Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 33–52 | Cite as

Synthetic Biology and the Translational Imperative

  • Raheleh Heidari Feidt
  • Marcello Ienca
  • Bernice Simone Elger
  • Marc FolcherEmail author
Review Paper


Advances at the interface between the biological sciences and engineering are giving rise to emerging research fields such as synthetic biology. Harnessing the potential of synthetic biology requires timely and adequate translation into clinical practice. However, the translational research enterprise is currently facing fundamental obstacles that slow down the transition of scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the patient bedside. These obstacles including scarce financial resources and deficiency of organizational and logistic settings are widely discussed as primary impediments to translational research. In addition, a number of socio-ethical considerations inherent in translational research need to be addressed. As the translational capacity of synthetic biology is tightly linked to its social acceptance and ethical approval, ethical limitations may—together with financial and organizational problems—be co-determinants of suboptimal translation. Therefore, an early assessment of such limitations will contribute to proactively favor successful translation and prevent the promising potential of synthetic biology from remaining under-expressed. Through the discussion of two case-specific inventions in synthetic biology and their associated ethical implications, we illustrate the socio-ethical challenges ahead in the process of implementing synthetic biology into clinical practice. Since reducing the translational lag is essential for delivering the benefits of basic biomedical research to society at large and promoting global health, we advocate a moral obligation to accelerating translational research: the “translational imperative.”


Synthetic biology Translational research First-in-human trials Translational imperative 


Compliance with Ethical Standards


This work was supported by grant No. 137194 of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Biomedical EthicsUniversität BaselBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Health Ethics & Policy Lab, Department of Health Sciences and Technology (D-HEST)ETH ZürichZurichSwitzerland
  3. 3.Center for Legal MedicineUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  4. 4.Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE)ETH ZürichBaselSwitzerland

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