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SPEED DEBATE ON SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY AND NEURO-ETHICS
31 Jul 2013; Laura Cinti - 03 Aug 2013

C-LAB joins UCL iGEM 2013 to speed debate future prospects of using synthetic biology to combat neurological diseases and enhance the brain.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

UCL iGEM's project this year will build a genetic circuit that can be used to remove placks and help stablise nerve cells as a method for curing Alzheimer's disease. Speakers included president of Synthetic Biology Society at UCL Philipp Böing, C-LAB's Howard Boland, iGEM member Alex Bates and Shirley Nurock, coordinator of the London Area Research Network.

Andy Cheng, this year's iGEM coordinator, chaired of the event and laid out the ground rules for debates and the night's programme.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

Philipp provided a background to what iGEM is and what it means to build standardised genetic components.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

Howard put forward some of the challenges of working with synthetic biology as an artist and the challenges we might face both ethically and regulatory when wanting to break through frontiers of technology.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

UCL's project was introduced by Alex, who provided an overview to why synthetic biology as an approach could help solve what has been a failing challenge. 

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

Supporting infographics show exactly how this would be done and offered a nice and exciting new way to think about how genetics can be used to tackle the problem whilst reducing alternation to existing nerve cells. A central question is of course the lost of "self" in neuro-degenerative diseases and any solution should take into account avoidance mechanisms that may lead to additional alterations of cells.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

Speaking of her personal loss, Shirley reminded us that in spite of technical solutions we are dealing with people and emotions. But she pointed out that with the lack of solutions so far, we are in desperate need to consider new ways of tackling this destructive disease.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

After the talks - discussions commenced. The first questions looked broadly at synthetic biology as a technology and set the scene of how comfortable we are with using it either for medical or industrial purposes.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

Andy launched a series of 4 question to the large ensemble of 90 participants of all ages and disciplines.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

A key question when moving towards neurological modification may also be the cosmetic factor that follows often in the wake of emerging technology. We have seen this in plastic surgery - and we might also discover this to be the case with brain related modifications. Ranging from increased intelligence, to emotional customization of one's personality or increased confidence - are these issues the same as those we have seen developed through the use of drugs or does the genetic component imply something different? And what about distribution between poor and rich?

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

While most participants were positive towards the use of synthetic biology as a technology and should be used across research fields, there were some agreements that the brain involves a different set of rules as it defines a person and further this impacts society as a whole.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

One worry was that current synthetic biology is based on mixing genes and genetic factors from a natural pool of genes making it more difficult to control. Ideas such a orthogonal ribosomes that can produce alternative amino acids and protein combinations stand a better chance since it would be very diffciult for natural machineries to hijack and used these types of material in a detrimental way.

Speed Debate on Synthetic biology and Neuro-ethics at UCL

Many were positive to the prospect of brain enhancements in particular aspects that would increase intelligence. One question was whether this further shifts inequality and what also what would be more desireable: plastic surgery or brain enhancement? These were lingering questions before the night ended and we made our way home. 

Other References: C-LAB:blog: Gene machine takes the prize
C-LAB:blog: KatE in a Jar
C-LAB:blog: London Hackspace at UCL Cruciform Lab
C-LAB:blog: One too many cocktails of nucleic acids....
C-LAB:blog: Right or Risk? Preparation at London Hackspace
C-LAB:blog: Synthetic Biology, Creating ring pattern in a lawn of bacteria
C-LAB:blog: Synthetic Biology, Programmed Population Control
C-LAB:blog: Synthetic Life - getting serious about genetic engineering
C-LAB:blog: The Gibson Assembly Song
C-LAB:blog: Tic toc goes the bacteria clock
C-LAB:blog: Visiting London Hackspace with UCL iGEM
C-LAB:blog: Visiting the Grant Museum of Zoology
C-LAB:event: BIO ART WORKSHOP
C-LAB:event: CAGE RATTLING #1: KILL SWITCH
C-LAB:event: RE-NEW DIGITAL ARTS FESTIVAL
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C-LAB:event: SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY: MACHINE OR LIFE?
Dana Centre: Synthetic Biology: Machine or Life?
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