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Secret Harvard meeting on synthetic human genomes incites ethics debate

A secret Harvard meeting has raised concerns about scientists going too far with synthetic life; surely this image of a robot Frankenstein perfectly matches the text below.  (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

About 150 scientists assembled at Harvard on Tuesday for an off-the-record, no-media-allowed discussion of how to create, from scratch, an intact genome, including the genetic code of a human being. The idea is to go beyond "reading" genetic material to actively "writing" it, George Church, a Harvard Medical School researcher who helped organized the event, told The Post in an interview Friday morning.

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Scientists can synthesize DNA chemically, and these techniques could ultimately lead to complete genomes that could be implanted in cells for research purposes. No one should panic just yet about mad scientists running amok: The researchers are not talking about making synthetic human beings. But the gathering drew a rebuke from two academics who heard about the event and didn't think it should have been held behind closed doors.

Drew Endy, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, and Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, published an essay this week raising questions about whether the gathering at Harvard had gone too far. After citing the beneficial possibilities of such research, they raised the thornier ethical questions:

In a world where human reproduction has already become a competitive marketplace, with eggs, sperm and embryos carrying a price, it is easy to make up far stranger uses of human genome synthesis capacities. Would it be OK, for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome?  If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them? Taking a step back, just because something becomes possible, how should we approach determining if it is ethical to pursue?

Meanwhile, Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for Genetics and Society, a politically progressive organization that has had a skeptical view of biotechnology, issued a statement Friday criticizing the Harvard gathering: "If these reports are accurate, the meeting looks like a move to privatize the current conversation about heritable genetic modification."

Church told The Post that the meeting was originally supposed to be open.

The organizers had planned to stream video of the event, and invite numerous journalists, he said. But they had also hoped to pair the event with an article, written by many scientists, that had submitted to a major scientific journal.

The article still hasn't been published and the organizers decided to keep the event private, Church said. He said the organizers wanted to avoid being accused of "science by press release" without a peer-reviewed article backing them up.

He said the video of the event will be released when the peer-reviewed article is published, likely in the very near future. "It wasn't secret. There was nothing secret or private about it," Church said. But he added: "Probably with 20-20 hindsight we shouldn't have tried to couple it with a peer-reviewed paper.”

Something tells us this isn't the last time we're going to be talking about synthetic humanoids.

Read more:

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