A group of around 150 scientists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs have met behind closed doors in an invitation-only discussion on, if, and how, to construct from scratch an entire human genome. It has concerned many in the life sciences community because of the potential to create human beings without biological parents.
With journalists not being invited and attendees being explicitly told not to talk to them, it has raised concerns given the subject matter. At the top of the list of concerns — it may end up creating new ways to make synthetic human genes, leading to them being used to artificially create humans.
George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project said that the new project would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project. However instead of reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in our DNA blueprint, it would write the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.
Now it must be said that by creating a synthetic genome, that could then be tested in a laboratory by replacing the existing genome within a human cell, is not making a synthetic human. However, it is the start of something new, and with the ability to create a human cell with only digital information and raw materials, there needs to be a broader discussion.
Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, wrote in an article that criticizes the proposed project:
“For context, total synthesis of a human genome is becoming plausible at an accelerating rate.”
Endy was invited to the meeting, however he chose not to attend because he felt that it was not open to enough people and there was not enough thought given to the ethical implications of the work.
Zoloth was reported to have said:
“This idea is an enormous step for the human species, and it shouldn’t be discussed only behind closed doors.”
According to STAT, Church told them that the meeting was originally going to be “an open meeting with lots of journalists engaged,” and it was supposed to be accompanied by a peer-reviewed article on the topic. However, the journal for which Church had declined to identify, wanted the paper to include more information about the ethical, social, and legal components of synthesizing genomes.
They were therefore not supposed to discuss the idea publicly before publication. Church went on to say that they were in a bind:
“Should they keep the meeting open to the public and break the embargo, or close the meeting so as not to break the embargo of the scientific journal.”
However, Endy tweeted out a screenshot of what appears to be a message from the meeting organizers, saying in part:
“We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve.”
If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research (synthesizing a human genome) you are doing something wrong. pic.twitter.com/SN1X8zlPH8
— Drew Endy (@DrewEndy) May 9, 2016
Endy and Zoloth’s article also claims that the meeting was originally organized to focus on “deliverables and industry involvement” with the primary goal of the project being “to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”
However, Church told STAT: “That he emailed Endy, explaining that the meeting was made private because of the embargo situation, and that it was not solely about the human genome. Church said that the organizers ‘sent out a fresh set of invitations later’ with updated wording.” The title was changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”
Marcy Darnovsky the executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, told STAT: “The ‘semi-secret’ nature of the meeting is against the values that were established in December at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing. This summit included scientists, ethicists, patient advocates, regulators, and others. It was decided that clinical work on making changes to human genomes that could be inherited should not proceed until there is ‘broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed alteration’.”
Other organizers included Jef Boeke the director of the institute for systems genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Andrew Hessel, who is a self-described futurist working for the Bay Area software company Autodesk, and who first proposed such a project in 2012.
The fact that human genome synthesis is a technology that could have huge implications to us as a species, discussions of making such capacities real should not be behind closed doors. This is especially important when the people behind those doors have a significant and direct material interest.