Since the 1940s, when researchers confirmed that DNA contained hereditary material, genetic research has been advancing at breakneck speed. By 2000, scientists had mapped out the entire human genome—information that is now being used to understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes. But can this science help treat diseases? Recent research at the intersection of biology and engineering holds great promise for improving human life, but at what cost? The Radcliffe Day panel “What Is Life? The Science and Ethics of Making New Life in the Laboratory” sought to identify the promise and perils of these scientific advances.
Linda Griffith RI ’11, a professor of biological and mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared an epiphany she experienced as a result of undergoing in vitro fertilization: that the IVF process, with all its production of embryos, potentially caused pain to the women who were unable to use them. “It made me wonder,” she said, “what can we do from an engineering standpoint to help these women?” So rather than treating infertility itself, she decided to focus on treating the causes of infertility. Griffith, now the director of MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research, uses systems biology to analyze the immune networks of endometrial inflammation—and she hopes to eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells in that type of research.
Another woman blazing a trail in the laboratory, Pamela Silver RI ’12—a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and a founding core faculty member of the Wyss Institute—creates new organisms, such as mouse gut bacteria, that can detect previous drug exposure. Just as silicon was the technology of the past century, Silver said, “I believe that the engineering of life is the technology of this century. Now we have the ability to make DNA . . . we can make it relatively cheaply and we are going to make it ever more cheaply, and very fast.”
In fact, all the projects in the lab run by David Liu ’94 use just such engineering, translating DNA sequences into synthetic molecules. Liu—a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, a senior associate member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—hopes to use technologies like this to, he said, “co-opt some of the most fundamental features of living systems—that drive their evolution—and use them to offer society and science some real benefits.”
The potential ethical and legal ramifications of this research aren’t lost on scientists, and I. Glenn Cohen JD ’03, RI ’13, a professor of law and codirector of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, was on hand to consider that angle. He did so by looking at the question of life from theoretical, commercial, and political perspectives. Cohen maintained that we should put the question of personhood, which is a legal and moral concept, above all. “That is the question we should be debating, not questions about living and questions about human beings,” he said. “The question about who gets rights is much more difficult.” He went on to explore the legality of selling made-to-order embryos and the unintended consequences of a personhood amendment passed in Mississippi.
An animated discussion ensued when the moderator, Eric S. Lander, the president and founding director of the Broad Institute and a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, further explored the limits of ethical acceptability by posing a series of hypothetical scientific scenarios to the panelists.
Regardless of the technology involved, though, panelists held that it should be applied with the best intentions. “When we meet as synthetic biologists—and we’ve met many times—we always frame it as engineering biology for the good of the world,” said Silver.
Lander added, “One is always aware of the sense of responsibility that comes in working in this field.”