It has been reported that last week, a group of scientists met in a closed-door session at Harvard Medical School to discuss concrete steps and industry involvement to achieve the goal of synthesizing—creating in the laboratory—an entire human genome, and putting it into a cell, within 10 years. Reportedly led by Harvard’s George Church, a leader and chief enthusiast of the technical prospects of genetic engineering, the meeting reportedly was aimed not at creating whole people, just human cells. How reassuring. This paragraph uses “reportedly” several times because media coverage—traditional or social—was shunned by the participants.
This would be a huge jump from the work in recent years to synthesize the whole, and then the “minimal,” genome of one species of bacteria. But one can readily imagine the undertaking becoming feasible within the next generation or so.
Could such an effort be ethical? Well, IF the only conceivable—not technically feasible, but conceivable, or able-to-be-intended—use was to create a specialized cell for cellular therapy, then one could do some level of mental gymnastics to argue that the effort was sufficiently circumscribed to warrant proceeding.
But of course the real goal would be to alter whole individuals—or “create” them—for some purpose, ostensibly good, but possibly mischievous. As such, the laboratory synthesis of an entire human genome has unethical ends to begin with, so ought never be attempted.
Others closer to the work may not be so categorical but nonetheless think this is a place that we ought not charge to. Specifically, Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy and Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth have written an open letter criticizing the attempt. Endy, who is on the cutting edge himself, and who offered thoughtful testimony to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues a few years ago about synthetic biology, was invited to the “invitation-only” meeting, but declined to attend.
Read their entire letter here. It is very well stated.
Endy and Zoloth worry that an effort to make an entire human genome could get diverted to evil ends—like figuring out how to create super-viruses—or to gain an advantage in the “competitive marketplace” of human reproduction. “Would it be OK to make Einstein’s genome” and put it into cells, they ask? If so, how many, and who controls them?
More critically, they suggest that just because something can be done does not mean that it is ethical to proceed, and they ask, how should we decide whether it is ethical. They write, “[T]he narrative of creation of the human is the central narrative for many religious communities. To create a human genome from scratch would be an enormous moral gesture whose consequences should not be framed initially on the advice of lawyers and regulators alone. The perspectives of others including self-identified theologians, philosophers, and ethicists from a variety of traditions should be sought out from the very beginning. Critical voices representing civil society, who have long been skeptical of synthetic biology’s claims, should also be included. The creation of new human life is one of the last human-associated processes that has not yet been industrialized or fully commodified. It remains an act of faith, joy, and hope. Discussions to synthesize, for the first time, a human genome should not occur in closed rooms.”
The time has come for a massive public outcry to slow down our biotechnologists. They are arrogating fundamental decisions onto themselves and attempting to declare, unilaterally, that they alone can create the means for declaring their work ethical and then make the decisions, in what is frankly a closed loop. To quote a wiser man than I, it is time to “stand athwart the world and yell, ‘stop’!”
“Throw the main switch, Igor!”