Recap of BEINGS 2015 Meeting by Aaron Levine: Shaping Future of Cellular Biotech

Aaron Levine
Associate Professor, School of Public Policy
Georgia Tech
Aaron Levine

Aaron Levine

Last week I attended Biotech & the Ethical Imagination (BEINGS 2015), the summit I previewed on this blog back in early May. It many ways the summit lived up to its lofty ambitions. Steven Pinker kicked off the event by emphasizing the power and importance of biomedical research, noting that almost everyone is affected by disease and imploring the bioethics community to “stay out of the way.” Margaret Atwood followed Pinker noting both the excitement of modern biotech and the perils of the enterprise. She broadened the scope of the discussion to include environmental concerns, arguing that if we don’t address pressing environmental issues, such as climate change, there would be little reason to worry about continuing to advance human health. Both Pinker and Atwood were part of the panel considering the appropriate aspirations for the biotechnological enterprise and gave the assembled delegates plenty of food for thought.beings-logo

The meeting alternated these short TED-style talks with panel discussions addressing five major topics: (1) Aspirations for Biotechnology, (2) Alien Organisms and New Identities, (3) Bioerror and Bioterror, (4) Ownership, and (5) Donorship. The hope was to raise key issues for the delegates to consider as they begin the difficult process of drafting ethical principles and policy guidelines for the future of cellular biotechnology.

The meeting has already generated substantial discussion (see here, here, here, here and here for example) and I won’t try to review it all here. Rather, I’d like to highlight a few of the major themes I took away from the summit:

(1) Global Nature of Biotech. Biotechnology is truly a global enterprise with important advances coming from scientists working in many different countries. This reality poses important challenges for biotech policy as substantial heterogeneity exists in country-level regulatory approaches toward the advancement of bioscience.

(2) Importance of money. Biotechnology in the 21st century is driven by money. Money drives the questions that are studied (and those that are ignored). Raising money (typically through grants) is central to the careers of many research scientists, particularly in the life sciences. Corporate agendas and the pursuit of profits also shape research in myriad ways from the focus on specific research questions to the acquisition of research materials to the sharing (or lack thereof) of research results.

(3) Rapid Pace of Advance. Biotechnology is advancing at an extremely rapid pace, which offers both hope for the future and poses substantial challenges for the policy and ethics community. In short, it’s important not just to oversee past science, but to prepare for future advances, even if these are uncertain and unpredictable.

None of these themes is novel but each one points to important challenges in shaping the future of cellular biotechnology. I am working along with a team of 15 or so delegates to draft principles and guidelines related to the broad topic of “donorship” – the provision of biological materials for cellular biotechnology. We are early in our deliberations thinking through what works and doesn’t work at the current time and how donation should be construed and overseen as the field advances. As we continue these deliberations, I hope we can develop useful guidelines that consider the context of the rapidly advancing, global and money-driven biotechnological enterprise. Such a task will be challenging, but hopefully rewarding as well, both for the delegates who are spending their summer voluntarily contributing to the effort and for the broader biotech community.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas on these themes in general and their implications for the future of cellular biotechnology as well as your thoughts on the issues of provision of biological materials for research purposes.

Biotechnology & the Ethical Imagination – A Preview of BEINGS summit by Aaron Levine

By Aaron Levine, Professor, Georgia Tech.

Later this May, I will attend and participate in Biotechnology and the Ethical Imagination (BEINGS 2015). This is an exciting and experimental summit that will focus on advances in cellular biotechnology – including both stem cell science and synthetic biology. The meeting is premised on the idea that the implications of increasing biotechnology power are profound, offering not just potential to improve healthcare, manufacturing and countless other fields but to affect the very future of humanity. The goal is not just to discuss the state of science or the ethics of modern bioscience but to broaden the discussion and draw in perspectives that are often missing at stand-alone scientific or bioethics meetings. Rather BEINGS will bring leaders in science, social science, ethics, business and the humanities together with a diverse set of delegates from roughly 30 countries with the goal of:

  • Establishing an aspirational vision for the highest uses of new cellular biotechnologies.
  • Reaching consensus on reasonable guidelines for cellular biotechnologies.

beings-logoIn an attempt to achieve these daunting goals, the conference will be divided among 5 major topics – an extended discussion of the potential goals for cellular biotechnology, drawing not just on the expertise of scientists like George Church, but also humanists like Margaret Atwood – both of whom are “distinguished faculty” at the summit. The venue is the amazing Tabernacle in Atlanta (see image below).

Conference attendees will also dive more deeply into the use of cellular biotechnology to create new organisms and explore the potential dual use concerns surrounding advances in biotechnology. Finally, substantial attention will be given to issues associated with the ownership of the fruits of cellular biotechnology and the related question of the rights, obligations and roles of those who serve as donors to facilitate biotechnological advances. BEINGS venue

The beginning of the meeting will feature short presentations and panel discussions led by what the summit terms “distinguished faculty.” These include George Church, Margaret Atwood, Arthur Caplan, Steven Pinker, Ruha Benjamin and others, all of whom should raise issues for the delegates to consider as they begin the delicate process of drafting guidelines during the last two days of the meeting. Ultimately this process of drafting and revising guidelines will continue throughout the summer and fall with the hope of producing a document that can help shape the future of biotechnology research around the world.

This is certainly an ambitious project and there is no guarantee of success. But, given all the recent attention that advances in biotech have raised, such as the use of CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos, the time is right for this effort. And while it’s certainly not clear what the final outcome of the summit will be, I’m looking forward to participating and seeing where it leads.

If you’d like to learn more about the summit, please visit the website. And, if you’d like to participate, please register and plan to join us in Atlanta from May 17 to 19.