March 6, 2014
Artificial organs may finally get a blood supply
(MIT Technology Review) – In what may be a critical breakthrough for creating artificial organs, Harvard researchers say they have created tissue interlaced with blood vessels. Using a custom-built four-head 3-D printer and a “disappearing” ink, materials scientist Jennifer Lewis and her team created a patch of tissue containing skin cells and biological structural material interwoven with blood-vessel-like structures. Reported by the team in Advanced Materials, the tissue is the first made through 3-D printing to include potentially functional blood vessels embedded among multiple, patterned cell types.
Dementia death toll may be worse than cancer
(The Telegraph) – The number of people dying from dementia has being vastly underestimated with the disease potentially responsible for more deaths than cancer and heart disease combined, new research suggests. A study from the US has found that Alzheimer’s and dementia is widely under-reported on death certificates and medical records.
Bionic arm gives cyborg drummer superhuman skills
(New Scientist) – JASON BARNES had wanted to be a professional drummer since he was a teenager. But when he lost his arm in a freak accident he thought his dream was over. Now he has a second chance at the big time – thanks to a brand new robotic arm. Barnes lost the lower half of his right arm two years ago, after getting an electric shock while cleaning a vent hood in a restaurant. But he refused to give up on his musical dream, so he built a simple drumming device out of a brace and some springs that attached to his arm.
New findings on neurogenesis in the spinal cord
(Medical News Today) – Research from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden suggests that the expression of the so called MYC gene is important and necessary for neurogenesis in the spinal cord. The findings are being published in the journal EMBO Reports. The MYC gene encodes the protein with the same name, and has an important role in many cellular processes such as proliferation, metabolism, cell death and the potential of differentiation from immature stem cells to different types of specialized cells. Importantly it is also one of the most frequently activated genes in human cancer.
Early treatment is found to clear H.I.V. in a 2nd baby
(New York Times) – When scientists made the stunning announcement last year that a baby born with H.I.V. had apparently been cured through aggressive drug treatment just 30 hours after birth, there was immediate skepticism that the child had been infected in the first place. But on Wednesday, the existence of a second such baby was revealed at an AIDS conference here, leaving little doubt that the treatment works. A leading researcher said there might be five more such cases in Canada and three in South Africa.
Widow wins frozen sperm legal fight
(BBC) – Beth Warren’s husband had sperm frozen before starting cancer treatment and signed paperwork saying his wife could use the sperm after his death. He died from a brain tumour two years ago, but regulations meant his sperm were due to be destroyed in April 2015. Mrs Warren, 28, said this defied common sense and the High Court has now backed her case.
Chemotherapy in last months of life associated with increased risk of dying away from home
(Eurekalert) – The use of chemotherapy in terminally-ill cancer patients in the last months of life is associated with increased risk of undergoing resuscitation and dying in an intensive care unit, suggests a paper published on bmj.com today. The researchers suggest that end-of-life discussions may be particularly important for patients receiving chemotherapy and suggest that caregivers should ensure that patients are aware of their prognosis, likely outcomes of treatment and that their choices are aligned with their end-of-life values.
Study finds genetic link between height and IQ
(Medical Xpress) – A team of researchers at Edinburgh University in Scotland has found a correlation between genes associated with height and those associated with intelligence. In their paper published in the journal Behavior Genetics, the group describes how they studied the DNA of 6,815 unrelated people and discovered what they describe as a direct correlation between height and intelligence—taller people are smarter, they say.
Study comparing injectable contraceptives DMPA and NET-EN finds HIV risk higher with DMPA
(Medical Xpress) – Women who used an injectable contraceptive called DMPA were more likely to acquire HIV than women using a similar product called NET-EN, according to a secondary analysis of data from a large HIV prevention trial called VOICE, researchers from the National Institutes of Health-funded Microbicide Trials Network (MTN) reported today at the 21st Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Boston. An unexpected finding in the study was that the combination of being positive for herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) and using DMPA for contraception was associated with a higher risk of HIV compared to women using NET-EN and who were also HSV-2 positive.
“Biological time travel”
(Harvard Magazine) – From glowing fish to bacteria that can count, synthetic biologists are now able to create life forms never before seen on earth. “Historians and Ecclesiastes be damned,” says Sophia Roosth, assistant professor in the history of science. “In the first decades of the twenty-first century, a number of things are new under the sun.” In a lecture last Wednesday drawn from her forthcoming book, Synthetic: How Life Got Made, Roosth, a Joy Foundation Fellow this year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, described her analysis of recent attempts at “de-extinction,” the effort to recreate extinct or endangered species using modern technologies.
Japanese scientists release tips on reproducing stem-cell work
(The Wall Street Journal) – A leading Japanese research institute on Wednesday released new tips on methods its scientists used to create stem cells in hopes of dispelling skepticism over what has been touted as a breakthrough technique. The Riken Center for Developmental Biology said additional procedural methods for the studies led by Riken biologist Haruko Obokata will be released on the British journal Nature’s online Protocol Exchange site where scientists share their experimental know-how.
Stem cells to treat lung disease in infants
(Asian Scientist) – A phase I clinical study conducted by researchers in Korea has found that it is safe and feasible to use stem cell therapies for preventing and treating lung disease in preterm infants. Advances in neonatal care for very preterm infants have greatly increased the chances of survival for these fragile infants. However, preterm infants have an increased risk of developing bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), a serious lung disease, which is a major cause of death and lifelong complications.
Thailand offers tourists a chance to win a new face
(CNN) – Fancy a different face but can’t afford to go under the knife? Thailand’s Tourism Authority has launched an Extreme Makeover contest, offering three lucky ladies a chance to win free facial surgery along with a shot at $5,000 and a luxury vacation. To enter, you’ll have to submit photos showing your face from various angles, along with a health profile and written explanation of why you so badly covet a makeover.
‘How We Die’ author Nuland dies in Conn. at age 83
(ABC News) – Dr. Sherwin Nuland, a medical ethicist who opposed assisted suicide and wrote an award-winning book about death called “How We Die,” has died at age 83. He died of prostate cancer on Monday at his home in Hamden, said his daughter Amelia Nuland, who recalled how he told her he wasn’t ready for death because he loved life.
March 5, 2014
Synthetic Biology and Venter’s Life at the Speed of Light
Craig Venter’s book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life describes the completion of the first functioning organism with a completely synthetic genome and places this accomplishment within the context of the history of genetics. While several reviews can be found online, this article will look at the specific bioethics issues that arise in discussing Venter’s process of making a synthetic organism as well as his vision for a future where digital technology and biological information merge to potentially solve many of the world’s problems.
Venter’s goals are to determine a minimal genome necessary for life, create this genome in the lab, and create the necessary cellular machinery to operate the genome. In the book, he explores the definition of life, and feels that his research helps answer the question “What is life?”
Summary of the Process
Venter’s group began by synthesizing the genome of Phi X 174. Phi X 174 was the first virus genetically sequenced, so it was used as a test subject for the Venter group’s process for synthesizing long pieces of DNA in the laboratory. They wanted to use this well-studied genome to double check that their process was working. At that time, scientists had not successfully made long sequences of DNA in the lab without the DNA breaking or introducing errors. By 1999 the Venter group was able to successfully re-create the DNA sequence for Phi X 174 using their method.
While the media may have touted the construction of the Phi X 174 genome as “creating life in the lab” the Venter group did not consider it so because Phi X 174 is a virus, not a cellular organism. Venter considered this accomplishment merely one step toward the end goal of making an actual synthetic organism.
In 2007 the Venter group was able to reconstruct the genome of M. genitalium, a well-studied bacterial organism. This established a method by which they would then construct a genome that had never been constructed in the laboratory before. Additionally, they demonstrated that the genome of one bacterial organism can be placed into the cell of a different species of bacteria, which had its DNA removed, and the cell will behave according to the identity of new DNA. In the end, they synthesized a M. mycoides genome and placed it within a M. capricolum cell. Final tests showed that the organism behaved like a M. mycoides cell (Venter, 123).
Ref: “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome” Science
After the preliminary studies with Phi X 174, Venter funded a private review board to investigate the ethics and implications of making life in the lab. This group was headed by Arthur Caplan, at the time working at the University of Pennsylvania. The review was published in Science as “Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome.”
Additionally, because the Venter group had constructed a virus, and there were political issues associated with the potential for other countries making synthetic viruses, completion of the Phi X 174 also sparked an ethics review by the government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity on dual-use research.
Then, in 2010, when the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had created “the world’s first self-replicating synthetic (human-made from chemical parts) genome in a bacterial cell of a different species, President Obama had the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues evaluate the research and its implications. The Commission published a document entitled “New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies” evaluating the ethical issues surrounding Venter’s work.
Both the independent review board and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues brought up several key points, one of the more important of them is whether Venter actually created life in the lab. Both they and Venter point out that synthetic biology is really a form of genetic engineering (Venter, 83), so many of the same ethical concerns that were considered when the human genome project was happening apply to synthetic biology as well.
There are, however, a few additional bioethics issues that are specific to this technology:
- The Venter group did develop a robust approach to making large sequences of DNA in the lab by inputting the desired code into the computer. While some question whether this technology can really be used to make a functioning bacterial cell, it does have implications for creating a synthetic virus. Viruses are rather simple organisms that consist of a container for holding DNA, the actual viral DNA (or RNA) that invades a cell, and sometimes, a virus will have some mechanism for inserting itself into a cell. The concern is that this technology may be used for bioterrorism. This is why the government board on dual-use technologies evaluated the research. While Venter sees his work as solving more problems than it creates, he considers this one of the key areas of concern (Venter, 155).
- Because the bacterial cells with the synthetic DNA are capable of replication, there is potential to introduce synthetic organisms, ones without precursor parents, into the environment. Unlike naturally-occurring organisms, these do not have an ancestral history. Venter lauds this as an accomplishment because, as he stated in the beginning of the book, he sees the scientific endeavor as understanding and controlling life (Venter, 8), and introducing new organisms into the environment is a type of control. However, the President’s Commission says that this can also be cause for concern. Indeed, they question whether synthetic organisms, once released into the wild, will be controllable “We are far from being proficient speakers of the language of life, and our capacity to control synthetic organisms that we design and release into the world is promising but unproven” (Commission, 22).
- Synthetic biology is a changing field, and while ethical recommendations and considerations have been made, the President’s Commission believes that dialog, critique, and public education are important for this changing field (Commission, 15-16). To that end, the Commission developed some guiding principles that Venter mentions but does not discuss in detail in his book: 1) public beneficence, 2) responsible stewardship, 3) intellectual freedom and responsibility, 4) democratic deliberation, and 5) justice and fairness. (See The Commission’s report for details on each of these.)
- Finally, there is a question of how to deal with patents. While the process to make a synthetic organism may be patentable, are synthetic genomes able to be patented? They do not fall under the category of “natural phenomena” because they were technically engineered. However, as we saw with the Myriad Genetics’ case, one cannot patent human genes.Additionally, there may be a question of how similar is too similar. In the case of Venter’s research, the synthetic genes are modeled on naturally occurring genes, but may have slight differences. This also brings up the question of whether living things can be patented at all, assuming Venter’s group did make a novel living organism in the lab.
While the goal of this article is to address bioethics issues, there are several philosophical issues that play an important role in Life at the Speed of Light that ought to be mentioned. The book begins by contemplating what the definition of life is. According to Venter, his experiment answers this question by showing that life is information, namely DNA.
A key theme throughout Life at the Speed of Light is Venter’s exasperation with vitalism. In this case, he is referring to the scientific use of the term “vitalism,” a term that was originally used to describe the belief that cells have a vital force that cannot be measured empirically. Venter, however, expands the term to mean a belief that life is anything more than chemistry (Venter, 17 and 18). In other words, he uses an antiquated notion to encompass anything other than his definition of life. For Venter, the information and complexity seen in the cell emerges out of chemical properties, and his group’s ability to replace the genome of one organism with another serves, at least from his point of view, as definitive proof that vitalism is an antiquated notion based on poor science:
The other major impact of the first genome transplants was that they provided a new, deeper understanding of life. My thinking about life had crystallized as we conducted this research. DNA was the software of life, and if we changed that software, we changed the species, and thus the hardware of the cell. This is precisely the result that those yearning for evidence of some vitalistic force feared would come out of good reductionist science, of trying to break down life, and what is meant to be alive, into basic functions and simple components. Our experiments did not leave much room to support the views of the vitalists or of those who want to believe that life depends on something more than a complex composite of chemical reactions. (Venter, 109)
Venter is uninterested in the implications of a purely reductionistic view of life and expressed surprise that the ethics board that he funded spent time in their Science paper discussing the religious and philosophical implications (Venter, 81). For Venter, ethics appears to be about permissibility. Is he doing anything illegal or that will cause religious groups to protest? The ethics committee said that they “could not find references in the Bible or other religious writings that forbade the creation of new forms of life” (Venter, 79). For Venter, this signified that he did his due diligence to appease those who may have philosophical or religious concerns about his work.
Finally, Venter addresses his critics’ claims that he did not actually make life in the lab, because he used already existing templates and cellular machinery (See, for example, page 32 of the Commission’s report). Some contend that he did not make life “from scratch.” Venter appropriately points out the ambiguity of the phrase, “from scratch,” and questions what his detractors would consider a completely synthetic organism (132). However, he does not adequately address the fact that the two species of bacteria were specifically chosen because their genetics were similar and therefore, the cellular machinery (organelles and proteins) used to read the DNA should be compatible between one species and the other. Furthermore, his group specifically chose M. mycoides as the DNA donor and M. capricolum as the host cell because they knew from other studies that the experiment does not work if M. capricolum is the DNA donor and M. mycoides is the host (Venter, 102). He likens the feat to trying to run PC software on a Mac (Venter, 112), but really, it is more like trying to get a Word document on a PC to open in the Office Program for Mac. However, in responding to his critics, Venter downplays the role of cellular machinery in order to advance the narrative that DNA is the essence of life.
This article is meant to address the book by Venter, rather than the entire field of synthetic biology. It is difficult to write about the bioethics issues in Life at the Speed of Light because Venter’s goal is to discuss the process and laud the benefits. It downplays the concerns, but assures the reader that the concerns have been adequately addressed.
Most disconcerting about the book is Venter’s disregard for any views contrary to his own or that critique his work. Venter discusses his own position with an air of rational superiority while he, himself, makes un-objective philosophical claims. He believes in the moral and intellectual superiority of scientists, and presumes that if scientists are doing synthetic biology, it can only serve for the public good and for furthering progress. His goal is to convince the public of the benefits of synthetic biology. While the book seems educational in nature, it is not so much about empowering the public to decide whether synthetic biology is safe, but rather to show them that it really is all under control.
Venter, J. Craig. Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 2013.
Epigenetics: The sins of the father
(Nature) – Biologists first observed this ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance’ in plants. Tomatoes, for example, pass along chemical markings that control an important ripening gene. But, over the past few years, evidence has been accumulating that the phenomenon occurs in rodents and humans as well. The subject remains controversial, in part because it harks back to the discredited theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a nineteenth-century French biologist who proposed that organisms pass down acquired traits to future generations.
Parents’ fight against sepsis reaches C.D.C.
(New York Times) – Sepsis is what happens when the body’s own responses to an infection spin out of control, destroying cells and blood vessels. This leads to shock, organ failure and death. The sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of survival. That and many other aspects of sepsis remain poorly understood. After a campaign by the Stauntons, the New York State Department of Health issued new regulations, which went into effect at the end of 2013, requiring hospitals to adopt techniques for early identification and treatment of sepsis. They are among the most rigorous regulations in the country.
Injections providing protection against AIDS in monkeys, studies find
(New York Times) – Researchers are reporting that injections of long-lasting AIDS drugs protected monkeys for weeks against infection, a finding that could lead to a major breakthrough in preventing the disease in humans. Two studies by different laboratory groups each found 100 percent protection in monkeys that got monthly injections of antiretroviral drugs, and there was evidence that a single shot every three months might work just as well.
Hospital antibiotics use can put patients at risk, study says
(Washington Post) – Doctors in some hospitals prescribe up to three times as many antibiotics as doctors at other hospitals, putting patients at greater risk for deadly superbug infections, according to a federal study released Tuesday. In addition, about one-third of the time, prescriptions to treat urinary tract infections and prescriptions for the drug vancomycin were given without proper testing or evaluation, or prescribed for too long, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For his next act, genome wiz Craig Venter takes on aging
(Reuters) – Craig Venter, the U.S. scientist who raced the U.S. government to map the human genome over a decade ago and created synthetic life in 2010, is now on a quest to treat age-related disease. Venter has teamed up with stem cell pioneer Dr Robert Hariri and X Prize Foundation founder Dr Peter Diamandis to form Human Longevity Inc, a company that will use both genomics and stem cell therapies to find treatments that allow aging adults to stay healthy and functional for as long as possible.
Alzheimer’s in a dish
(Harvard Gazette) – Harvard stem cell scientists have successfully converted skins cells from patients with early onset Alzheimer’s into the types of neurons that are affected by the disease, making it possible for the first time to study this leading form of dementia in living human cells. This may also make it possible to develop therapies more quickly and accurately than before.