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    OPINION: Synthetic DNA More Dangerous Than Useful

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    Artificial DNA, recently successfully implemented in a living cell by California scientists, presents more ethical concerns than opportunities for medicine, the head of the US-based DNA Medicine Institute told RIA Novosti.

    MOSCOW, May 13 (RIA Novosti) – Artificial DNA, recently successfully implemented in a living cell by California scientists, presents more ethical concerns than opportunities for medicine, the head of the US-based DNA Medicine Institute told RIA Novosti.

    "Yes, this is a scientific breakthrough, but medically, not so much, it ultimately leads to too many ethical questions and also fundamentally we have to ask why are we doing this," said Dr. Eugene Chan, Founder, President, and Chief Scientific Officer of the DNA Medicine Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    The first living organism with synthetic DNA was created by a team at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. It altered the cell's genetic composition despite the earlier belief that naturally created DNA could not be changed.

    According to the study published in Nature last week, the genetic code in the modified bacteria and bugs went beyond the common G, T, C and A letters, present in all living organisms on the planet. They now contain letters X and Z, which the organism recognized as natural and will just as naturally pass them on to subsequent generations.

    For Chan, this is no wonder, rather a skilled biological engineering feat, the benefit of which is arguable from a medical perspective.

    "Would this lead to new cures? It is hard to say because it is so far away and speculative. Having four base pairs has led to a significant number of biologics for treatment of disease. It is not necessary the case that having six base pairs will increase the number of drugs or diagnostics that are out there," Chan said, questioning why tinkering with nature in this fundamental way was necessary.

    The new DNA composition is still confined to the lab, and while it remains that way, it can do no harm. Real world applications, however, could be possible in the future.

    "It could be dangerous if ways are found to make it autonomous and live outside the laboratory setting. This could lead to new microbes and viruses that we have no drugs for combating," Chan said, adding that there was "still a long ways (if at all) that this technology can exist beyond the laboratory setting."

    Other scientists have been more optimistic, saying fears about the synthetic DNA were unjustified, as were those about genetically modified foods. The authors of the study said artificially-coded bacteria could not survive in a foreign body, even if it escaped.

    “This is really a safety feature so far. We should always ask such questions of new methodologies, but all scenarios envisioned so far seem tame,” said Harvard genetics professor George Church, who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005.

    Church earlier told RIA Novosti that although safety questions should accompany any new methodologies, “all scenarios envisioned so far seem tame.”

    The new DNA is already seen as a potential selling material in the industry for biologic and protein-based therapies, which is expected to reach $165 billion a year by 2018, according to a Wall Street Journal estimate.

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