Tuesday, May 5, 2015
By Carol Clark
The recent news that China is trying to “edit” the genes of human embryos, in a way that would permanently alter their DNA, was met with alarm by many in the scientific community. Researchers from the United States were among those who called for a halt to such experiments until the safety and ethical implications are fully considered.
“We’re at the point where we can manipulate life in ways that have great promise to cure some of our most dreaded diseases, expand agriculture and clean up the environment,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory’s Center for Ethics. “But the ability to create new forms of life also holds the potential to cause disease or create organisms that could be environmentally toxic. So we need to be really careful when we’re trying to change some of these basic building blocks of life that we do so thoughtfully. We need to have boundaries around what should and shouldn’t be done.”
The Center for Ethics is hosting a major international summit in Atlanta May 17 to 19, to discuss both aspirations and guidelines for the era of synthetic biology. Biotechnology and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit (BEINGS), will bring together delegates from the top 30 biotechnology producing countries of the world.
Heading up the discussions will be a faculty of 25 distinguished scholars, including leaders in science, law, ethics, industry, philosophy, religion and the arts and humanities. Among the luminaries: Novelist Margaret Atwood, synthetic biologist George Church and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker.
The public is also encouraged to register and attend BEINGS. “The kinds of decisions that we need to make about biotechnology should not just be made by scientists,” Wolpe says. “I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to participate in this conversation.”
Regulations have not kept pace with rapid advances in biotechnology, he says. “We are currently dealing with a kind of regulatory chaos, not only among different countries but even within the United States. Different states, for example, have different standards for how to use stem-cell research.”
BEINGS 2015 will kick off with a key question: What are the major goals of biotechnology?
“We want to articulate the most important aspirational principles of biotechnology and how it can contribute to human flourishing,” Wolpe says. “Once we agree on where we want to go, then I think it becomes easier to talk about how we create boundaries to get there safely.”
In the months following the summit, the delegates will work on developing an international consensus document for biotechnology guidelines, the first of its kind. “Our hope is that it will serve as a kind of touchstone, and a model for ethical principles and policy standards worldwide,” Wolpe says.
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