Three weeks ago, 130 scientists, entrepreneurs and policy leaders held an invitation-only, closed-door meeting at Harvard University to discuss an ambitious plan to create synthetic human genomes.
Now, after a flurry of criticism over the secrecy of the effort, the participants have published their idea, declaring that they're launching a project to radically reduce the cost of synthesising genomes - a potentially revolutionary development in biotechnology that could enable technicians to grow human organs for transplantation.
The announcement, published yesterday in the journal Science, is the latest sign that biotechnology is going through a rapidly advancing but ethically fraught period. Scientists have been honing their techniques for manipulating the complex molecules that serve as the code for all life on the planet, and this same issue of the journal Science reports a breakthrough in editing RNA, a molecule that is the close cousin of DNA.
The promoters of synthetic genomes envision a project that would eventually be on the same scale as the Human Genome Project of the 1990s, which led to the sequencing of the first human genomes. The difference this time would be that, instead of "reading" genetic codes, which is what sequencing does, the scientists would be "writing" them. They have dubbed this the "Genome Project-write". "The goal of HGP-write is to reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes, including a human genome, in cell lines, more than 1000-fold within 10 years, while developing new technologies and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering as well as transformative medical applications," the group wrote in a draft of a news release obtained by the Post. The project will be administered by a non-profit organisation called the Centre of Excellence for Engineering Biology, the news release said.
The plan drew a negative response from the head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, who had led the earlier Human Genome Project. In a statement released by NIH, Collins said it was premature to launch such an initiative.
"NIH has not considered the time to be right for funding a large-scale production-oriented 'HGP-write' effort, as is framed in the Science article," Collins said. He added, "There are only limited ethical concerns about synthesising segments of DNA for laboratory experiments. But whole-genome, whole-organism synthesis projects extend far beyond current scientific capabilities, and immediately raise numerous ethical and philosophical red flags."
No one is talking about creating human beings from scratch. One application of cheaper genome synthesis, according to geneticist George Church, one of the authors of the Science article, would be to create cells that are resistant to viruses. These would not be cells used directly in human therapies, but rather in cell lines grown by the pharmaceutical industry for developing drugs. Such processes are vulnerable now to viral contamination.
"If you're manufacturing human therapeutics in mammalian cells, and you get contamination, it can blow you away for two years, which has actually happened," Church said.
The Science paper gives a number of examples of what could emerge from cheaper synthesised genomes: "growing transplantable human organs; engineering immunity to viruses in cell lines via genome-wide recoding; engineering cancer resistance into new therapeutic cell lines; and accelerating high-productivity, cost-efficient vaccine and pharmaceutical development using human cells and organoids."
The synthetic genome plan emerged from two closed-door meetings, one in New York City last year, and the second on May 10 at Harvard.
The latter drew criticism from researchers who objected to the closed-door nature of the event; organisers said they didn't want to publicise their idea in advance of the publication of the article in Science. They said they plan to put a video of the proceedings online.
Drew Endy, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford, wrote on Twitter, "If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research, you are doing something wrong."