We will briefly mention part of the long curriculum of the interviewee, justo Aznar Lucea, Graduate in Medicine and Surgery in the University of Valencia in 1960 and Doctor by the University of Navarra in Clinical Analysis and Hematology in 1964, with the grade of Award with Special Distinction. Assistant of the Service of Clinical Analysis and Hematology of the Universitary Clinic of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Navarra and helper of Practical Training of the Chair of Biochemistry and physiology of the same institution. Research Associate in the Centre of Cytological Researches of the CSIC in the 60’s. Afterwards, he held important posts in the old hospital “La Fe” of Valencia, place where he had the post of Head of the Biopathology Department between 1974 and 2006 (his retirement year). He is a distinguished member of some medical societies at national and international level, as the Spanish Society of Clinical Biopatology, the Mediterranean League against Thromboembolic Disease, The New York Academy of Sciences, between a wide list that can result in a lot more interviews.
In relation of bioethics, the subject which we are speaking about, he’s worked as teacher of Bioethics at the Papal Institute for the family John Paul II in the 90’s. Later, he got the post of Manager in the Life Sciences Institute complementing it with the post of Director of the Bioethics Observatory and of the Oficial Master of Bioethics in the UCV, both in 2005. He belongs to the Spanish Society of Bioethics since 2001.
Furthermore he has been awarded with different prizes in the area of bioethics, of which the University Diploma Merit, given by UCV, emphasizes. He is author of different publications about bioethics as “Nascent human life. 200 Questions and Answers”. He has been awarded numerous times, being Price “III Millennium 2007”, given by the Academy of Sciences, Technology, Education and Humanities in the Bioethics area of Valencia in 2007. With such references and his checked experience during his long trajectory, he answers our questions about bioethics.
As you are a professional with extensive medical experience, how have you known about the area of synthetic biology?
Well, it was when I read, at the journal Science, the study of Craig Venter in which the synthesis of the genome of the bacterium “Mycoplasma micoides” was described.
As regards to the synthetic biology area, are you currently participating in some line of investigation related to it?
Really not, from the Bioethics Observatory we have only confined ourselves to do reports about ethical aspects; we have never done experimental research.
What do you think about the state of the art of synthetic biology nowadays?
I consider that, as all advances in sciences, it can have very beneficial results and applications; however, it can result in applications which can present ethical conflicts. Because of that, we have to consider the technical (biological, biomedical) and the ethical aim to what these researches are intended for.
Well, knowing that, what are the challenges that you think that this discipline should tackle and what aspects it should correct referent to make easier its advance and applications development?
Scientific challenges are basically focused on studying in depth and understanding the biological and biomolecular mechanisms which control cellular life; all that could allow, as it has occurred, to create synthetic cellular structures, though for that would be necessary to study in depth the knowledge about these complex mechanisms. And, in relation to the ethical aspect, the priority will be to control the aims for what these experiences are destined.
Following the subject about the more potential applications of synthetic biology, it is speculated that other areas could be affected, as environmental bioremedy, industry… There is any area that you think that could be benefited thanks to the synthetic biology studies?
Actually, the area that I know more about is biomedicine. Undoubtedly, synthetic biology will complete the way to gene therapy, due to it could be useful and very beneficial to treat patients with molecular disorders which result in hereditary or chromosomal diseases. In that sense, it will clearly mean a really beneficial advance, among all that we will see that century. Regardless of biomedical area synthetic biology will be able to be applied for the production of clean fuel, food products, hydrocarbon or medicines transformation, among others.
Leaving a little your area, as regards industrial applications what is actually more mentioned about a more recurrent and promising use is the production of biofuels that doesn’t affect food supply; like ethanol, hydrogen, other alcohols… Do you think that we really could use bacterium to this purpose? And from that, what application do you think that has more future to turn into a substitute of fossil fuel?
I don’t have an specific idea because this is not my experimentation area, though because of what I have read and stared at, I consider that is a promising area, but it is still in very early and incipient phases. We have to know that, currently, the replacement of fossil fuel by biofuel obtained thank to biotechnology, looking at the number of current production, which I estimate around less of a 10%, gives the feeling that is slim and insufficient. From the ethical point of view, what I surely consider important is to avoid that the use of food resources to biofuel production doesn’t lead to transform farms, deflecting food resources to inadequate commercial or energetic aims. It should be always kept balanced.
Speaking a little about environmental applications, it doesn’t stop being paradoxical to public eyes because there is a fear in the public opinion of a possible leak, a lack of control of the product of a group of irresponsible scientists that, as it is normally said, “playing God”. Do you think that this situation could occur?
I don’t think they’re playing God at all: they’re playing to be honest scientist who realize a practical work which can be useful to the humanity. Being God is something very different. On this side, I believe there are always inherent risks to the same technology in every advance. Then, the objective is to condition the experiments and the technological development to minimize the risks as far as possible, but it is never possible to rule out them, risks are inevitable. I consider that is positive science advances and not stops because of the unjustified fear to the negative consequences that it could have, but always regulating the advance under ethics.
If there was a leak or some of these risks came true, what consequences do you think that fact could carry?
I’m not an expert in these areas, but in my opinion, as a man in the street, I consider that to predict and think about the possible consequences it’s difficult. What we have to do it’s to try to provide the means to minimize the risks, but what I yes estimate important is that these risks, that always exist, don’t stop the development of a research that can have beneficial effects for a lot of people. I think that we have to take the risk, always counterbalancing it with its ethic assessment.
So the next question is now answered because it would be if the risks could overcome the current benefit.
I think there has to be always, from the ethical point of view, proportionality between risks and benefits. If the assumed risk is higher than the potential benefits, the practice or the experiment are unacceptable from the ethical point of view; however is the risk is minor that the potential benefit, the possibility should be studied, undoubtedly. This ethical principle goes with all human practices.
Nowadays, in any case, the socio-political impact of the applications can be very deep. There are analysts as Juan Enríquez or Jeremy Rifkin that consider that the present century will be the one that attends on the industries of biological sciences, an explosion comparable to previous Industrial Revolutions. Do you think it is like that?
I think in this century we will see really spectacular advances in the area, because the computer advances, all advances derived from molecular biology, the control of the development biology, the modification of cellular types or whole organisms will revolutionize our life in a lot of senses. In the medical area, specifically in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, I think there would be the major therapeutic advances of this century. It seems that indeed, it will have a similar impact to the one that the Industrial Revolution had; but these advances are really unpredictable. E. g., at present, there have been realizing assays of creating artificial hearts: it starts from a rat’s heart, we decellularize by perfusion of detergents and enzymes, leaving only a proteic scaffold that can be refilled with cells of the own patient, so they obtained heart is totally inmunocompatible with the patient, as well as being a heart of better quality than a donated heart. Nevertheless, there is the debate about that all these advances could be not accessible to all people and could result in social differences in function of the purchasing power of people. Synthetic biology can have similar effects, except that it possible to these advances not to arrive to all people, which could result in social differences in function of the capacity they have to access to these resources. By the same token, synthetic biology can have similar effects, but in this case the differences would be mainly between nations and not between individuals, increasing possible differences between nations, in so far as the new advances are or not affordable to some countries. Because of that we should guarantee that these technologies don’t increase the current differences.
Yes, the assistance shared to all the people in the world.
Or, that these advances developed in these areas are affordable to all people through a correct universal distributive social equity.
And, do you think society is prepared in the event of this revolution?
I consider society is prepared to receive all the advances presented, provided they are well presented, and society is informed so that they have a true and enough knowledge about these advances so, they could decide, with freedom, their acts. The information about advances is the key aspect. It has to be complete and acceptable for not experts. We could raise an analogy with a lot of the current economic problems derived by the unfair clauses of the contracts hide in the small print. Enough information should be given so after, so individuals, society and the groups which make up it could exercise their freedom with knowledge. A wide ability of transmission of knowledge is the key.
We notice there can be social controversies about synthetic biology that remind what happened at research with stem cells or GMO. There are very polarized opinions, from considering it as amorality until considering it since a transhumanist point of view which tell that these practices are essential to social development. What do you think about that?
As I have said before, information is the most important thing. For example, in relation to the subject about stem cells research, the judgment its use deserve will depend, for the major part, on the given information. For example, if we transmit that with embryonic stem cells we can cure illnesses, people will accept and assume it ethically; still if you transmit real data about the assays with stem cells and you tell them that there are only three realized with embrionary cells in contrast to more than three hundred realized with adult stem cells, maybe we can clarify them what is relevant or not on a level with research and what is ethical. At the end of all it is a responsibility of scientist who manage and develop the technology so people can decide. If, for example, it is said to people that they can cure damages in spinal cords with adult mother cells in a Rio de Janeiro clinic, people would spend their saving due to the research for something to cling and to have a hope. At industrial level it occurs at the same. It is necessary truthful information without ideological slants, only based on scientific reality to be able to balance and value risks and benefits.
Nowadays, the area of synthetic biology is developing, so we notice there could be a patentability of living creatures or products derived from them. ¿What do you think about giving patents of living being or product derived from them?
There’s a little time, a high legal body denied or considered negative the possibility to grant patents for experiments which require using embrionary human cells, because it means human beings destruction. In this sense, I consider all what benefit human beings and it’s not based on experiences which present ethic reprobation will be patentable. We shouldn’t be scare of science if it starts from appropriate ethic and by checked techniques.
And now, to finish, as regards scientific competitions as the one we are participating in, iGEM, what do you think about? Do you think they are a good way to interest students in these areas and students have more eagerness to continue and do more scientific advances on this area?
In my view stimulating young student with projects that can develop interest and research spirits, is fundamental. Certainly research is, in my opinion, the maxim expression of human intelligence and a great adventure to be able to go more deeply into our own nature. Working on researches that bring objectives and goods to society is something that, by itself, could be catalogued as very positive, what makes it as a fascinating fact. To open the ways by where youths can work on research, to facilitate their access to centers of technique level and to stimulate their research work, is magnificent. Whatever is to facilitate the splendid reality of researching is marvelous. I think there is no better option for an individual than working and investigate on the knowledge of different things that carry benefits for their fellows, that’s research, investigation. As I have repeated at some occasion on different forums, all the work developed on this area, as long as it confines itself to the truth, without tricks or manipulation, is fantastic. And if that is achieved by competitions as iGEM, I think it’s wonderful.