In May 2016, more than 100 experts in bioengineering and genetics convened for a private meeting at Harvard Medical School. The press were not permitted to attend, and participants were asked not to post about the event on social media. The reason for the secrecy was to allow all the scientists to go public with their project together, in an organized way.
Under normal circumstances, this would not have raised a blip on the radar of the press. However, the subject matter itself caused the controversy once the “secret” meeting was discovered. The group was discussing the Human Genome Project-Write, called “GP-Write” for short, and among the goals of the GP-Write project is an effort to artificially synthesize human DNA.
Now, the group is meeting again this coming week in New York City. Jef Boeke, a GP-Write organizer and director of NYU School of Medicine’s Institute for Systems Genetics, has told CNBC that researchers may be able to incorporate synthesized DNA into mammalian cells — possibly even human cells — within four to five years.
The Human Genome Project, enabled scientists to unravel the human genome, but not to understand it. The three billion or so base pairs of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine that make up human DNA provide the plans for how our cells are built. GP-Write’s aim is to use synthesized genomes to understand how these nucleotides work together.
Synthesized genomes have a range of theoretical implications and potential applications that are important to explore. Boeke tells CNBC: “Really, a synthetic genome is an engine for learning new information.” For example, we already keep cultured cell lines in labs for use in creating biologics, which include allergenics, blood components, gene-therapy drugs, recombinant therapeutic proteins, somatic cells, tissues, and vaccines. However, these cells are vulnerable to viral infections.
For these reasons, GP-write’s results may also lead to safer stem-cell therapy that lower patients’ current risk of infection. The project may also allow researchers to create microorganisms that could help humans generate amino acids on their own, without getting them from food. These kinds of breakthroughs take time, though — and lots of money as well.
Since the meeting last May, almost 200 collaborators worldwide have expressed interest in participating in the project, and two papers have been published. Preliminary experiments underway, and organizers are working to secure funding. And while GP-Write has been criticized for its secrecy surrounding the single meeting in 2016, this is really a non-issue moving forward for several reasons.
First, the reasons for the embargo were legitimate. Second, the meeting this year is announced, and the press and public know what the project is. More importantly, though, is the fact that there is plenty of time to debate the merit and ethics of the project before any practical applications are ready for use, or even human trials.
“I think articulation of our plan not to start right off synthesizing a full human genome tomorrow was helpful,” Boeke remarked to CNBC. “We have a four- to five-year period where there can be plenty of time for debate about the wisdom of that, whether resources should be put in that direction or in another. Whenever it’s human, everyone has an opinion and wants their voice to be heard. We want to hear what people have to say.”
Meanwhile, at the New York Genome Center meeting next week, both logistics and ethics will be among the GP-Write project topics under discussion. And as is true of any scientific research, the project should move forward with careful, peer-reviewed safeguards in place. That is the plan for the project, so for now we can wait to see what develops in this exciting area without sounding any alarm bells.