Multi-cellular engineered living systems: building a community around responsible research on emergence

Biofabrication 11 (4) (2019)

Abstract

Ranging from miniaturized biological robots to organoids, multi-cellular engineered living systems (M-CELS) pose complex ethical and societal challenges. Some of these challenges, such as how to best distribute risks and benefits, are likely to arise in the development of any new technology. Other challenges arise specifically because of the particular characteristics of M-CELS. For example, as an engineered living system becomes increasingly complex, it may provoke societal debate about its moral considerability, perhaps necessitating protection from harm or recognition of positive moral and legal rights, particularly if derived from cells of human origin. The use of emergence-based principles in M-CELS development may also create unique challenges, making the technology difficult to fully control or predict in the laboratory as well as in applied medical or environmental settings. In response to these challenges, we argue that the M-CELS community has an obligation to systematically address the ethical and societal aspects of research and to seek input from and accountability to a broad range of stakeholders and publics. As a newly developing field, M-CELS has a significant opportunity to integrate ethically responsible norms and standards into its research and development practices from the start. With the aim of seizing this opportunity, we identify two general kinds of salient ethical issues arising from M-CELS research, and then present a set of commitments to and strategies for addressing these issues. If adopted, these commitments and strategies would help define M-CELS as not only an innovative field, but also as a model for responsible research and engineering.

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Author Profiles

Marion Boulicault
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Matthew Sample
Leibniz Universität Hannover
Insoo Hyun
Case Western Reserve University

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