The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Commissioners debate synthetic biology’s rewards, risks

It is a subject so new and so fast-evolving that scientists disagree on how to define it.

The subject, synthetic biology, has many definitions, said Dr. James Wagner, President of Emory University and Vice Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. “We asked for a definition and we were rebuffed,’’ Wagner said.


But he told the Commission and others attending the group’s third and final hearing on synthetic biology that the group has been “guided by the incident’’ that brought them together. That was the announcement in May of an entire genome from one species recreated in a laboratory and reinserted “into the chassis, if you, in another species,’’ he said. “It was an entire genome manufactured on a laboratory bench.’’

Soon after that announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute, President Obama asked the Commission to issue recommendations on federal involvement in synthetic biology.

At today’s hearing in Atlanta, the group talked about the first 12 of 19 draft recommendations on federal oversight. The group will go through seven more draft recommendations on Wednesday, and then expects to submit its final report to the White House in about a month.

The draft recommendations covered a wide gamut, including a coordinated evaluation of current public funding for synthetic biology activities, including risk assessment; that the primary determinant of public investment should be whether a project advances the public good; that no new agency or oversight bodies was needed for synthetic biology, but a body within the Executive Office of the President (EOP) should develop a coordinated approach to research and development; and that ongoing assessments were needed because the field and the science were evolving so rapidly.

Other draft recommendations included branding new organisms in some way to help the government monitor developments; that the federal government should communicate to the public about any field release of a biosynthetic organism into the environment; and that ethics education should be developed for all researchers, beyond the medical and clinical research communities to include those in engineering, materials science and information technology.

In more than three hours of discussion on the recommendations, Commission members discussed a range of benefits and risks in synthetic biology.

Wagner said so many questions about synthetic biology couldn’t be answered just yet.

What if, he asked, if a synthetic biology product “is more robust that what is in nature? Or what if it could be applied for malevolent purposes? What degree do we interfere with the nature order of life, some could ask?’’

“Certainly some risk now can’t be imaginable, but (the Commission’s job) is how to give advice to society to be best prepared,’’ Wagner said.

Some benefits were imaginable, though, several Commissioners said.

“Synthetic biology has great potential to improve the public’s well-being – with new medicines, discoveries in energy and food,’’ said Lonnie Ali, a Commission member, wife of Muhammad Ali and an activist who raises awareness of Parkinson’s disease.

Ali mentioned in particular work on a synthetic form of Artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug that could be used to combat the tens of millions of cases of malaria around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. But all the applications, she said, “were in the very basic stages of research.’’

She said an existing agency in the federal government should coordinate “the effective use of public funds’’ for synthetic biology projects. Several Commissioners discussed the benefits of public funding to ensure transparency.

But Commission member Nita A. Farahany, an Associate Professor of Law and Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, also lauded private industry’s investment.

“Much of the innovation is being driven by private funding. I think that’s a fortunate thing,’’ she said. “…I understand concerns about lack of transparency. But I’m not sure the right answer is to find parity of private and public funding.’’

Dr. Stephen L. Hauser, a Commission member and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, said the advantages of public funding were numerous. Among them: uniform standards for protection of subjects in a clinical trial, and ensuring that important research will occur even if there is little market benefit.

“Two areas that I can see (for public funding) are development of antibiotics, and … develop therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s,’’ Hauser said.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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