The potential benefits of HGP-write to India include providing new solutions to diseases like malaria, dengue and chikungunya.
The Human Genome Project (HGP) was a large, international and multi-institutional effort that took 13 years [1990-2003] and $2.7 billion to produce a blueprint of the sequence of genes and spaces between genes that make up a typical human genome. Fast forward to 2016 and another project, called the Human Genome Project–write (HGP-write), now underway to synthesise a human genome from scratch. The original HGP was a “read” in that it used chemicals and instruments to decipher the genome for the first time. The new project, its proponents say, is to write or build an artificial human genome with sophisticated bioengineering tools. Grand, intriguing and unnerving as it sounds, India must nevertheless try to participate in it.
The potential benefits of HGP-write to India include providing new solutions to diseases like malaria, dengue and chikungunya. The tools, techniques and technologies that are going to be developed through HGP-write will be universally applicable to all organisms, especially at an earlier stage for organisms with smaller genomes (for example, viruses), towards building individual genes and genomes efficiently and in an inexpensive manner.
Boosting health care
Malaria, dengue and chikungunya are all mosquito-borne diseases caused by protozoan parasites (malaria) or viruses (dengue and chikungunya). One of the strategies against combating these deadly diseases could be to introduce sterile mosquitoes into the environment, incapable of producing offspring after mating with their wild type mates and/or by building pathogen resistance in mosquitoes, both by genome engineering. Results from the initial experiments following field trials to release sterile mosquitoes have been very encouraging. Tools generated through HGP-write may aid this process by making synthetic vector genomes incapable of hosting the parasite and/or the virus. Another area where HGP-write can revolutionise health care is vaccine development. The traditional way to developing vaccines is time consuming and expensive. One can accelerate the process tremendously by producing viruses synthetically and then use those for vaccine development. This, in addition to saving lives, can add to our economy, where India is already an acknowledged world leader. Apart from providing tools to combating diseases, there are other benefits of participating in HGP-write. Big projects require large funding and it’s better for India to share the cost and risks (technical, scientific and financial) with other countries in executing such large projects. Additionally, projects like HGP-write will provide Indian scientists access to knowledge and expertise of a renowned group of global thought leaders.
There are concerns
While HGP-write will bring much hope to India, there are potential concerns that need thorough discussion and consultations with experts from various fields. They range from the ethical to the scientific. There are genuine fears among a section of the society that one day, humans will be able to play god by synthesising new genomes that may create new creatures, akin to zombies of apocalyptic sci-fi, with potential for misuse. For example, sterile, genetically-rewritten mosquitoes could create imbalances in ecological niches and wipe out entire populations of insects. Then there are the unintended side- effects of releasing modified mosquitoes into the wild, who which could transfer their genes to non-target species. Designing tighter and high containment-level field trials are is essential to control this. The correct answer may not be to eliminate the mosquito population but to make the mosquito either harmless or an unviable host for deadly pathogens. There are other prosaic but nevertheless complex concerns about synthetic genes and genomes in the area of intellectual property rights. As per sections 3(c) and 3(j) of the Indian Patents Act, 1970, “the mere discovery of a scientific principle or the formulation of an abstract theory or discovery of any living thing or non-living substance occurring in nature” and “plants and animals in whole or any part thereof other than microorganism” are not patentable. But, what about a gene or genome that has been stitched together synthetically and which does not occur in nature?
No matter what the concerns are — and all those listed are valid — the answer is not to shy away from participating in science-led activities but to do it correctly from the beginning within a transparent policy framework.
India did not participate in HGP-read but a large number of scientific discoveries that originated in India in the last decade owe their success to the availability of a reference human genome sequence. India has reached a stage in world science where the consequences of not participating in such international efforts may bring more harm than good in the long run. As government programmes like universal Internet connectivity reach our nation’s hinterland, India’s technologically-savvy youth are waiting to harness the benefits of human genome to innovate and contribute to our economy. HGP-write will add to this.
Binay Panda is at Ganit Labs, Bengaluru.