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'What is this, “The Handmaid’s Tale”?' Exploring moral questions posed by controversial IVF ruling

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'What is this, “The Handmaid’s Tale”?' Exploring moral questions posed by controversial IVF ruling

Is a frozen embryo a child?

The Alabama Supreme Court says yes. In ruling this month that three couples who lost frozen embryos in a storage facility accident could sue for wrongful death of a minor child, the court wrote that the “natural, ordinary, commonly understood meaning” of the word “child” includes an “unborn child” — whether that’s a fetus in a womb or an embryo in a freezer.

Hospitals and clinics across the conservative state have since paused in vitro fertilization services as they scramble to figure out the legal and ethical ramifications of the decision. Transport companies are also on hold as they assess the risks of carrying embryos out of state.

To better understand the ethics of IVF and what this ruling means for clinics, families and the more than a million embryos stored in freezers across the country, we spoke with Vardit Ravitsky, a professor of bioethics at the University of Montreal and president of the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in New York. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You became interested in the ethical issues of IVF as a college student, when a friend asked if you would consider donating an egg.

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I was almost 20. I was absolutely fascinated by the notion of carrying a fetus that is not genetically related to you. What does that mean to be the biological mother of a fetus that is genetically not your child? On the flip side, what happens when you give your egg to another woman and you have a genetically related child that is not yours?

The notion of genetic relatedness — IVF kind of broke that. You can now carry a fetus that is not yours; you can give your genetics to another person. That blew my mind, because it took the notion of motherhood that was the same for all of human history and broke it down into two components.

So technology can change our fundamental concept of human beings. And that’s what’s happening here. We’re talking about a batch of cells on ice, and we call it a child. That just wasn’t possible before.

Do people have a common understanding of what an embryo is?

Embryo, fetus and newborn baby are, first and foremost, medical biological terms. An embryo is the name we use in the beginning of the development, up to about 11 weeks pregnancy or nine weeks in embryonic development. Then, when it’s more developed, we call it a fetus. When it breathes on its own, outside of a female body, we call it a baby.

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The separate issue is when do we accord these entities moral status? We can call them whatever we want; we can call them cells or we can call them children. That’s a value-based, societal decision.

Do we treat embryos outside of the body morally in the same way that we treat them inside of the body? In most jurisdictions, we treat them differently.

For years, anti-abortion advocates in red states have pushed “fetal personhood” — the idea that life begins at conception and fetuses are children entitled to legal rights. Now Alabama’s Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos should be considered children. What ethical questions does this pose?

To imply or say explicitly that [frozen embryos] are children, in the same sense that fetuses are seen as children, to me, that’s a very dangerous development.

Think about it logically: If you have a pregnancy and you do nothing, and there’s no miscarriage, a baby will be born. If you have an embryo in a dish in a freezer and you do nothing, there will not be a baby.

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I would like women to have access to abortion because I care about their health and autonomy and their freedom to choose. When it comes to frozen embryos, it has nothing to do with a woman and with her body.

The potential of these embryos to become babies or children depends on so many steps: They have to be thawed, they have to continue to develop, they have to be implanted in the uterus, the uterus has to accept them, pregnancy has to develop. These are all steps that can still go wrong. To think of them as children in the same way that we think about newborns or fetuses is just, to me, going so far in how we understand the concept of a child.

In a concurring opinion, Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote that the people of the state adopted the “theologically based view” that “human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.” What does this mean for the future of IVF in conservative states?

Even if you say life begins at conception — for religious reasons or for any other values that you hold — you could still assign different moral values to the two scenarios of conception: outside of the body or inside of the body.

But if you take the view that life starts at conception and you apply that to in vitro, you are potentially shutting down IVF facility care. For clinics, as we’ve already seen beginning to happen, there are risks of handling human embryos that are very fragile biological entities. If the law treats them as children, then clinics rightly freak out about all that could happen to them during fertility treatments.

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Unfortunately, accidents happen in clinics: freezers malfunction, embryos get destroyed by accident. Sometimes they have to be tested, and the testing harms them.

Does treating embryos as children necessarily call into question clinics’ ability to provide IVF?

Even if there’s technically the possibility of continuing to provide IVF, under this framework of “embryos are children” … if you’re actually convinced that you’re treating children under the microscope, the risks are so huge that I don’t see how clinics will continue to function long-term.

What ethical and legal dilemmas do clinics face?

What is the extent and the nature of their liability if something happens to an embryo? Is it criminal liability? What part of the law would they be liable for?

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Now, in the current reality, couples can agree to the destruction of their embryos, they can donate them for research, they can allow genetic testing of those embryos. If this is a child that deserves independent protection, then what the couple wants becomes irrelevant.

If I owned a fertility clinic, I’d be very scared right now. If you treat embryos seriously as children, you cannot justify any level of risk. You cannot justify using them for training, for research. If we don’t allow genetic testing, we’re slowing down the quality of facility care, entire programs of research that are critical to biomedicine. The ripple effects are huge.

Could clinics be required to maintain all the frozen embryos they have in perpetuity?

Absolutely. If you don’t know what to do with them, other than implant in the uterus and start a pregnancy, then the obvious alternative under this ruling is to keep them frozen indefinitely, which costs hundreds of dollars a year. Currently, if parents abandon their embryos and stop paying the storage fee, clinics can destroy them after five years. But if that’s no longer an option, they will just accumulate and accumulate.

There are over a million frozen embryos in the U.S. today. And that number is growing all the time, because every time a woman undergoes a cycle, most often not all the embryos are used. So every cycle of IVF potentially leaves a few behind in a freezer. For clinics to carry that cost is a significant burden; IVF is already exceptionally expensive.

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If a frozen embryo is viewed as a child, could it be interpreted as having a right to be implanted and born?

Absolutely yes. Celine Dion famously said that her frozen embryos in New York are children waiting to be born. You know Sofia Vergara from “Modern Family”? Her ex named their frozen embryos and sued in their name — they were the plaintiffs — that they have a right to be born. He argued he can make that happen because he has created a trust in their name, he has a surrogate, he will father them, he will take responsibility; they will want for nothing. He said leaving them on ice is like murdering them.

The court in Louisiana dismissed the case on a technicality that the embryos were created in California. They didn’t say, “You’re being ridiculous!” So that line of thinking — that frozen embryos have a right to be implanted in order to be born — has already been tried in the U.S., and it wasn’t even refuted fully.

What is this, “The Handmaid’s Tale”? Catch women and impregnate them because [embryos] have a right to be born? Where do we stop?

So what’s the fate of the more than a million embryos stored in freezers?

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If state after state adopts this approach, then in those states, you will not be able to discard embryos or donate them for research or literally do anything with them, except seize them for reproduction. Will you be allowed to ship them to another state becomes the big question.

What does this ruling mean for patients in Alabama and other states with fetal personhood laws?

If I were in the middle of a cycle, and my eggs have not been retrieved yet, and I haven’t gone through fertilization, I’d be questioning whether I want to continue in Alabama. Because I wouldn’t know what I would be allowed to do with the embryos. If I had frozen embryos in Alabama, I would definitely look into shipping them to another state.

We have to remember that people going through IVF are very vulnerable. It’s a high-stress situation anyway, without the added layers of complexity and fear. At a medical level, such stress when you’re going through such an intricate process is definitely not in the best interest of patients.

As IVF clinics will shut down and move to other states, we’ll start seeing reproductive tourism within the U.S., just like we’re seeing with abortion. But the ethical problem with that is equity. Poor couples without resources will just not have access to IVF anymore.

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It’s been more than 45 years since the world’s first baby conceived by IVF was born in the U.K. What was the significance of that technological development, and what were the key discussions when IVF was developed?

At the time, they were called test-tube babies. That’s a term that we’ve luckily abandoned, because it implied that they’re artificial children. Some people saw the actual methods of fertilizing the egg outside the body as violating the sacred nature of the creation of life. The Catholic Church was and still is against this, because of the method of conception.

The other concern was, “Oh, these children will be stigmatized. They will not be like other children.” Beyond medical risks that we didn’t know about at the time, how will they be viewed by society? Now it’s so normalized. In some countries, 1 in 6 children is born from assisted reproduction.

Do you think this is a real turning point?

If you think globally, Catholic countries have grappled with the status of embryos for years. Germany, for example, does not allow the destruction of embryos, because the embryos are defined as a person in the Constitution. And that’s for the historical reason that they reject any kind of selection associated to life and will do anything to protect the dignity of human life. So this is new to the U.S., but it’s not new in the world.

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The shift has been from worrying about the technique, in itself, to worrying about who’s using it: gay couples using it, lesbian couples using it, single people using it with egg or sperm donation.

A married heterosexual couple using it to overcome infertility has become a nonissue. It became just medical care, no moral issues associated, other than: What do you do with your leftover frozen embryos that still remain?

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After months of silence, Voyager 1 has returned NASA's calls

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After months of silence, Voyager 1 has returned NASA's calls

For the last five months, it seemed very possible that a 46-year-old conversation had finally reached its end.

Since its launch from Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 5, 1977, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has diligently sent regular updates to Earth on the health of its systems and data collected from its onboard instruments.

But in November, the craft went quiet.

Voyager 1 is now some 15 billion miles away from Earth. Somewhere in the cold interstellar space between our sun and the closest stars, its flight data system stopped communicating with the part of the probe that allows it to send signals back to Earth. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge could tell that Voyager 1 was getting its messages, but nothing was coming back.

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“We’re to the point where the hardware is starting to age,” said Linda Spilker, the project scientist for Voyager mission. “It’s like working on an antique car, from 15 billion miles away.”

Week after week, engineers sent troubleshooting commands to the spacecraft, each time patiently waiting the 45 hours it takes to get a response here on Earth — 22.5 hours traveling at the speed of light to reach the probe, and 22.5 hours back.

By March, the team had figured out that a memory chip that stored some of the flight data system’s software code had failed, turning the craft’s outgoing communications into gibberish.

A long-distance repair wasn’t possible. There wasn’t enough space anywhere in the system to shift the code in its entirety. So after manually reviewing the code line by line, engineers broke it up and tucked the pieces into the available slots of memory.

They sent a command to Voyager on Thursday. In the early morning hours Saturday, the team gathered around a conference table at JPL: laptops open, coffee and boxes of doughnuts in reach.

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At 6:41 a.m., data from the craft showed up on their screens. The fix had worked.

“We went from very quiet and just waiting patiently to cheers and high-fives and big smiles and sighs of relief,” Spilker said. “I’m very happy to once again have a meaningful conversation with Voyager 1.”

Voyager 1 is one of two identical space probes. Voyager 2, launched two weeks before Voyager 1, is now about 13 billion miles from Earth, the two crafts’ trajectories having diverged somewhere around Saturn. (Voyager 2 continued its weekly communications uninterrupted during Voyager 1’s outage.)

They are the farthest-flung human-made objects in the universe, having traveled farther from their home planet than anything else this species has built. The task of keeping communications going grows harder with each passing day. Every 24 hours, Voyager 1 travels 912,000 miles farther away from us. As that distance grows, the signal becomes slower and weaker.

When the probe visited Jupiter in 1979, it was sending back data at a rate of 115.2 kilobits per second, Spilker said. Today, 45 years and more than 14 billion miles later, data comes back at a rate of 40 bits per second.

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The team is cautiously optimistic that the probes will stay in contact for three more years, long enough to celebrate the mission’s 50th anniversary in 2027, Spilker said. They could conceivably last until the 2030s.

The conversation can’t last forever. Microscopic bits of silica keep clogging up the thrusters that keep the probes’ antennas pointed toward Earth, which could end communications. The power is running low. Eventually, the day will come when both Voyagers stop transmitting data to Earth, and the first part of their mission ends.

But on the day each craft goes quiet, they begin a new era, one that could potentially last far longer. Each probe is equipped with a metallic album cover containing a Golden Record, a gold-plated copper disk inscribed with sounds and images meant to describe the species that built the Voyagers and the planet they came from.

Erosion in space is negligible; the images could be readable for another billion years or more. Should any other intelligent life form encounter one of the Voyager probes and have a means of retrieving the data from the record, they will at the very least have a chance to figure out who sent them — even if our species is by that time long gone.

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How L.A. County is trying to remake addiction treatment — no more 'business as usual'

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How L.A. County is trying to remake addiction treatment — no more 'business as usual'

Gary Horejsi wrestled with the decision before him, knowing a life could be in his hands.

It was the third time that the woman had used drugs or alcohol since coming to CRI-Help, which runs a 135-bed residential facility in North Hollywood where people are treated for substance use disorder.

CRI-Help needed to be a safe place for people grappling with their addictions. In the past, others had been removed for less. Horejsi, the clinical director, had the final say on whether she should be discharged.

He perused her file on his computer. The woman was still trying, CRI-Help staffers told him. She hadn’t shared drugs with anyone. And if she were to leave, the risks of an overdose were graver than before.

Horejsi decided to let her stay.

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“Things can’t be business as usual anymore,” their chief executive, Brandon Fernandez, later said at a CRI-Help staff meeting. If someone leaves treatment and resumes using drugs the same way they were before, “that could very well look like them dying.”

“So are we going to be willing to do something different?”

“Things can’t be business as usual anymore,” CRI-Help Chief Executive Brandon Fernandez told his staff at a meeting in North Hollywood on April 10.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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Fernandez had gathered CRI-Help staff in their North Hollywood conference room to talk about a Los Angeles County initiative that could reshape such decisions. It’s called Reaching the 95% — or R95 — and its goal is to engage with more people than the fraction of Angelenos already getting addiction treatment.

Across the country, more than 48 million people had a drug or alcohol use disorder, according to the latest results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Only 13 million received treatment in the previous year. Among those who did not get treatment, roughly 95% said they did not think that they should.

Those numbers have collided with the grim toll of fentanyl, an especially potent opioid that has driven up deaths across the country. In Los Angeles County, the number of overdose deaths tied to fentanyl skyrocketed between 2016 and 2022, soaring from 109 to 1,910, according to a county report.

“We can’t just take the approach that we’ve been taking and kind of assume that everyone wants the services that we offer,” said Dr. Gary Tsai, director of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Control division at the L.A. County Department of Public Health. “That’s just not the reality.”

His department is trying to nudge addiction treatment facilities to change their approach, by offering financial incentives for those that meet R95 requirements. Among them: changing their rules to not automatically eject people who have a “lapse” of drug use.

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Fernandez, whose organization is participating in R95, said abstinence is still its aspirational goal — and “we still have the ability to use our own clinical judgment on a case-by-case basis,” such as if people endanger other participants. But “we shouldn’t have blanket policies.”

To get R95 funding, they also cannot require people to be totally abstinent before being admitted. And under R95, treatment programs are also being encouraged to partner with syringe programs rooted in “harm reduction” — a philosophy focused on minimizing the harmful effects of drug use — to address the needs of people who may not want to enter or remain in treatment.

Some treatment providers “view us as the enemy instead of as allies,” said Soma Snakeoil, executive director of the Sidewalk Project, which provides Narcan spray to reverse overdoses and other services on L.A.’s Skid Row.

With R95, she said, “the biggest change is that harm reduction organizations and treatment providers are talking to each other in a way that was not happening before.”

A woman wearing gloves gives first aid to a woman on the sidewalk with an open wound on her foot.

Soma Snakeoil, executive director of the Sidewalk Project, gives first aid to a woman with an open wound on her foot last year in Los Angeles.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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The county is also prodding addiction treatment facilities to reexamine whether the way they operate could be turning people away, and look more closely at the “customer experience.” Tsai compared the situation to a restaurant drawing few customers: “How do we get more people in the door?”

Too often, “the drug dealers do a much better job of delivering their product to our patients than we do,” said Dr. Randolph Holmes, chair of government affairs for the California Society of Addiction Medicine.

When Johnny Guerrero decided to get off Skid Row and go into residential treatment in Los Angeles, he was initially turned away because he had arrived “late — maybe 10 minutes late,” the 35-year-old said.

He was only able to get in, he said, because the harm reduction worker who had taken him to the facility let him stay the night at her home, then brought him back the next morning. Even then, “there was so much paperwork. I was so dopesick. There was just hurdle after hurdle after hurdle.”

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“They did not make it easy for an addict to get help,” Guerrero said.

In many cases, “the biggest barrier is just being able to get somebody on the phone” with a treatment provider, said Amanda Cowan, executive director of Community Health Project LA, which provides clean syringes and other services to people who use drugs. “When people are ready, they are ready in that moment.”

As of late March, roughly half of the addiction treatment providers that contract with L.A. County were on track to become “R95 Champions,” which could yield hundreds of thousands of dollars each in additional funding.

A building interior, with a staircase and chairs. In the center two hands hold up a sign reading "We care."

CRI-Help’s George T. Pfleger center in North Hollywood.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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To get those funds, they must turn in admissions and discharge policies that adhere to the R95 guidelines, as well as an “engagement policy.” They are also supposed to meet R95 requirements in one other area of their choice, which could include a “customer walkthrough” to see what might turn away clients.

CRI-Help, for instance, had decided to change how it asks newcomers to undergo a search. “The last thing we want to do is trigger someone’s trauma history and potentially have them walk out the door,” Fernandez said.

To ensure it was consistently done with sensitivity, CRI-Help drew up a script for staffers, emphasizing that consenting to a search would help maintain a safe facility. The hope is that “they feel they’re doing something as a part of a community — versus being forced to undergo something that’s uncomfortable.”

Staffers also tell them that if they have any drugs to hand over, “there’s not going to be any consequence, you can still come into treatment,” Fernandez said. “And if we find them on you, there still won’t be any negative consequences.”

The L.A. County push comes as state and federal officials have stressed the need for “low barrier” approaches to addiction care. Even cutting back on drug use can have positive results, researchers have found.

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But some of the changes can be at odds with long-standing beliefs among treatment providers, many of whom got into the field after successfully battling their own addictions in programs firmly focused on abstinence.

Many in the field think “this is what works” because it did work for them, said Vitka Eisen, chief executive of HealthRight 360, another R95 participant. But “we’re the survivors, and we don’t talk to those who didn’t survive.”

Addiction researchers have long called to reexamine how people are treated for substance use disorders. More than a decade ago, a Columbia University center found that “much of what passes for ‘treatment’ of addiction bears little resemblance to the treatment of other health conditions.”

“This is inexcusable given decades of accumulated scientific evidence attesting to the fact that addiction is a brain disease,” the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse lamented in its report.

Experts argue that part of the problem is that addiction treatment has long been separated from the rest of the healthcare system. Richard Rawson, senior advisor to UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, said a major shift was the emergence of buprenorphine, a medication for opioid addiction that could be prescribed in ordinary clinics just like medicines for other chronic conditions.

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But some Southern California treatment providers have viewed using buprenorphine and other such medications as short of sobriety, UC San Diego researchers found — even as California has ushered in requirements for licensed treatment facilities to either offer or help people access such medications.

Addiction is now much more widely understood as a medical condition, but “how much of that philosophy actually gets down to the level of the counselor?” Rawson said. “I think that’s still a work in progress.”

Tsai said a challenge in rolling out R95 is the ingrained idea that “you’re ready or not” for substance use treatment. But “we don’t actually treat any other health condition that way,” he said. “You don’t tell someone with diabetes, ‘Your blood sugar has to be completely under control, and then you’ll be ready for treatment.’”

In North Hollywood, counselors and other CRI-Help employees seated around the conference table studied the R95 goals printed on an L.A. County handout. One staffer said she was struggling with a specific statement, particularly for people in a residential setting: “Requiring abstinence is too high of a bar” for treatment.

Fernandez decided to share his own story. More than a decade ago, he was struggling with drug use, which had worsened after the death of his father. He was unemployed and didn’t have a stable place to live. When an outpatient counselor suggested residential treatment, he initially brushed off the suggestion.

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A person looks over papers while seated at a conference room table

CRI-Help’s staffers had questions and concerns about the changing approach to addiction treatment but ultimately seemed supportive.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

He changed his mind after a “tough weekend,” but had no intention of abstaining from all drugs in the long term. Fernandez said he was nonetheless welcomed at CRI-Help: “Let’s just help you out for now.”

“I came here begrudgingly with a total attitude that I was going to continue smoking weed when I left treatment. I definitely wasn’t going to stop drinking,” even as he recognized that other things he was doing might be a problem, Fernandez told the CRI-Help employees.

Among those who had gone to treatment, he asked the group, “were you ready for total abstinence on Day One?”

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“No. That wasn’t even my plan,” the same staffer replied with a rueful laugh.

Still, she and others were anxious about how they would keep everyone safe if clients used drugs, especially if they tried to bring them into the facility. “That worries me a little bit,” she said.

“It worries me too,” Fernandez said.

What preoccupies CRI-Help staff is how to balance the needs of people who have had a “lapse” into drug use with maintaining a safe environment for other clients grappling with addiction.

Horejsi said in an interview that whenever someone uses — even if they don’t share their drugs — “everyone knows, and that in itself does have an effect on people. Sometimes people will feel less safe.”

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But Horejsi stressed to the group that “we’re already not discharging people for using” alone.

When people have relapsed, the North Hollywood center has monitored them one-on-one in its television room until staff are sure they are safe, then decided on their next steps. Some have ultimately been moved to another CRI-Help residential facility to continue getting treatment and have a “fresh start,” he said.

The clinical director also urged his co-workers to look back at the many changes CRI-Help had already undergone, such as starting to offer medication for addiction treatment. He reminded them that years ago, CRI-Help clients could be discharged if a doctor had given them an opioid pill at the hospital.

A woman speaks

Mary Grayson, a longtime staff member at CRI-Help, spoke positively of the organizations changes over the years.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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“What about when we discharged people because they talked about getting — they glorified drugs?” said Mary Grayson, a longtime CRI-Help employee.

Leaning forward in her seat, Grayson reminded her co-workers that “CRI-Help is not what it was when I walked through those doors 25 years ago — thank God!”

It started with “two shacks on this property. Two raggedy shacks. And look at where we are now,” she said. “Without us changing and growing, we won’t be able to be who we are.”

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FDA approves bladder cancer treatment by Culver City company

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FDA approves bladder cancer treatment by Culver City company

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved a new treatment for a type of bladder cancer.

The treatment, which will be sold under the brand name Anktiva, is intended for some patients suffering from certain types of non-muscle invasive bladder cancer, according to an FDA statement announcing the approval.

News of the FDA action was first reported by Reuters, which said, “The therapy works by activating types of disease fighting white blood cells called natural killer (NK) cells and T-cells to create long-term immunity in the body.”

The drug is now being developed by ImmunityBio of Culver City after its initial development by Altor BioScience of Miramar, Fla.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, whose family owns the Los Angeles Times, is executive chairman of ImmunityBio.

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In a statement, Soon-Shiong heralded the FDA action and called Anktiva “a next-generation immunotherapy.”

The FDA approval was based on the results of a clinical trial led by Dr. Karim Chamie, an associate professor of urology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. In a statement released by UCLA Health, Chamie said the treatment offers “a compelling alternative for patients who have exhausted conventional treatment options.”

Anktiva is intended for bladder cancer patients who did not respond to prior treatments, the FDA said. It is delivered via a catheter and prompts the patient’s own immune system “to mount a targeted attack against cancer cells,” Chamie said.

He noted that the treatment could spare some patients from invasive procedures, such as surgery to remove all or part of the bladder.

Most of the new bladder cancer diagnoses are non-muscle invasive — cancer found in the tissue that lines the inner surface of the bladder and hasn’t spread into the bladder wall, according to the UCLA statement. Patients with this type of cancer usually undergo surgery and a bacteria-based immunotherapy, which is placed directly into the bladder.

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However, even with this treatment, the cancer can come back, and many patients don’t respond well to further treatment, leaving some patients with limited options.

Last May, according to Reuters, the FDA declined to approve the new therapy “due to deficiencies in the company’s application.” The FDA cited problems in its inspections and offered the firm suggestions for how to resolve the manufacturing issues that were raised, according to the wire service.

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