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  Sheikh Zayed Institute faculty member calls for implementation of regulations to ensure safe, effective synthetic biology
October 13, 2010

Washington, DCLouis M. Marmon, MD, PhD, a pediatric surgeon at Children’s National Medical Center and member of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, is coauthor of a paper in the October 2010 issue of Nature Biotechnology that calls on the scientific community to quickly implement regulations, funding, and oversight mechanisms to ensure that synthetic biology advances unimpeded and in safe and effective ways. This is the first peer-reviewed paper published by faculty of the Sheikh Zayed Institute, an ambitious effort by top scientists to make surgery more precise, less invasive, and pain free.

Synthetic biology, the creation of synthetic life within a laboratory, could be the next scientific advancement to revolutionize medicine, potentially producing engineered microorganisms able to destroy cancer cells, repair defective genes, or break down toxins in the body. However, the promise of synthetic biology comes with risks and bioethical implications.

“Synthetic biology offers technologies that could address some of our most basic and important needs – health, clean water and clean energy,” Marmon said. “At the same time, there are ethical concerns about creating synthetic or hybrid forms of life and the danger of those creations being accidentally or intentionally misused. That is why it is important to quickly develop additional regulations and oversight mechanisms to ensure that this promising science is not impeded by fear and is allowed to advance in coordinated, systematic ways that will foster innovation and competitiveness.”

Coauthored with David A. LaVan, PhD, a mechanical engineer at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the paper summarizes the discussion results of two recent national meetings on synthetic biology hosted by the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The authors say these meetings were excellent starting points, but discussions need to be expanded and subsequent safety recommendations need to be expeditiously implemented.

Marmon and LaVan further comment that there is a need to improve strategies to predict and prevent misuse of synthetic or hybrid neo-organisms and a strong labeling method for synthetic genes is an important part of that process. Public-private cooperation is vital and gene manufacturers must remain central in safety oversight because decentralized processes like institutional review boards would rely “on committee structures that were not designed to preemptively detect hazardous modalities.”

“This paper is an important contribution to the science of synthetic biology,” said Anthony Sandler, MD, chief of pediatric surgery at Children’s Center for Surgical Care and leader of the Sheikh Zayed Institute’s immunology initiative. “We are working to harness the full power of technology to improve surgery and in some cases eliminate the need for surgery all together. Synthetic biology is an emerging science, which supports that work, and the promotion of sound regulations and best practices will speed our progress and reassure the public that this work is taking place in safe, ethical and effective ways.”

The Sheikh Zayed Institute is made possible by a $150 million gift from the Government of Abu Dhabi. Launched in September 2009, the Institute is redefining what is possible in surgery through innovative, integrated research. The institute’s multidisciplinary faculty is simultaneously pursuing four initiatives: pain medicine, bioengineering, immunology, and systems biology.

Kurt Newman, MD, senior vice president for the Joseph E. Robert, Jr., Center for Surgical Care, said, “This is just the first of what will be many important publications and discoveries through the Sheikh Zayed Institute. Dr. Marmon is part of our growing dream team of doctors, scientists and engineers, whose groundbreaking work will transform surgery for children everywhere.”

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Contact: Paula Darte: 202-476-4500.

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About Children’s National Medical Center:
Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, has been serving the nation’s children since 1870. Home to Children’s Research Institute and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, Children’s National is consistently ranked among the top pediatric hospitals by U.S.News & World Report and the Leapfrog Group. With 283 beds, more than 1,330 nurses, 550 physicians, and seven regional outpatient centers, Children’s National is the only exclusive provider of pediatric care in the Washington metropolitan area. Children’s National has been recognized by the American Nurses Credentialing Center as a Magnet® designated hospital, the highest level of recognition for nursing excellence that a medical center can achieve. For more information, visit www.ChildrensNational.org, receive the latest news from the Children's National press room, or follow us Facebook and Twitter.