Monday, July 9, 2007

Slow Down, Doctors Frankenstein

The main character in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” has always been known by that name. Frankenstein. But in the book, the new life form created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein has no name. In public talks, Shelley was said to have referred to the creature as “Adam”…the human created in the Bible by God. The subtitle of the book is “The Modern Prometheus”…another God who, according to some versions of Greek myth, created Man.

Now we are a significant scientific step closer to the day when the creators of life will be us, not in the stories of novel and myth, but in our modern laboratories. A group of scientists has taken the DNA out of one bacterium, put it into a bacterium of a similar but different species, and watched as the inserted DNA took over and turned the host cell into a replica of the species from which the DNA first came. Now all we have to do is manufacture the DNA ourselves, add own specifications, and we will have the ability to create new, completely synthetic, forms of life.

We’re not quite at the moment when Igor throws the switch and the voltage brings Dr. Frankenstein’s creation to life. But this work has brought us much closer. It has also brought us closer to a dangerous conflict between scientific progress and public perception. Public fear that scientists are creating new, synthetic forms of life….playing God in the lab. …could bring this work, with its risks and its phenomenal potential benefits, to a screeching halt.

Recent history bears this out. There was public apprehension about and resistance to recombinant DNA research in the 70’s. Uncertainty was high, and fear followed close behind. Scientists were alleged to be “toying with life”. Legislative restrictions started to limit such work. Experiments were shut down. Progress in the field slowed dramatically.
The relatively tepid resistance to that earlier work will pale compared to the public uproar sure to erupt when scientists announce they have manufactured DNA, put it in a cell, and created life. Reaction to that could interfere with progress in life sciences for years.

As was the case with recombinant DNA research in the 70’s, the science of manipulating life is charging ahead with all the energy of human curiosity, the seduction of ego, the lure of riches, and the promise of solutions to many of our most pressing health and environmental problems. And as was the case with recombinant DNA science, while the ethical implications of synthetic life science are being considered, the public perception implications are not. Far too little is being done to communicate to the public about this work; the safety controls under which it is done, the great benefits it can bring, the respect that scientists have (or should have) for public concerns, and their willingness to develop and live by self-controls.

Again, the recombinant DNA episode instructs. As the pressure mounted back then, researchers gathered with lawyers and doctors at a conference near Asilomar State Beach in California. They came up with a long list of biological safety procedures, self-imposed legal restrictions, and the vital acknowledgment that for scientific knowledge to advance, scientists also have to develop guidelines for how their work should be regulated.

The participants at Asilomar also recognized the need to help the public understand their work, to demystify their science, to respect and address public apprehension. Many of them engaged much more actively with the press and accepted the responsibility that communicating about their work to the general public was nearly as important as the work itself.

Asilomar was in many ways an act of self-interest. Nonetheless, by recognizing and responding to public apprehension in tangible ways, the participants at Asilomar took a vital step in re-establishing public trust in science, which in turn has allowed for decades of progress in biology that has put us on the brink of being able to create synthetic life.

But the lessons of Asilomar seem to have faded. The leaders in the field of synthetic life science need to recognize the concerns the public is starting to have about their work…ethical concerns, safety concerns…and deal with our apprehensions actively, now, before Igor throws the switch and some lab creates a life form in a glass beaker that has never existed on earth before. They need to tell us what they are doing to keep their work safe. They need to tell us what they are doing to try to develop new ways of improving safety. They need to tell us how they, and we as a society, might oversee their work in ways that will allow progress but avoid harm. They need to simply explain what they’re doing, to reduce uncertainty and the fear that goes with it. They need to demonstrate that they take our worries seriously, and not just give those worries lip service while they chase their Nobel Prizes, patents, and personal fortunes.

The ability to construct DNA to our specifications and insert it into living cells, the ability to powerfully influence all biological life, has profound ethical and safety concerns. But it also offers almost unimaginable promise, to eliminate hunger, clean the environment, cure disease. Far less of that promise will be realized if the men and women doing this work don’t recognize and address our concerns about what they are doing. Otherwise they may learn how to create their Adam, only to find that, out of fear, we want to chase down what they have done and kill it.

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