The biotechnology revolution is being democratized – quickly. An article published in The New York Times (1) reveals some leading researchers and entrepreneurs are becoming anxious about what citizen scientist biohackers might do with their increasing power to manipulate genetic systems.
The laboratory resurrection of horsepox virus, a presumed extinct virus relative of smallpox, warned the scientific community impressive new technical powers are being bestowed on genetic engineers at an extraordinarily quick pace. The New York Times article (1) maintains that experts agree biohackers seeking to do something outrageous like designing a killer virus would face high hurdles. That assessment is comforting, but here is the real problem; 15 years ago thoughts of performing a molecular revival for something as large as horsepox virus would have been dismissed as sheer fantasy. However, changing technology has now turned previously impossible task into published achievement. What capabilities will scientists and biohackers have in another 15 years? That is unclear, but the speed technology is evolving and realizations concerning the current size of the list of potential predicaments are alarming some leading scientists.
Avoiding Self-Defeating Messages
The professional scientific community should probably approach the issues posed by biohackers carefully. Faculty members spend a good deal of effort trying to get students interested in science. Biohackers are a literal embodiment of self-actualization and active learning we hope to foster. More than that, biohackers could be the informed citizen intermediaries essential to communicating the importance, possibilities and limitations of scientific research to a broader public.
The implications of new scientific capabilities such as genetic manipulation technologies sometimes distress the public. To alleviate doubts or disarm resistance to their further investigation or use, scientists traditionally call for “dialogue.” It is not easy to come up with ways to communicate with the larger public and those vague calls are often forgotten as a news cycle ends. Bemoaning a disinterested public that is generally not well versed in their work, although there are exceptions, scientists have not always been anxious to go out of their way to talk to citizens. If professional scientists fail to embrace public outreach/empowerment and recognize the biohacking community as potential allies they may accidentally telegraph a negative message:
You need to be knowledgeable, just not too knowledgeable. We, the authorities, will tell you what you need to know as we see fit.
Dual Use Meets Double Standard
A number of groups have taken the initiative to help people become hands-on biohackers (1). Along the way they also instill ethics and offer guidelines for the responsible conduct of work. Unfortunately, not all the role models have been exemplary (1), which has fueled anxieties as we imagine what ill-conceived, potentially risky experiments might be performed by impatient biohackers of the future.
Many scientists might feel relieved if biohackers could somehow be persuaded to adopt a code of conduct as similar to that of the professionals as possible. However, professional scientists have been rather impatient themselves at times. For example, convinced his then-radical hypothesis a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, produced gastritis and peptic ulcers, one scientist experimented on himself by drinking a culture sample (2). Was he chastised? He and his collaborator ultimately won a Nobel prize for their work which overturned an entrenched paradigm.
Examples of an enthusiastic rush to the clinic impelled by limited positive experimental results are not hard to find today. Parabiosis is the surgical melding of the circulatory systems of two animals. Experiments in which old mice were joined to younger individuals have yielded extraordinary results. Somehow soluble factors harbored in the blood of young mice restore tissue functions in their aged associates to a more youthful state (3, 4, 5). Uncertain whether any such measures work in humans these observations and others have helped spark a veritable gold rush to see if infusing pooled plasma samples harvested from young donors into older recipients produces any anti-aging benefits.
How do scientists feel about personal augmentation efforts? When it comes to cognitive enhancement through drugs, one study suggests a good number of professionals use them to increase concentration and improve productivity (6, 7). The practice seems safe, but there are no data from long-term safety studies in healthy consumers to give authority to that idea. It seems scientists are as susceptible to the siren call of self-enhancement as everyone else.
Scientists rely on their peers for advice and criticism. In addition, to help avoid errors or prevent unwarranted enthusiasm from driving hasty, ill-conceived experiments, professional researchers have the benefit of institutional oversight over matters of biosafety and the conduct of projects involving animals or human subjects. Biohackers may be far more isolated.
It is important to remember that the ethical norms and practices governing biomedical research with human subjects and animal care evolved over time. And the experiences that led to the creation of foundational documents like the Belmont Report and the Common Rule were sometimes hard ones. Ethical research practices do not just happen, training and refresher courses are used to ensure investigators are well informed of risks, requirements and best practices. Proactive support of biohacking labs (1) striving to build positive ethics foundations and promote best practices operational guidelines may be an essential public investment.
The Human Genome Project (HGP) may provide an instructive example for accomplishing broad outreach and education goals. Part of the funding for the HGP was dedicated to the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Program (8) to examine several issues recognized as critical, but outside the strictly technical scope of the overall effort. As scientists offer proposals for the Genome Project-Write (9), perhaps they will consider earmarking resources to examine the full range of implications and potential risks destined to emerge from the synthetic biology technologies they will create.
Prohibition or Education?
The pace of technological advances is too fast for government authorities to devise rules. The scientists are going to have to establish the parameters for conduct and police situations as they emerge. If the controversy over horsepox virus resurrection is any indicator, the community will likely not reach unanimous agreement on any matters. However, despite challenges the scientific community has formulated and successfully imposed work guidelines, ethical conduct demands and safety rules in the past.
Should everyone who ‘does synthetic biology’ be licensed and subjected to surveillance (1)? Or will it be wiser to prohibit all biohacking performed without professional supervision? On one hand, strict prohibitions may curtail some risks. On the other hand, such actions seem contrary to the essential need to inform citizens about synthetic biology. Biohackers could be important ambassadors in such efforts if their potential is recognized.
Clearly foreseeable dangers lay just ahead and the scientific community must take steps to mitigate them. How many professional scientists once had a chemistry set or their own home labs when they were children? How many of us look in the mirror and recognize professional and amateur scientist biohackers have much in common? We have now reached a stage where repeating platitudes of calling for dialogue is no longer sufficient because the synthetic biology genie is about to be released. Active outreach efforts are no longer things scientists have the luxury to think about doing someday, but are now absolutely integral to the future success of the entire enterprise.
(1) Emily Baumgaertner. As D.I.Y. Gene Editing Gains Popularity, ‘Someone is Going to Get Hurt,’ The New York Times, 14 May 2018. https://nyti.ms/2IfT5BW
(2) Barry J. Marshall. Helicobacter Connections. Nobel Lecture, 8 December 2005. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2005/marshall-lecture.pdf
(3) Amy Maxmen. Questionable “Young Blood” Transfusions Offered in U.S. as Anti-Aging Remedy. MIT Technology Review, 13 January 2017. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603242/questionable-young-blood-transfusions-offered-in-us-as-anti-aging-remedy/
(4) Massimo Conese et al. The Fountain of Youth: A Tale of Parabiosis, Stem Cells and Rejuvenation. Open Medicine 12:376-383. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5662775/
(5) Gavin Haynes. Ambrosia: The Startup Harvesting the Blood of the Young. The Guardian, 21 August 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2017/aug/21/ambrosia-the-startup-harvesting-the-blood-of-the-young
(6) Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir. Professor’s Little Helper. Nature 450:1157-1159, 19 December 2007. https://www.nature.com/articles/4501157a
(7) Daniel Oberhaus. Why Can’t We All Take Modafinil? Vice, 1 December 2016. https://www.vice.com/sv/article/ava7za/why-cant-we-all-take-modafinil
(8) The Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) Program of the Human Genome Project. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/hgp/elsi
(9) Elie Dolgin. Scientists Downsize Bold Plan to Make Human Genome From Scratch. Nature, 1 May 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05043-x