SYBHEL = Synthetic Biology for Human Health Ethical and Legal Issues


Throughout the recent history of scientific research and biomedicine, there has been criticism that ethical analyses have lagged behind the pace of research. The opportunity to address a new technology like SynBio from an ethical perspective early in its development is transient and should not be missed. Indeed, the European Commission has recognised that:

“It is… important to address ethical and safety concerns, and to address potential or perceived risks of synthetic biology from the very beginning, so that future development work can be done in conditions of public trust.”

Synthetic Biology (SynBio) researchers have been interested in the ethical aspects of their discipline since the outset. Discussions on ethical, safety and regulatory aspects of SynBio have been included in the programmes of the first four SynBio global conferences. The field is also attracting attention from policy-makers. Yet there is now a need for further sustained ethical and regulatory analysis, particularly beyond the general principles and application of SynBio. Little work has yet been undertaken to address any of the specific anticipated outcomes of SynBio.

The challenge of global health and well-being is a significant issue for Europe and beyond as we progress through the twenty-first century. Increasing migration and cross-cultural considerations will introduce new challenges for the optimisation of population health. There are myriad existing issues, not least ensuring the fair allocation of health resources.

The domain of health care is one area where SynBio shows great promise. The technologies of SynBio could be used in areas such as drug development, drug targeting, virus synthesis, synthetic stem cells, vaccine development and creating live therapeutic agents. To date, no work has considered the ethical, legal or social issues that will arise in the application of SynBio for human health. The SYBHEL project will address this gap, whilst taking into account the current scientific state-of- the art of SynBio and the more generalised ethical debates already in progress.

SYBHEL will commence from a starting point of good integration with the current scientific state-of- the-art for SynBio (particularly through direct engagement with researchers working in the field) and will then progress to offer the first sustained analysis of the issues in SynBio as they apply to human health and well-being. The project consortium will constantly liaise with scientists to ensure that all work undertaken is in keeping with the latest advances in this rapidly developing field. Existing debates in SynBio and bioethics more generally will also be accounted for by including these as cross-cutting themes in the project.

The SYBHEL consortium is comprised of five partners from across Europe and involves ethicists, philosophers, lawyers, scientists and policy experts. The consortium will also be advised by an Expert Advisory Group with a global membership, including key players in the science and ethics of SynBio. The three-year SYBHEL project will proceed by way of eight work packages that together will lead towards a set of policy recommendations for the use of SynBio in human health and well-being. Throughout the project, the SYBHEL project team will work closely with scientists, policy-makers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the lay public to ensure that project work and dissemination activities are targeted to all stakeholders.

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