November 2010 Atlanta Hearing – The blog of the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Mon, 09 Jan 2017 23:23:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Buzz over science: Oslo, Cronkite and Thu, 18 Nov 2010 01:36:10 +0000 A few years ago, Dr. Stephen L. Hauser accompanied a friend to Oslo. His friend had won a Nobel Prize.

Commission member Dr. Stephen L. Hauser, left.

“It was so impressive — the entire nation was transfixed by science,’’ Hauser told his fellow members of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

“We were stopped in the streets, and asked which party are you with. The television was full of the discussion of the nature of these prizes,’’ he said.
Hauser, Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, was speaking about one of the panel’s 19 recommendations on federal oversight in synthetic biology. The recommendation had to do with expanding educational activities related to synthetic biology for students at all levels, civil society groups, and communities.

“It would be just wonderful if a similar period was developed in the United States,’’ Hauser said, referring to Norway’s celebration over the Nobel Prizes. “Public education efforts are clearly central. … We need to find better ways to make science more interesting to the general public.’’

Dr. James Wagner, Vice Chair of the Commission and President of Emory University, which hosted the meeting, suggested putting in the recommendations a way to encourage the media to help promote public education of synthetic biology.

“The last time I can recall a vivid period of scientific focus was around the earlier days of the space program,’’ he said. “I think you would agree, one of the key players was the media, when we were listening and watching Walter Cronkite around the dinner table … using language such as heat shields. I think that encouraging literate, open science reporting could be a good recommendation.’’

Commission Chair Dr. Amy Gutmann, the President of the University of Pennsylvania, also had another idea: Create an independent, bioscience version of, which would include checking facts on synthetic biology and a host of other topics.

“When there are new innovations that come out with claims flying by the innovators themselves, or the media, or critics, sometimes even the educated public and even journalists who are covering this don’t have at their fingertips whether these claims can be borne out,’’ she said. “So one could go to this version of, and check the variety of claims made about synthetic biology and other new advances in the field of biology and technology.’’

She said such a Web-based service could have been used soon after the J. Craig Venter Institute announced on May 20 that it had injected a synthetic genome into a living organism.

Some said that Venter was “creating life.’’ Not so, Gutmann said.

“If there were a then, you could find out what the Venter Institute did was not creating life. There was a living cell in a genome, and that cell was taken over by new genome, but life existed prior to that experiment. As the rhetoric escalated, though, the notion of creating life took over.’’

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Lonnie Ali on synthetic biology: `So many opportunities’ Wed, 17 Nov 2010 13:21:15 +0000  

Commission member Lonnie Ali, center

Lonnie Ali, the wife of Muhammad Ali and an advocate for raising awareness of Parkinson’s disease, is a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. During a break in this week’s hearings, she talked about her experience on the Commission:

Q: What have been your impressions so far?

A: I was asked to be on the Commission, my name was submitted by a member of PAN, the Parkinson’s Action Network. I considered it an honor to serve the country and to do some public good in an area I had not done before. It was just an honor that I would be considered.

Q: What about this first topic, synthetic biology?

A: I’m not a scientist. I’m the only one here without a lot of letters behind my name! (Editor’s note: She earned her MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.) But I find it extremely interesting from a lay person’s perspective of all the issues behind synthetic biology. It’s very important for the public to be informed about the basic facts, and its potential to do public good.

You know that Exxon commercial? Before I would have never noticed it when it talks about algae and using these biofuels, which will alleviate the need for fossil fuels. That’s a potential use of synthetic biology. What a wonderful opportunity to use something like that to educate the public about what we are talking about.

When that whole thing came out with Mr. Venter, and creating an artificial life, that was a little scary before we got all the facts. The ability to have exposure to the types of experts we’ve had testify has given us very important information, which will guide policy and help us put together these recommendations. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

I really hope when the President reads this, he realizes that we have tried to be as responsive as we could and as thorough as we could to give him all the information.

Q: What do you think about the potential applications of synthetic biology?

A: It has a lot of opportunity for public good. It could create advances for Parkinson’s disease. Somewhere in the science they might find something to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease or other kinds of diseases. Anything that alleviates human suffering is great. You don’t know what can happen next. There are so many opportunities here for this technology – advances that we can’t imagine sitting here today.

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Aristotle would be proud: `Prudent vigilance’ for synthetic biology Wed, 17 Nov 2010 02:20:44 +0000 http://blog/?p=39 Since there are so many unknowns about synthetic biology, should the federal government follow Europe’s approach to genetically modified food? That is, not allow research to go forward until it’s proven safe?

That question was posed by Dr. John D. Arras, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, during its hearing today in Atlanta.

Arras, the Porterfield Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, was presenting one of the Commission’s draft recommendations. The group will make final recommendations in a month to President Obama on federal oversight of synthetic biology.

Arras – and the Commission – do not back the European GM approach. Instead, they are now supporting a call for ongoing assessments of synthetic biology in order to stay abreast with any developments in the field.

“Synthetic biology is a new and very energetic field,’’ Arras said. “We are witnessing very rapid development. It’s very difficult to predict ahead of time what sorts of benefits will arise, or what sort of risks. We are speculating largely in the dark. We are facing a great amount of uncertainty. What is the proper attitude toward risk when the future is shrouded in uncertainty?’’

He continued: “Especially, what is the proper attitude in dealing with events which are in low probability range, but high in impact? We can think about organisms let loose in the environment, reeking havoc out there. This is a very serious risk, but hard to predict what the likelihood of that is. The same thing goes for risks under the heading of bioterrorism, bad actors doing terrible things. We know they are out there, but hard to get a handle on the quantity of the risk.’’

Arras posed two approaches to dealing with such unknown risk:

“One way of handling risk is to be proactive: Go full speed ahead, worry about risk later. This supports the values of scientific freedom and focuses on the benefits that derive from it,’’ he said. “The other extreme – the cautionary proposal – we’ve seen in Europe when it comes to genetically modified foods. In that case, there must be a promise of mitigation before one goes forward with research.’’

His conclusion? Neither route. He chose a middle road.

Arras, the philosopher he is, called it the Aristotelian Approach.

Following the footsteps of Aristotle meant: clearly define the issue, consider all accepted views on the subject, and present findings based on deduction and practical considerations.


We call it prudent vigilance,’’ Arras said of the views of fellow Commission members. “We recommend having ongoing assessments as the risk develops. We argue that research goes forward but with lots of safeguards.’’

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Commissioners debate synthetic biology’s rewards, risks Wed, 17 Nov 2010 00:24:10 +0000 http://blog/?p=31 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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An ethical framework Tue, 16 Nov 2010 23:26:38 +0000 http://blog/?p=24 At the opening of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues meeting today in Atlanta, the first discussion wasn’t about the issue at hand – synthetic biology.

Instead, it was about how to approach the issue.

It was the third meeting of the Commission for its assigned task to make a recommendation to President Obama about how the federal government should reap the benefits and minimize the risks of synthetic biology. The Commission should deliver that decision in roughly a month.

It has heard so far from 34 experts in a range of fields to talk about potential applications and potential risks in the field following the announcement on May 20th that the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world’s first self-replicating synthetic genome in a bacterial cell of a different species. In other words, Venter and his colleagues showed they could design and construct new biological parts by inserting gene sequences not found in nature into existing organism.

So how has the Commission approached the issues?

Dr. Amy Gutmann, Commission Chair and President of the University of Pennsylvania, explained that the group has been looking at synthetic biology through the lens of five principles: public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness.

Some of the principles are self-explanatory. She particularly focused on the second principle: responsible stewardship.

“This is a charge to scientists and public bodies alike to be trustees of the interests of those who can’t be represented here — to the children, future generations, the environment,’’ Gutmann said.

That, she said, had to be interpreted in the broadest sense, meaning that the Commission would look at the potential risks to the environment if something made by synthetic biology released into the natural world. But it also meant, she said, that if intellectual freedom were curbed, stopping research in life-saving vaccines, that would be detrimental to future generations.

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Welcome to Mon, 15 Nov 2010 19:32:04 +0000 In the next few days, we will launch this blog with live coverage of our Atlanta hearing on the implications and ethics of synthetic biology. Along with live video from the event, we hope that this coverage can provide a window on this week’s events even for those who can’t join us in Atlanta.

After this week’s meeting, it’s our hope that this blog will be a venue for education and discussion about important issues in bioethics. We hope you’ll come back for the live coverage on Tuesday and Wednesday, subscribe via RSS or sign up for email updates, and leave any feedback and ideas you have in the comments.

While we’re liveblogging, you may want to refer to one or more of the following:

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