"Challenges of Synthetic Biology" Ethics Panel

Synthetic Biology uses engineering principles with the goal of designing biological systems and living organisms. It stimulates innovative technological developments potentially of paradigmatic magnitude, e.g. the rise of wide-reaching, lifestyle-changing incisions brought forth by ground breaking diagnostic tools and therapeutic options.

As any emerging cutting-edge technology Molecular Systems Engineering also raises a number of ethical questions and challenges which must be addressed in due time.

In August 2017 we invited a panel of high-ranked experts to Basel to discuss current and future issues of ethical concern in the field of Synthetic Biology.

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Panel members

Kai Kupferschmidt (host) is a science journalist based in Berlin. He studied molecular biomedicine at the University of Bonn, and then visited the Berlin Journalism School. Kupferschmidt is a contributing correspondent for the US journal “Science” and also writes for the German newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, mostly covering infectious diseases and biotechnology. He has won numerous awards including the Journalism Prize of the German Aids Foundation. Recently he wrote an article publicizing experiments done by Canadian researchers, who synthesized the extinct horsepox virus in the lab, raising questions of biosecurity in the field of synthetic biology.

Rev. Professor Renzo Pegoraro, M.D., STL is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Vatican City. Rev. Professor Renzo Pegoraro graduated as Doctor of Medicine from the University of Padua in 1985. He studied philosophy and theology in Padua and in Rome, graduating with a Licence in Moral Theology in 1990. In 1993, he was appointed visiting researcher at the Kennedy Institute, Washington D.C. as well as Professor of Bioethics at the Faculty of Theology of Northern Italy in Padua, and General Secretary of the Fondazione Lanza, a Center for advanced studies in ethics, bioethics and environmental ethics. Pegoraro is Professor of Bioethics at the School for Obstetricians at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Padua and, since 2006, President of the Ethics Committee of the Regional Institute of Oncology. Professor Pegoraro was also the President of the Research Ethics Committee of the University-General Hospital of Padua between 1998 and 2010, and a member of the Italian National Healthcare Council between 2000 and 2002. He is a past President of the Executive Committee of the European Society for Philosophy of Medecine and Health Care (2005-2007) and was recently President of EACME, the European Association of Medical Ethics (2010-2013). Rev. Professor Pegoraro was appointed Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2011 and serves as an ethicist in several institutions.

Prof. Joyce Tait, Director of the Innogen Institute (www.innogen.ac.uk), University of Edinburgh, has an interdisciplinary background in natural and social sciences. She has worked on: strategic planning for innovation; governance, risk management, regulation and standards; and stakeholder attitudes and influences. A major current project is exploring how standards could contribute to making governance systems more proportionate and adaptive to the needs of advanced innovative technologies. Innovation areas covered by this research include: GM, synthetic biology and gene editing; genetic databases; pharmaceuticals and antimicrobial resistance; cell therapies and regenerative medicine; diagnostic devices; FinTech; and stratified and translational medicine. Among current appointments are membership of: UK Research Excellence Framework Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel; UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (and Chair of its Governance Subgroup); Scientific Advisory Board, John Innes Centre; and Governing Board of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, University of Strathclyde.

Yaakov (Kobi) Benenson is an Associate Professor at the D-BSSE department of ETH Zurich in Basel, and a project leader in the NCCR 'Molecular Systems Engineering'. He studied Chemistry at the Technion in Israel and got his PhD in Biochemistry and Computer Science from the Weizmann Institute working on DNA computing devices. He then joined Harvard University as a Bauer Fellow, where he developed genetic computing circuits in live human cells. Benenson moved to ETH Zurich in 2010 to establish a Laboratory for Synthetic Biology. The Laboratory advances methods to compute and process biological signals in living cells, with the goal to apply these methods to unmet needs in medicine and non-medical biotechnology. One example is the effort to develop better cancer therapies using a gene circuit that can diagnose individual cells and destroy them in a targeted fashion. In the non-medical field, the group works on rational forward design of bioproducing mammalian cell lines, and on the development of sentinel reporter cells for highly-informative drug discovery assays.