Dr. J.P. Heale

From 2011.igem.org

Team: British Columbia - 2011.igem.org

Interview with Dr. JP Heale

Dr. J.P. Heale is Associate Director of the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) at The University of British Columbia. (Dr. J.P. Heale's Contact Information )

As Scientists, be open and provide clarification when needed.

J.P. Heale is Associate Director of the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) at The University of British Columbia. He oversees operations associated with affiliated and external partners of the University, work which ranges from sponsored research and clinical trials to technology transfer. UBC consistently ranks among the top ten North American universities for its patenting and commercialization activities. UBC currently has over 250 licenses with companies around the world and has actively supported the creation of 130 spin-off companies.

J.P. graduated from UBC in 1997 with a doctorate from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and subsequently worked as a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Research Associate. JP received an MBA from Simon Fraser University in 2001.

1. Do you think synthetic organisms should be released into the wild?

Scientists can’t say definitively if the release of a synthetic organism would be harmful or not because the lab conditions that the organism was developed and observed in is quite different than the wild. There remains the possibility that the synthetic yeast could become a pathogen for some form of life in the wild, potentially disrupting a complex ecological system. There are many positive aspects in controlling the pine beetle infestation, but one must consider the potential risk of releasing large amounts of a synthetic yeast into the wild.

2. What standards would you recommend for their release?

To my knowledge no one has been given permission to release a modified organism such as this into the wild. If effective, then the yeast would need to be dispersed over a huge number of hectares of forest in order to control the pine beetle. The big question is how you would control the yeast if something went badly? A regulatory agency would want to know the answer to that question. Can the lifespan of the yeast be controlled? For example, some plants are engineered to be sterile so they can’t propagate. Some bacteria can be modified to have suicide genes that can be triggered through a variety of mechanisms. I believe that trans-kingdom conjugation is not very likely. Transfer of genetic material to other yeast or fungi could potentially happen.

3. What challenges are there in terms of attaining public acceptance?

Education of the public is paramount. Fear of the unknown can be a common response new and different technology. Being transparent and outlining the pros and cons eliminates the unknowns. For example genetically modified foods can provide significant advantages to society and current scientific testing indicates that they are safe, yet fear of potential unknown harms prevents a large percentage of the population from adopting their use. Education is the best means of addressing these issues.

4. What future directions do you see for synthetic biology?

Already in health care, there are cell based therapies that use genetically modified cells to treat cancers. The area of cell based therapies will see significant growth in the coming years. Synthetic biology has great potential in agriculture. The cutting edge approach developed by iGEM could be used to develop other organisms for pest control in crops.

5. Do you think we should be rewriting the code of life?

If we are talking about scientific research and trying to solve a compelling problem by modifying yeast and bacteria, then ethically there shouldn’t be any issues provided that they are controlled, safe, and reviewed. Taken to the extreme of genetically modifying humans there are obvious ethical issue that would require significant debate. At all research universities, the manufacture and use of genetically modified of animals is prevalent since they are used as models for disease that enable drug discovery for treatments.