Team:Hong Kong HKUST/human practice/safety and ethics


Safety and ethics

Prof. LAM Hon Ming is a faculty of School of Life Sciences in Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). He is also a director of molecular biotechnology program and Center for Soybean Research in CUHK. His research field involves genomic and functional genomic studies of soybean and identification and characterization of functional genes to improve abiotic stress tolerance and disease resistance in plants. Prof. Lam helped us reflect upon the real life application of our project and led us to some new potential ideas regarding future application. He also talked extensively about safety and ethical issues that were relevant to synthetic biology and our project in general. The interview has greatly helped us to explore the non-technical aspects of our iGEM project that we have not yet examined in depth.

Interview with Professor LAM Hon Ming

Fig 1. Interview with Prof. Lam Hon Ming from Chinese University of Hong Kong

On the 26th of August 2014, the HKUST iGEM team recruited a group of members to interview Prof. Lam, director of the molecular biotechnology program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). We aimed to consult Prof. Lam about our main project- “Pneumosensor: Finding Pneumo”, in particular the safety and ethical aspects.

We have asked him for the general outlook of synthetic biology in the context of Hong Kong and of the world. He kindly replied by describing synthetic biology as a “promising way to make new things.” He agreed that synthetic biology is no longer confined in the field of biology but has since become an interdisciplinary field. He mentioned that synthetic biology has been “especially successful in bacteria” and proposes synthetic biology as a prospective area of science because it has the potential to provide “new ways to handle environmental problems for which the later generation will try hard to further work on.”

On the question of ethical questionability of synthetic biology, Prof. Lam explained that it depends on how we discern ethical from unethical. If, being ethical meant bringing “good for the people” or to “help people,” then synthetic biology can be deemed ethical, he conveyed. However, he also acknowledged that some people would disagree and express the view that genetic manipulation is against the way God has created all living things. Then Prof. Lam wittily suggested that synthetic biologists “just make use of the gene that is created by God”. However, we cannot play deaf to questions concerning the actual impacts of synthetic biology: ultimately, does the good outweigh the bad? Additionally, he has enlightened us that the nature of science, especially the new fields in science inevitably carries risks, but we “should not stop any new science merely because of risks.” He carried on to introduce some regulation measures with handling biological materials, which naturally flowed into our next question.

An important part of iGEM is to recognize the potential dangers of laboratory work and that of synthetic biology. Prof. Lam emphasized that regulation measures are important to ensure that the entire procedures is kept under control, and that minimizing the negative impact is also a part of science. He mentioned the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the universal guidelines for all research labs to follow.

We further extended our discussion to some of the concepts, applications and safety issues regarding our main project. He emphasized that we should consider issues of how the core mechanism of our project can be distinct or superior from the existing technologies. He also provided professional opinion regarding the daily application of the project. He suggested some alternatives to the application aspect, which is to use a small bottle or a container with agar that contains the culture of engineered bacteria. The saliva from the potential patients is then inserted into the bottle to give either positive or negative results.

If it is decided that the project were to be used for charity purposes, Prof. Lam told us to consider how the targeted users would treat the manufactured device. Our targeted patients are those in the undeveloped countries in the world such as Africa, and where Streptococcus pneumoniae (S.P.) infection is more widespread. The lack of sanitization and the lack of knowledge on how use the kit and how to dispose of the finished product in the targeted area could potentially trigger infection from our own diagnosis kit once it has been used.




Human Practice