ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now that scientists have mapped the human genetic code, some say it's time to create one from scratch. These scientists want to make a synthetic version in the lab. They say it could lead eventually to medical breakthroughs. As NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports, not everyone agrees.
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ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Sixteen years ago, then-President Bill Clinton stepped to a podium at the White House.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
STEIN: He announced that scientists had produced the first rough draft of the human genetic blueprint.
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BILL CLINTON: Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift.
STEIN: Now a group of scientists and biotech entrepreneurs wants to take what they say is the next natural step - create a synthetic version of the human genetic code, what scientists call the human genome.
GEORGE CHURCH: We just had a revolution in ability to read genomes. The same thing is happening now with writing genomes.
STEIN: George Church is a geneticist at Harvard. He says scientists have figured out how to write genomes by combining the chemical building blocks of DNA.
CHURCH: We have the ability to synthesize bacterial genomes, and we can synthesize parts of human genomes. We would like to be able to scale that up so we can make larger and larger collections of genomes - not just one genome but many variations on it to find those are most effective for research and medicine.
STEIN: Scientists want to create human cells with synthetic DNA that could be used for all sorts of things.
CHURCH: So that we can make virus-resistant cell lines that could be used in manufacturing of pharmaceuticals like antibodies, vaccines and so we can engineer - humanize animals so that they can be organ donors for human transplantation and we can make safer stem cell therapies.
STEIN: But the idea being able to manufacture human genomes in the lab is raising lots of concerns. Marcy Darnovsky heads the Center for Genetics and Society. She worries scientists could try to use this synthetic DNA to create designer babies or even some kind of genetic super race.
MARCY DARNOVSKY: The worry is that we're going to be synthesizing entire optimized human genomes, you know, manufacturing chromosomes that could be used, ultimately, to produce synthetic human beings that they see as improved models. And that's a goal that many, many people think is something we should not do and, in fact, that it should be a no-go zone.
STEIN: Church and his colleagues deny that's anything they want to do and agreed this technology raises ethical concerns that need to be addressed. But they say the technology also has lots of promise. Others agree. Francis Collins led the original project that deciphered the human genetic code. He now heads the National Institutes of Health.
FRANCIS COLLINS: The ability to synthesize long stretches of DNA would clearly provide us with an experimental tool that would be quite valuable for understanding how life works and how disease occurs.
STEIN: But, Collins says, scientists are nowhere near being able to create an entire human genome in the laboratory, and he agrees that any attempt to try to engineer the human race would be unethical. And for now, the NIH has no plans to fund any big projects like the one being proposed. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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