Ventner Writes Agenda for First Bioethics Commission Meeting

Science published a study today from a research group that has successfully used synthetic DNA to generate self-replicating cells of a bacterium (H/T Wired Science).  The synthetic DNA replaced the native DNA.  The research groups is part of the J. Craig Ventner Institute, which has focused a significant amount of its work on advances in synthetic biology.  Instead of manipulating existing DNA, synthetic biology develops the DNA from scratch.  This result comes two years after the Ventner Institute was able to develop a synthetic genome.

In a letter dated today (H/T ScienceInsider), President Obama has directed the head of his bioethics commission, Dr. Amy Gutmann, to conduct a six month study on the implications of this specific development and other advances in this field of research.  The president has also directed his science adviser to communicate specifics about the scope of the study to Dr. Gutmann.

While many are hailing the replication as a significant breakthrough, others are not as impressed.  For one thing, while it is described in some circles as synthetic life, the new life has a synthetic inside housed within a pre-existing bacterium shell.  For another, there are related projects involving higher lifeforms that may deserve greater attention from a policy perspective.

Synthetic biology is not a brand-new field, and you can argue that it is an offshoot of genetic engineering – distinct simply in the degree of engineering.  Ventner has an established ability to attract public attention with his work; an ability that some have considered disproportionate to the work.  I’m not surprised that an examination of the field, its benefits and ethical challenges was prompted by Ventner’s institute.  My humble recommendation is to further plumb the similarities and differences between synthetic biology and genetic engineering (which has a history of policy and ethical choices that should inform the proposed study) as anyone moves forward with this work.

Foundation Grants Increasingly Come with Technology Transfer Strings

This article from The Scientist highlights what might be an unexpected source of delays in obtaining grant funding – foundations.  Specifically, foundations are increasingly attaching conditions related to the results of the research they support.  In some cases the conditions are tightly coupled to the mission of the foundation, and are understandable, if annoying from an administrative perspective.  Others are more general, and can throw a wrench into customary intellectual property arrangements universities have sought in the era of Bayh-Dole, which has encouraged universities and other research institutions to secure the intellectual property rights attached to research results generated in their facilities.

The Scientist article acknowledges this isn’t a problem, yet.  I don’t think it has to be.  The general thrust behind the shift in technology transfer policy in the 1980s (when Bayh-Dole and related legislation was passed) was an effort to make sure that research results with commercial potential had more opportunities to realize that potential.  By making institutions acquire the rights to results, the shift made these institutions more of a stakeholder in what happened after the lab had done its work.  While this didn’t have to mean that research institutions must treat such research results as another income stream and guard those rights like private goods, pressures on university funding have contributed to that outcome.  Trying to get research results out to the rest of the world is a great idea.  Making sure the university always gets some cash out of it can be quite counterproductive.  They aren’t the only ones sharing the cost of the research, so it is reasonable that they share the benefits as well.