did not reject the gene, as previously occurred when vectors without the microRNA target sequence were used.

"The discovery of microRNAs has changed our understanding of biology," Dr. Brown noted. "Almost every week a new study comes our implicating them in some cellular process or pathology. Now we can take advantage of this information for creating therapies."

So another small step forward in our fight to mitigate the arbitrary and often tragic consequences of the natural lottery of life.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Gene Variant Biases Brain Towards Aggression

This report from the NIH News notes that a version of a gene previously linked to impulsive physical violence biases the brain towards impulsive, aggressive behaviour. People with this gene variant (especially males) have a hyperactive alarm system and an under-active impulse control circuitry. But like all complex phenotypes, having this version of the gene does not mean a person will necessarily display this behaviour. As the report states:

“These new findings illustrate the breathtaking power of ‘imaging genomics’ to study the brain’s workings in a way that helps us to understand the circuitry underlying diversity in human temperament,” said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., who conducted MRI studies earlier in his career.

“By itself, this gene is likely to contribute only a small amount of risk in interaction with other genetic and psychosocial influences; it won’t make people violent,” explained Meyer-Lindenberg. “But by studying its effects in a large sample of normal people, we were able to see how this gene variant biases the brain toward impulsive, aggressive behavior.”