Engineering biology is not new, some would say it is synthetic biology rebranded. But whether you agree with this, or not, there is no denying that the current interest in engineering biology is palpable. And that a clear driver for this is the belief that the field can generate commercially viable outputs that will help to grow our economy.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB) has been working to keep abreast of developments in engineering biology – keen to assess whether its advances raise new ethical questions, outpace current regulatory frameworks or are at risk of jarring with public values. Our two current projects focusing on human embryo models and neural organoids fit squarely into the engineering biology agenda, and we look forward to publishing insights on these in due course.

However, aware that engineering biology is a particularly broad field, we recently hosted a horizon scanning workshop where we invited a select group of scientists, regulators and policymakers to discuss where we are today, and where we could be heading. Our aim was to surface emerging ethical implications that could threaten to derail our journey towards a desirable future. By having multiple viewpoints in the room, we were able to facilitate particularly crunchy conversations that have highlighted some shared desires across the groups. I am keen to speak to two of these as I believe the NCOB could offer a unique contribution.

The first, relates to a need to build and maintain public trust in science. The fact that there are clear commercial drivers for engineering biology is something that made many of our workshop attendees nervous. Some expressed a view that current funding frameworks are prioritising potential profit over public good and that in doing so, they threaten to undermine public trust in the field.

Choosing whether to fund something or not is an ethical decision. We know through speaking to teams across the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), UKRI and the MRC that they use public good and desirability as their north star. Indeed, our work on genome editing in farmed animals and mitochondrial donation treatment are frequently given as examples of where ethical public deliberation has strengthened governance and helped to ensure that policy is cognisant of public values.

There is a clear want to do more of this type of public deliberation across engineering biology. I believe that it is only through ethical contemplation that we will be able to unearth and explore the topics where this type of engagement will be most fruitful, balancing public values and the public purse.

The second desire that emerged from our workshop attendees was a want for proportionate and agile regulation across the field of engineering biology. The two main examples given in these conversations were the two that we are currently assessing, neural and embryonic organoids. Both of these currently reside outside of existing regulatory frameworks. In the short-term, this is leading to nervousness in the scientific community as there is a perceived risk that they’ll be seen to do the wrong thing with these entities, and that this will engender public backlash. In the longer-term, there is a concern that the possibility of a knee-jerk regulatory response will, result in a restrictive framework that could threaten the field’s progression and the UK’s ability to attract international collaborations. The ask here was for regulation to become focused on specific applications instead of broader methods and techniques, and for there to be a way for it to be tested and adjusted quickly.

The NCOB often assesses regulatory frameworks, providing recommendations on what could change (or remain) to ensure scientific advancements occur ethically. Currently, we are scoping a project that would see us working with regulators, innovators and scientists to design an ‘ethically sensitive’ regulatory sandbox. This would enable fast-paced developments, such as those emerging within engineering biology, to be explored and tested in a safe environment. This project is well aligned to the interests of DSIT who earlier this year announced an engineering biology sandbox fund of £5 million. I look forward to providing updates on this and invite anyone interested to get in touch with my Associate Director of External Relations and Foresight, Dr Jay Stone, who is leading on this work.

Our workshop made it very clear that engineering biology is an area of research ripe for expansion, but that it is feeling the pressure of translating its ideas to profit. The NCOB is ready and willing to support those needing to navigate the inevitable trade-offs looming on the horizon. We believe that it is only by embedding ethics into the decisions being made that we can ensure society benefits.

Comments (1)

  • Khurshid Ahmad   

    Thanks Danielle. I am afraid I am not sure what engineering biology means. In engineering we have engineering mathematics which encompasses methods of mathematics of interest to engineers. Is engineering biology is a branch of engineering that looks at biology to draw inspiration (c. engineering mathematics)

    • Nuffield Council on Bioethics   

      Hi Khurshid, thank you for getting in touch. The UK Government defines engineering biology as the design, scaling and commercialisation of biology-derived products and services that can transform sectors or produce existing products more sustainably. You can read more about this in the National vision for engineering biology, which was published by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in late 2023.

      NCOB Team

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