Synthetic Biology and the Translational Imperative

Science and Engineering Ethics 25 (1):33-52 (2019)
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Abstract

Advances at the interface between the biological sciences and engineering are giving rise to emerging research fields such as synthetic biology. Harnessing the potential of synthetic biology requires timely and adequate translation into clinical practice. However, the translational research enterprise is currently facing fundamental obstacles that slow down the transition of scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the patient bedside. These obstacles including scarce financial resources and deficiency of organizational and logistic settings are widely discussed as primary impediments to translational research. In addition, a number of socio-ethical considerations inherent in translational research need to be addressed. As the translational capacity of synthetic biology is tightly linked to its social acceptance and ethical approval, ethical limitations may—together with financial and organizational problems—be co-determinants of suboptimal translation. Therefore, an early assessment of such limitations will contribute to proactively favor successful translation and prevent the promising potential of synthetic biology from remaining under-expressed. Through the discussion of two case-specific inventions in synthetic biology and their associated ethical implications, we illustrate the socio-ethical challenges ahead in the process of implementing synthetic biology into clinical practice. Since reducing the translational lag is essential for delivering the benefits of basic biomedical research to society at large and promoting global health, we advocate a moral obligation to accelerating translational research: the “translational imperative.”

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