Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer

It has been 50 years since scientists first created DNA in a test tube, stitching ordinary chemical ingredients together to make life's most extraordinary molecule. Until recently, however, even the most sophisticated laboratories could make only small snippets of DNA -- an extra gene or two to be inserted into corn plants, for example, to help the plants ward off insects or tolerate drought.

Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic barrier: the creation of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA.

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to "boot itself up," like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial -- and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive.

Full story.

Marquette professor looks at growing debate of using technology to enhance humans


Posted: May 8, 2007

We can't decide whether to embrace or strangle our inner cyborg.

The "Bionic Man/Bionic Woman" in us gives thanks for microchips that help our damaged bodies, pills that keep our brains happy and focused, Palm Pilots that put information in our hands and eye implants that improve our vision.

But will we welcome a future that includes: designer children, their brains 20% smarter and wiped clean of the most violent impulses; older adults living 20 years longer than today; wireless links connecting our brains to e-mail transmitters; perhaps even human eyes endowed with night vision?

Quietly, technology that remedies the failings of our bodies and provides us with high-speed information might be leading us to the brink of a new and ethically complex frontier - one in which we have the ability to redesign ourselves and our children.

This is the brave new world Marquette University assistant philosophy professor Keith A. Bauer examines in a forthcoming paper titled "Wired Patients," due to be published this year in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.

In the paper, Bauer describes how electrodes inserted into the brain help patients regain functions lost to strokes and spinal cord injuries. About 200 Americans so far have had the VeriChip, a microchip the size of a grain of rice, implanted in their arms, where it stores medical information that can be retrieved and viewed by a doctor with the sweep of a scanner the size of a calculator.

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Research triggers conflict concerns

Booming private industry serves drug companies and government clients

Posted: April 28, 2007

The medical research company hired by the federal government four years ago to update its list of carcinogens moved quickly to add a virus to the list while two of its clients were developing vaccines to combat that same virus.

Today those clients - Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline - along with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are involved in a controversial push to have every adolescent girl in the nation receive the vaccine against the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus.

Industry analysts predict the vaccines will bring billions of dollars to the two drug manufacturers by 2010.

The federal carcinogen list was prepared by the Constella Group - a North Carolina firm with ties to former U.S. Health and Human Services secretary and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Constella has received more than $246 million from an array of federal agencies in the past seven years while also working for drug companies the government oversees, the Journal Sentinel found.

While Constella says it has internal controls to prevent conflicts of interest between its government duties and its work for drug and health companies, the government doesn't require corporate contractors to disclose their private-sector clients.

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Stem cells could be next generation of sports doping

Stem cells could be next generation of sports doping
Associated Press

LONDON -- For athletes, stem cells have much more than the potential to cure disease and save lives -- they may be able to heal injuries, boost strength and endurance, and provide a lasting edge over the competition.

If it sounds like stem cells are next frontier for doping in sports, it's because they very well may be.

"There's a spin-off technology from stem cells that could produce super-athletes," said Paul Griffiths, managing director of CryoGenesis International, which stores umbilical cord blood in its bank for potential later therapeutic use.

He thinks injecting stem cells into healthy muscles might increase their size and even restore them to their youthful capacity.

"You could potentially find a 40-year-old man with 20-year-old legs," Griffiths said.

While such applications could be years away, their potential use raises more ethical questions about doping in sports.

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BTCI's Fourth Annual International Bioethics Forum to Focus on Biotechnology and the Brain

Fourth Annual International Bioethics Forum
Biotechnology and the Brain: From Therapy to Enhancement
April 21-22, 2005; BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute, Madison, WI

Focusing on the interface between neuroscience, molecular biology, medical applications and ethics, keynote presentations and concurrent sessions are designed to facilitate participants’ understanding of:
•Current scientific research related to neurological disorders
• Ethical issues related to this research and its potential applications
• The diversity of viewpoints regarding these issues
• The complexities involved in both the scientific and ethical dimensions of these topics

Link for more information.

Scientists say they often censor themselves

Scientists say they often censor themselves
Reacting to political and social controversy, legalities
The Associated Press
Updated: 9:30 a.m. ET Feb. 11, 2005

WASHINGTON - Some scientists are thinking twice about doing or reporting certain research, reacting to political and social controversy in addition to legal restrictions.

"It appears that controversy shapes what scientists choose to study and how they choose to study it, and we need to look a little bit more closely at the effects it might be having," said Joanna Kempner, a researcher at the University of Michigan.

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Lecture captures historical politics of science

Lecture captures historical politics of science
Online Exclusive
February 04, 2005

It is dangerous to separate science from ethics, according to a German history expert who spoke at a program Thursday night to complement the World War II-themed play “Copenhagen.”

Alan Beyerchen, professor of history at Ohio State University, described the dilemmas of German physicists under Nazism, a guiding theme of the play, and answered questions from an audience of about 40 people.

This year’s Hillard Gold ’39 lecturer, Beyerchen addressed “Copenhagen”’s historical and ethical themes in his lecture, “Heisenberg and the German Physics Community Under the Third Reich” at Graham Memorial.

In the 1930s, Nazis demanded the removal of non-Aryan civil servants, including several Nobel Prize-winning physics professors.

Beyerchen said scientists traditionally have drawn a line between the knowledge they discover and its application in the world.

“They thought science was purer than such worldly pursuits,” he said.

This avoidance of politics was a common attitude among physicists during World War II.

Full story.

Tech Ethics: Should machines be awarded patents?

Ethics for the Robot Age

Should bots carry weapons? Should they win patents? Questions we must answer as automation advances.
By Jordan Pollac

Most people's expectations of robots are driven by fantasy. These marvelous machines, optimists hope, will follow Moore's law, doubling in quality every 18 months, and lead to a Jetsonian utopia. Or, as pessimists fear, humanoid bots will reproduce, increase their intelligence, and wipe out humanity.

. . .

7. Should machines be awarded patents? Evolutionary software has already designed simple circuits, as well as physical mechanisms like the ratchet and cantilever. As these automatic design systems improve and progress from simple geometric forms to novel integrated systems, intellectual property laws must change. If a robot invents, does the patent go to its owner or the patent holder of its artificial intelligence?

Full story.

Bringing religion to medicine

(Original publication: November 10, 2004)

VALHALLA — Perhaps it is best left to a pair of doctors to declare that the world of medicine is arrogant, too reverent of technology and in need of some time-tested spiritual wisdom.

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy and Dr. Alan Astrow, faculty members at New York Medical College, aren't trying to be prophets, exactly. But they want their fellow physicians to acknowledge that they often are not prepared for the questions that arise when medicine runs out of answers, and patients are not ready to die.

"Every day, as we deal with basic medical concerns, spiritual issues come up; issues of hope, of anger, of guilt, of 'what will happen to me?' " said Astrow, chief of clinical oncology at St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center in Manhattan. "Physicians are not well-trained in how to address these issues and often don't know what to do. The great religions of the world have thought about these very questions for thousands of years, making religion a great resource if we turn to it."

Astrow and Sulmasy have convened an unusual series of programs this year that are designed to bring nonclinical teachings from major religions to clipboard-carrying health-care providers. Each month, two religious figures visit a hospital in the New York metropolitan area to suggest remedies of theology, philosophy and prayer.

It has not been easy to bridge two worlds that have long been separated by tensions between faith and science.

Full story.

Morality of Nukes

Rep's 'Copenhagen' explores morality of nukes

By Kevin Lynch
October 24, 2004

The Madison Repertory Theatre is hosting onstage one of the world's mightiest and scariest entities: nuclear power, as embodied by two of the physicists who invented it.

Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning play "Copenhagen,"?which opens Friday at 8 p.m. in the Overture Center's Promenade Hall and plays through Nov. 14, is also a very human story about friendship and trust.

Full story.