The blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Lonnie Ali on synthetic biology: `So many opportunities’

Commission member Lonnie Ali, center

Lonnie Ali, the wife of Muhammad Ali and an advocate for raising awareness of Parkinson’s disease, is a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. During a break in this week’s hearings, she talked about her experience on the Commission:

Q: What have been your impressions so far?

A: I was asked to be on the Commission, my name was submitted by a member of PAN, the Parkinson’s Action Network. I considered it an honor to serve the country and to do some public good in an area I had not done before. It was just an honor that I would be considered.

Q: What about this first topic, synthetic biology?

A: I’m not a scientist. I’m the only one here without a lot of letters behind my name! (Editor’s note: She earned her MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.) But I find it extremely interesting from a lay person’s perspective of all the issues behind synthetic biology. It’s very important for the public to be informed about the basic facts, and its potential to do public good.

You know that Exxon commercial? Before I would have never noticed it when it talks about algae and using these biofuels, which will alleviate the need for fossil fuels. That’s a potential use of synthetic biology. What a wonderful opportunity to use something like that to educate the public about what we are talking about.

When that whole thing came out with Mr. Venter, and creating an artificial life, that was a little scary before we got all the facts. The ability to have exposure to the types of experts we’ve had testify has given us very important information, which will guide policy and help us put together these recommendations. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

I really hope when the President reads this, he realizes that we have tried to be as responsive as we could and as thorough as we could to give him all the information.

Q: What do you think about the potential applications of synthetic biology?

A: It has a lot of opportunity for public good. It could create advances for Parkinson’s disease. Somewhere in the science they might find something to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease or other kinds of diseases. Anything that alleviates human suffering is great. You don’t know what can happen next. There are so many opportunities here for this technology – advances that we can’t imagine sitting here today.

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1 Comment to Lonnie Ali on synthetic biology: `So many opportunities’

  1. Lawrence Quarles's Gravatar Lawrence Quarles
    May 17, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Synthetic Biology Commentary
    Dr. Quarles
    May 17, 2011

    Dear Dr. Gutman and Members of the Presidential Committee on Bioethics

    My work in the area of bioethics, theology, social sciences, environmental sciences, chemistry, biology, engineering, meteorology, climatology, and business, has allowed me a great deal of latitude in my opinions. I have been researching the interaction between certain bacteria that may be causing neurological disorders in Americans, as well as people in other countries.

    To arrive at this hypothesis, I had to synthesize a great deal of data and then apply common sense. In bioethics this is very much the same. We analyze, observe, and then apply common sense. In my mind, I understand the outcome of my research. My hypothesis simply states that the bacteria I’ve identified are causing harm to human beings. To reverse this harm to human beings we need to develop an enzyme or some other biogenetically altered organism to reverse the environmental toxins we have created. In a sense, two wrongs will make a right.

    My preliminary research indicates that in certain geographical areas algae is creating a bacterial toxin that affects neurological functioning. This observation came from the data collected over the past 50 years from various sources around the world. The experts in neurology are looking at a very narrow slice of their field. Currently many researchers are researching, looking for a needle in a haystack. Where in fact what we really need to acknowledge the haystack. Once we acknowledge the haystack we can then set about looking for the needle.

    It is been my contention over the past two decades that we tended not to think outside of the box. This limits us in our understanding of how things work on a holistic level. Sometimes the answers are easily derived from data when it is reviewed by somebody with fresh eyes. Almost everyone in science and other related fields tend to be narrow-minded and this causes a myopic view of reality. We see this in business and in other professions as well. We become experts and authorities on specialized subjects and forget we are practicing medicine or law. Bioethics is in its infancy and many people tend to treat it as a theoretical posturing. Bioethics is not a policy making arm of any government.

    What is ethical in one culture may not be ethical in another. It becomes very complex when you try to dictate ethical opinions and change those into policy or law. It becomes especially difficult to exercise that authority over other sovereignties. Classic example is our debate on stem cells. Stem cells alone are very beneficial for the treatment of many human maladies: nobody can argue that stem cells are bad. The debate was on how we harvested stem cells. The general public tends to only understand small parts of this argument. While Americans were debating the legalities of stem cell research, other countries were pushing ahead with this field.

    I hope that the bureaucracy and policymaking does not impede true scientific research. Research should have an ethical mandate that allows for the safe exploration of certain genetically altered and scientifically monitored engineering. It is my belief that the proper control measures can be applied to almost every bioethical situation so that reasonable degrees of safety can be observed. This safety and risk analysis is weighed carefully by the Bioethicist.

    Dr. Robert Orr one of my professors in my graduate studies in Bioethics once said; “Bioethics is the science of difficult choices.” This is very true, there are no easy choices,(and out) we have to use common sense before we limit ourselves or exclude a viable safe option in the protection of humankind. Most of the issues that we work with are global issues and not restricted to any one geographical area. We deal with the byproduct of human interaction and its effect upon human interaction. Clinical studies are a necessary part of any good science. We would be foolish to suggest that any pharmaceutical company would simply synthesize a product without testing its effectiveness and adverse potentiality.

    As Bioethicist we need to look at the big picture and then pay attention to the details. The details are very important for all of us. As we debate whether genetically altered organism will compete in the wild with natural organisms, we need to remember for most of humankind we never asked these questions. We did not ask when we were producing toxic waste or pollution that was affecting humans nearby. The world is a small place and what happens genetically in one part will affect everyone.

    As a Bioethicist, I’m very cautious to make any quick judgment. I am, however, one that utilizes every available intellectual asset and resource so that I can to make the right decision.

    Dr. Lawrence Quarles, MAR, MACP, MA Bioethics
    Eco-Mimo Research

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