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Tinkering with the building blocks of life

So it was when a group of some 130 policy makers, business entrepreneurs and scientists gathered at Harvard University in the US to chew the fat on the possibility of creating synthetic genomes. Such an idea might seem to have the same plausibility as the plan to colonise Mars but the group did the smart thing and published their ideas in an article featured recently in Science.

In a move designed to equal the scale of the Human Genome Project, the scientists hope to ‘write’ genetic codes. If successful, the medical applications are considerable. Cell lines grown by pharmaceutical companies in their search for new targeted therapies are extremely vulnerable to viral contamination. but the group — which has dubbed the project ‘Genome Project-Write’ — says it could develop cell lines that are resistant to contamination, thus reducing the cost and time-to-market for new therapies.

In a news release, they said: “The goal… is to reduce the costs of engineering and testing large genomes, including a human genome, in cell lines, more than 1,000-fold within 10 years, while developing new technologies and an ethical framework for genome-scale engineering, as well as transformative medical applications.”

One of the authors, an advocate of cheaper genomic engineering, George Church, added: “If you’re manufacturing human therapeutics in mammalian cells and you get contamination, it can blow you away for two years, which has actually happened.”

The potential advances are difficult to ignore — building cancer resistance into new cell lines, developing “cost-efficient vaccine and pharmaceutical development using human cells and organoids”, engineering immunity to viruses in cell lines and growing transplantable organs are a few of the possible applications.

But there are detractors who base their concerns on ethical considerations. Prof Drew Endy, Associate Professor of Engineering at Stanford University, US, told The Post recently: “If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research, you are doing something wrong.

“Do we wish to be operating in a world where people are capable of organising themselves to make human genomes? Should we pause and reflect on that question before we launch into doing it? They’re talking about making real the capacity to make the thing that defines humanity — the human genome.”

But do we also want to live in a world where life-saving vaccines take 10 years to develop?

These are the choices that lie ahead in the decades to come.

The moral of the story…

A little study conducted by Ohio State University in the US may have inadvertently blown a sneaky little political psychological tactic out of the water.

The researchers conducted studies on both college students and older adults and found that in essence, if someone is convinced they are making an argument based on moral principles, they are far less likely to back down or concede that they are wrong than if their viewpoint had been based on other motivations.

One group of participants was told that they were to base a viewpoint on a new exam policy in their university, while another group was to debate recycling, while basing their stance on issues of morality. The researchers discovered that those who took their stance on a moral basis were far less likely to be persuaded otherwise, compared to those who came from the viewpoints or ‘practicality’ or ‘tradition’.

Lead author Dr Andrew Luttrell told the Journal of Experimental Psychology: “For many people, morality implies a universality, an ultimate truth. It is a conviction that is not easily changed… people held on to their moral beliefs in a way they didn’t for other values we studied, like tradition, equality and practicality.

“But what was remarkable was how easy it was to lead people into thinking their views were based on moral principles. People may be more willing to vote for a candidate or give money to an advocacy group if they believe it is a matter of morality. They’re also less likely to be swayed by the opposition.”

I’d love to hear your experiences of dealing with people who have argued with you and based their contention on issues of morality, so email me… it’s the morally correct thing to do!

Lost in translation

A reader kindly sent me a brief list of medical terminology used by a patient who had been referred, in an attempt to describe their condition.

Test your health literacy skills by seeing if you can figure out what the patients were trying to describe. Answers below.

“Immaculate degeneration.”

“Liza Minnelli.”

“Smiling mighty Jesus.”

“Fireballs of the universe.”


1) Macular degeneration; 2) Salmonella; 3) Spinal meningitis; 4) Fibroids of the uterus.

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