Exploring Synthetic Chemistry/Biology at Emory College

NOTE: Emory University hosts the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues on November 16-17, 2010. This is the panel’s final meeting before it issues recommendations to President Barack Obama on the rapidly accelerating field of synthetic biology. The meeting, which is being held at the Emory Conference Center Hotel in Atlanta, is open to the public. Proceedings are also being webcast live at http://www.bioethics.gov.

* * *

Thousands of years ago, humans selectively bred horses and dogs so that they could benefit from certain traits they found useful. Now scientists at Emory College are taking this a few thousand steps further by re-tooling bacteria and synthesizing drugs in the lab.

Justin Gallivan, associate professor of biomolecular chemistry, leads a research group that is reprogramming existing bacteria so that it will chase down atrazine in farm fields and render it nontoxic. He’s also working on bacteria that can function like smoke detectors in tracking down “bad stuff” in the drinking water or in buildings. In the near future, research like Gallivan’s may lead to an oil-eating microbe that could be used to combat the kind of spill we saw in the Gulf of Mexico this summer.

The modern pharmaceutical industry is already testament to the power of chemistry to synthesize drugs rather than produce everything from nature. Chemists Dennis Liotta and Huw Davies have made substantial contributions in this area while coming at it from different directions.

Liotta, a professor of organic chemistry at Emory for over thirty years, has worked on several important antiviral drugs, including Emtriva, which made headlines in 2005 when it brought $540 million in royalty sales to Emory and its inventors. He is currently testing a synthetic equivalent of curcumin, which is found in turmeric and gives curry its yellow coloring.

Liotta first became intrigued by turmeric after hearing stories of its long history as a folk medicine in India. He’s heard stories from friends whose mothers gave it to them in their milk for an upset stomach.

After closer study, he found that curcumin has properties that make it effective as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. The only downside is that for it to be really effective, you would need to take so much, “imagine twelve horse pills a day,” says Liotta. With a synthetic version, Liotta can fine-tune it for better results. Time will tell. He’s just begun early-stage clinical trials to measure its effects on human subjects for the first time.

Liotta’s research in drug discovery is complemented by the drug development program at Emory directed by Huw Davies, who joined Emory in 2008 as Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Organic Chemistry. Davies’ group uses chemical synthesis to create the tools necessary to develop cost-effective medications. Students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab are speeding up and simplifying the synthesis of new classes of pharmaceuticals, bringing down the costs. “We’re developing more efficient ways of cooking,” Davies says.

“By finding new ways to streamline the production of chemicals and drugs, we’re able to make compounds in the laboratory that have never been made before. We can also make them in easier, safer, and more environmentally friendly ways.” He sees these new techniques as creating an underpinning for future technology and economic development.

The National Science Foundation agrees – last year it awarded him $1.5 million to lead a team of scientists from four universities to develop a Center for Chemical Innovation.

* * *

At a July meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Paul Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, delivered a thoughtful talk on science and religion, and how they mutually inform each other.

How should we think about technology that re-creates us? How do we handle the speed-up of evolutionary time and the possible impact on the environment? How do we slow things down to allow for reflection or guideposts?

In conversations at Emory, scientists often mentioned the safeguards that are being used to prevent synthetic organisms from spinning out of control. They also brought up the point that all technology has the potential for good and bad. Take the automobile, for example, and the number of deaths it causes each year on highways, let alone the damage it wreaks on the environment (see Gulf oil spill).

“Synthetic biology isn’t new, but the pace of ethical conversations hasn’t kept pace with technological innovations,” says Arri Eisen, a senior lecturer in biology for Emory’s Center for Ethics and co-editor of Science, Religion, and Society: History, Cultures, and Controversies. “Ironically, evolution hasn’t prepared us cognitively for such rapid changes.”

This technology will force us to ask those basic questions that humans have always been dealing with, and that’s not a bad thing, says Eisen. What does it mean to be human? If life is sacred or defined by the rules of sentience as the Buddhists believe, then what happens when that life is created by man in the laboratory instead of by Nature or God?

These questions are spilling over into a project that Deboleena Roy, associate professor of women’s studies and neuroscience and behavioral biology, is collaborating on with the help of Eisen and others. The grant-funded project treats the bioethical implications of synthetic biology BEFORE the field takes off, not AFTER.

“The idea is that stakeholders, such as scientists, pharmaceuticals and politicians are not the only interested parties when it comes to the development of synthetic biology,” Roy says.

“Rather than developing the technology first, and then seeing how the non-traditional stakeholders react, this model takes seriously the task of incorporating their concerns in the process of developing the field of synthetic biology in the first place.”

Concerns and problems are sure to arise. When David Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology, is asked how to address these issues, he is quiet for a moment, then says, “We are going to make mistakes. But the more we educate others the better we’ll be able to deal with mistakes.

“You can’t put restrictions on gaining new knowledge. The only advantage humans have in terms of competing with biology is using our brains.”

[edited from “How Much Is That Molecule in the Window? The Science and Ethics of Creating Synthetic Molecules,” by Hal Jacobs, Quadrangle Magazine, Fall 2010]

Related Articles/Media

Arri Eisen, “Creating a Cell: Science Plays God Scientists create the world’s first synthetic life form. Has science crossed a line?” (Religion Dispatches, August 9, 2010)

Professor Huw Davies in the Chemistry Department talks about his new lab that works in the area of chemical synthesis [YouTube video].

2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Justin Gallivan talks about how amazing bacteria is [PopTech video].

Advertisements