After deciding on our final project design, based on extensive and continuous discourse with patients (for more information on this dialogue, please click here to see our gold page), we decided to investigate the issues that might prevent a probiotic treatment being approved by the government. We contacted an expert: Jane Kaye, Professor of Health, Law and Policy, and Director of HeLEX (Centre for Health, Law and Emerging Technologies). She advised us that policy regarding emerging technologies is often linked to public perception, and that in turn is linked to the safety and ethics research that has been done regarding the technology. This led us to investigate these issues further.
For more information on the safety of our probiotic, click here to see our safety page.
To determine the concerns of the public with the use of genetically engineered bacteria as medicine, we approached them with a survey to examine what they perceived to be the problems with using genetically engineered bacteria to treat disease, and why people might be against their use in this way.
The advent of synthetic biology has raised new concerns over its benefits and harms, and the responsibilities of scientists in protecting the public from harm – concerns, for instance, that emerging technologies might be used to harm in bioterrorism. But while the goal of our project is to help rather than harm, it might still raise some objections - objections regarding what is natural, whether it is safe, and whether its consequences are fair. These objections must be addressed: if we ever hope to administer our treatment, we need public support. Without it we may face serious opposition in the implementation of policies that might facilitate the use of our therapy. Here we hope to address these objections rhetorically, rather than scientifically. We decided to conduct a survey to find out what particular concerns the public might hold with our project and identified the main objections presented below.
‘It’s not natural!’
Our survey provoked several concerns that manipulation of Escherichia coli in our project is ‘unnatural’; indeed, the very nature of synthetic biology necessarily provokes this concern. While traditional biology has been analytic - looking at the living world and trying to understand it - synthetic biology hopes to create constructs that are not already part of nature, either from scratch, or by rearranging parts of natural organisms to create unnatural systems (Benner and Sismour, 2005)
But what exactly is meant by ‘natural’? What is meant by ‘nature’ in theology is totally different from its meaning in ecology. And even within ecology, terms such as ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ are often used in many different ways, which sometimes conflict with each other (Proctor, 2009).This lack of clarity means that it is difficult to rely on appeals to nature when it comes to public discourse, for example – we just don’t know what is being appealed to!
But even if we knew what is meant by ‘natural’, any argument appealing to nature will fall foul of what philosophers call the ‘is/ought problem’ - that is to say that there is no way make an ethical statement - about how one ought or ought not to behave - just by using facts about the way things are in the world (Hume, 1739). So even if we could say that something is unquestionably unnatural - like engineered E. coli, this is to say nothing about whether we should or shouldn’t do something. After all, would we really want to base our moral systems on what happens in nature where, for instance, male lions slaughter cubs on taking over a pride?
‘You’re playing God!’
In a sense, this is a more particular issue within the above and arose in our survey with references to the ‘sacred’. While many scientists, especially biologists, might not think that this is an important objection, simply because they do not believe in a God, there are many who will. And though this phrasing has fallen into cliché, its passionate tone shows just how heartfelt this sentiment is. Since these are the very people who might help fund our research (through tax), receive our treatments, and in any case, live in a world where the consequences of our work can be felt; if these concerns are legitimate, it isn’t really fair to dismiss this outcry as fanaticism. As Dabrock (2009) puts it, ‘it identifies particularly relevant issues, questions of ultimate concern, which must be handled with due respect’.
So what does ‘playing God’ really mean? It is often used to describe overstepping a boundary or disturbing some order. But certain interpretations of some religious texts may allow for some degree of biological manipulation – God commands Adam and Eve ‘to work […] and take care of’ the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:15 – with some readings imposing a responsibility to repair creation that has been broken.
Discussing this with Professor Jane Kaye, director of the Oxford University centre for Health, Law and Emerging Technologies, we thought of one approach where we concede that we are making transgressions, but appeal to other values that a religious person might find important – emphasizing the improvement to health that our project may provide, for example.
The above is only a sample of the variety of possible opinions regarding our project, belonging to individuals with differing religious and ethical views. These views may come into conflict - some deeply - with one another. For instance, Joe may not think that it is right to genetically engineer organism, while Susan might think that it is completely fine. So how should we make judgements on public policy, judgments that will affect everyone, given this conflict of values? Rawls’s political conception of justice provides a helpful framework here (Rawls, 1971). Although Rawls accepts the above diversity of views, since they are in conflict, they can’t all be correct. While some of these might be false for poor argument, or selfishness, we can expect there to exist some reasonable, though conflicting views. Rawls says that so long as the reasons behind the actions that these views inform are shared, then the political activities can be said to have been formed collectively.
Say Joe disagrees with genetic modification on the fundamentalist religious grounds that interference with the Creator’s work will damn humanity, although his scripture may give him reasons not to genetically engineer organisms, it cannot provide a good public reason for not genetically engineering organisms, since not everyone may interpret this scripture literally, or value it at all. Now David agrees with Joe – that we should not genetically engineer organisms – but for different reasons. He think that genetically engineered organisms might escape the laboratory and cause a threat to health. Here, the value for good health is a public reason since everyone has a concern for health. So although his reason might not actually be very good for other reasons – many genetically engineered organisms pose no threat to health at all, it is still a valid public reason, so it can at least be considered a basis for public policy. This is also not to dismiss Joe’s religious convictions as being false – Rawls says nothing about this – he merely says that Joe’s reason is not a public one. And just because a reason is public, it does not mean that its consequents should be made law – that is for democratic citizens to decide – they, or their representatives, are to decide whether genetic engineering poses sufficient a threat to be outlawed, for instance.
So when it comes to problems in synthetic biology, we must first start with reasons that are publically shared, then we can decide whether these reasons are any good to be implemented in law. Biosafety might be considered a shared concern, a public good, and therefore a good place to start in justifying the support of our project by policy.
Public Engagement and Education
Public engagement and education play a big part in iGEM, with acceptance of synthetic biology only being possible through education and increased awareness. As our project consists of us developing a probiotic treatment for use by humans, we knew that we would likely be facing an uphill climb when trying to encourage acceptance of this and similar technologies.
We approached engagement and education on 3 levels: local, national and international.
Natural History Museum
During the summer, we contacted the Oxford Natural History Museum to collaborate with them. This involved us carrying out a workshop with a group of young researchers, aged 16-17, who were carrying out three week summer research projects in conjunction with the museum. We introduced them to the concept of synthetic biology and the iGEM competition, through a short presentation and a series of synbio puzzle activities, and invited them into the lab to get a taste of undergraduate research.
We wrote an article detailing our project for Bang! Science magazine, which will be published in the forthcoming issue.
We spoke to Oxfordshire-based radio station, JackFM, about synthetic biology and its uses. We also used this platform to increase awareness of rare diseases, discussing Wilson’s disease and the recent hike in the prices of the drugs used to treat it.
JackFM has a weekly audience reach of 107,000 adults in the Oxford area, and our piece was played multiple times.
We organised summer school events for national students at two Oxford colleges. We began with a short presentation discussing the development of synthetic biology, its current applications and uses, the future of the subject, and the iGEM competition itself. Following this, we split the students into four groups to run small activities. We ran a variety of activities related to the use of biobricks and the construction of working parts. These included getting the students to build biological circuits whilst explaining the importance of different regions of different parts, troubleshooting potential genetic circuits to see whether they may or may not work as expected, investigating protein structure using PyMOL, and introducing the students to the concept of PCR and primer design.
During the summer, three of our team members visited Cambridge to attend the 6th AGM of the Wilson’s Disease Support Group. Here they gave a presentation explaining our project and received feedback from patients and doctors. To see how our discussion with patients impacted our project, please click here.
Presenting a poster at the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF)
One of our team members attended the LIYSF to present our project to 475 representatives from 75 countries. The presentation discussed the contact we had made with patients and the importance of finding alternative treatments for Wilson’s Disease, with the goal of raising awareness of rare diseases in addition to synbio. Most of the participants were unaware of Wilson’s Disease and showed interest in the issue.
As iGEM took place during our summer vacation, at some points members of the team took some time away from the lab to visit family and friends or go on holiday. One of our team members, Andreas, visited his home in Cyprus for a short time. Whilst he was there, he visited his old school to give a presentation covering a brief history of genetic manipulation, what synthetic biology is, and the kind of problems that it can solve. The presentation then discussed the use of synthetic biology to generate medical therapeutics and how treatments developed in this way might be used to alleviate the symptoms of Wilson’s Disease.
The presentation was well attended by high school students, chemistry and biology teachers, parents, and University of Cyprus (UCY) undergraduates. Cyprus has never before hosted an iGEM team, and at the end of his talk, Andreas was approached by an undergraduate student that showed an interest in starting a team for the competition next year. Hopefully this idea will come to fruition, and more students will be exploring synbio with iGEM next year!
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- Benner, S.A. and Sismour, A.M. (2005) 'Synthetic biology', Nature Reviews Genetics, vol. 6, no. 7, Jul, pp. 533-43.
- Dabrock, P. (2009) 'Playing God? Synthetic Biology as a Theological and Ethical Challenge', Systems and Synthetic Biology, vol. 3, no. 47.
- Hume, D. (1739) A Treatise of Human Nature, London: John Noon.
- Proctor, J. (2009) 'Environment after Nature: Time for a New Vision', in Proctor, J. (ed.) Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion, West Conshohoken: Templeton Press.
- Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.