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Genome games: A secret meet and a controversy

by Pete ShanksDeccan Chronicle
May 22nd, 2016

Image of a person with gloves holding a petri dish.

On May 10, about 130 scientists, entrepreneurs and others held an invitation-only event at Harvard. Organisers told invitees not to talk to the press and not to discuss pending publications related to the topic they were there to discuss. Wait, what? Were they afraid of public panic? Was an asteroid on its way to destroy Earth? Was a catastrophic virus on the loose?

No, they were discussing future research, and how to get a lot more money for it. But they knew that if word got out people might be upset. Because they discussed building a completely synthetic version of a human genome. Not actually artificial people, but a huge step forward in synthetic biology. One of those invited, Drew Endy, a Stanford professor who is one of the leaders in the field, not only refused to come but tweeted: “If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research (synthesizing a human genome) you are doing something wrong.”

Private water-cooler chat is certainly one way that ideas are developed. But over 100 people flown in from around the country — that’s not a hallway conversation, it’s apparently a way of strategising how best to obtain funds for their ambitious goals. The original Human Genome Project cost over US$4.5 billion in today’s dollars. That was the attempt to define the human genome, to “read the book of life.” It took 13 years to complete, and even now the exact number of human genes is still being refined.

The scientists behind this latest effort are talking about what they called HGP2 (or HGP-Write), and the cost is hard to estimate but would certainly be large, and the effort — even if it can be accomplished — would take years. So, “synthetic babies” are not on the immediate agenda. But scientific hubris certainly is.

Another kind of “designer babies” is closer, and promoted by some of the same scientists. The proposed technology is based on a fairly new genetic modification technique with the catchy acronym CRISPR. This development increased the efficiency, and cut the cost, of what is loosely called “gene editing,” a metaphor from word processing that is perhaps a little misleading.

CRISPR led rapidly to some over-enthusiastic advocacy of “editing” the genomes of plants and animals and even people. Two Chinese teams have published (failed) attempts to change human embryos’ genes in vitro. The possibilities of misuse became obvious, and the need to address them became urgent.

The US National Academies of Sciences and other national bodies are discussing the technical, legal and ethical consequences of perhaps intervening to make heritable human genetic alterations. NAS convened a public “gene editing summit” last December and a report is due later this year. For the moment at least, there is a de facto moratorium on such experiments in the U.S. and most of the world.

The organisers of the December meeting issued a statement saying “it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until (i) the safety and efficacy issues have been resolved, ... and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application.” We’re not even close to either condition being met.

Image via WikiCommons/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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