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Send Lawyers, Guns, and Stem Cells

Just over a decade ago, a new financial opportunity appeared in the field of bioethics. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies were giving away money. Some companies had started making contributions to bioethics centers; others paid bioethicists to work as consultants and advisers; still others funded endowed chairs and branded awards.

Many bioethicists welcomed the money, arguing that it would support the good work being done by the field; others thought that it might present a conflict of interest, but one that was manageable as long as the source of the money was disclosed. My own reaction was slightly different. To me, the pharmaceutical industry was the serpent in the garden, and its head would need to be crushed.

It was at this point that I began to deliver what some people call my “sinners in the hands of an angry god” sermons. Apparently, I thought that if I just produced a sufficient number of articles and lectures condemning the pharmaceutical industry, the bioethicists who were eagerly accepting industry money would feel so ashamed that they would repent and sin no more.  Unsurprisingly, things didn’t really work out that way. My altar calls never really got much of a response. Most of the congregation just sat quietly in their pews, waiting patiently for the benediction, while the sinners got more resolute in their sins.

Of course, there have been many occasions to reconsider the wisdom of my strategy. My sermons have prompted their share of angry condemnations, not to mention a handful of trolls who stalk me on the Internet, posting insults whenever I publish an article.   (Some of the insults are actually pretty funny.)  A piece I wrote for Mother Jones about a suicide in a pharmaceutical research study at the University of Minnesota has put me at odds with the administration and the general counsel’s office at my own university.

But I had never actually been threatened with legal action until this week, when I got a letter from a lawyer representing Glenn McGee, the former editor of the American Journal of Bioethics. Since December McGee has been working as “President for Ethics and Strategic Initiatives” for a Texas stem cell clinic called Celltex, whose questionable activities and those of its South Korean partner, RNL Bio, have been detailed in a series of recent articles in Nature. (You can see some of the articles here, here, and here.) The problem presented by a bioethics journal editor working full-time for a dubious stem-cell company has prompted a lot of spirited commentary in the field, and two weeks ago, I wrote about McGee’s relationship with Celltex and its controversial partner, RNL Bio, for Slate. That article prompted a demand for retraction by McGee, accompanied by the threat of legal action.

To me, the threat seemed absurd, especially given the nature of McGee’s complaints. Of course, I offered to correct any factual errors in the piece; that would be only fair. And there did seem to be a couple of errors.  But to my astonishment, the Slate editors took the threat very seriously, and decided to retract the article over my objections. (Slate editors will be making an appearance in my sermons now.) In any case, just as Slate was retracting my article, McGee was announcing his resignation from Celltex, presumably in response to the alarming articles in Nature detailing exactly what Celltex has been doing. (A key sentence in the Nature editorial: “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it to be a crime to inject unapproved adult stem cells into patients.”) As for my now-dead Slate article: well, I have sent a copy of McGee’s demands to Bill Heisel at Reporting on Health, as well as my responses to his allegations.  Heisel has posted them here, along with his take on the whole affair.  You can see for yourself whether it warranted a retraction. Personally, I am looking forward to a resurrection of the article, perhaps in another form.

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