Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Synthetic" Biology Approaches: Green-Lighted By Presidential Commission Report Today

Back in May 2010, Dr. Craig Venter (late of the Human Microbiome Project, see archived video, at bottom) was able to load a man-made strand of DNA into a single cell organism, and have that DNA run the as-modified organism. That proof of concept could conceivably lead to a far more widely-dispersed industry: micro-organisms regularly being "synthetically programmed" to express therapeutic agents -- like biotech drug structures. In fact, that effort, while sporatic, is already underway -- as I noted in this story about the manufacture of a new malaria drug. The approach is also being used to make bio-fuels, so it might well form the basis of a vast new bio-economy that could potentially augment the traditional pharma manufacturing process, and to some extent scale-back traditional petroleum-based industry manufacturing methods -- in the future.

This morning, a commission formed by President Obama has issued a very thoughtful, and balanced report (as a 192 page, 4 Mb PDF file -- key section, imaged at right -- click it to enlarge) suggesting cautious adoption of the approach -- coupled with scientific self regulation. Quoting now: "the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and other federal agencies should evaluate research proposals through peer-review in order to make sure that the most promising scientific research is conducted on the public’s behalf."

I was alerted to the availability of the report by reading Andrew Pollack, writing for the New York Times this morning -- do go read it all:

. . . .Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents companies that use the technology, called the report “reasonable, well balanced and insightful.” He said the commission had recognized that synthetic biology “is not something radically new and threatening, but is part of an ongoing continuum of biotech innovation that has resulted in safe and successful products and public benefits for the past 15 or 20 years.”

Drew Endy, a Stanford engineer who is considered one of the most influential researchers in synthetic biology, said he welcomed leadership from the executive branch of the government, which he said was needed for the field to thrive. He also praised a recommendation in the report asking the government to evaluate whether patents might be hindering progress.

Dr. Venter, whose work precipitated the commission’s study, also praised the recommendations as "wise, warranted and restrained, which will help to ensure that this young field of research will flourish in a positive manner. . . ."

Here's to hopin'.

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