Synthetic biology, ethics and antibiotics

Who shapes public opinion of science? How do people make trade-offs between risks and benefits of technology that could both help and harm? Mirko Ancillotti is moving from media portrayal of synthetic biology to antibiotic resistance and the ethical aspects of using a new kind of peptide-based antibiotics.

Meet a PhD Student: Mirko AncillottiAccording to Mirko Ancillotti, synthetic biology is a field that uses a very specific terminology that is interesting from a philosophical point of view, like ‘creating’ or ‘modifying’ life. This type of language is used by scientists and entrepreneurs in press-releases and interviews.

Mirko Ancillotti is originally from Italy and has a master degree in Philosophy. He started an intership at CRB that turned into a two year project on media portrayal of synthetic biology. He decided to study how Nordic and Italian media portray this field, assuming that media is often the first source of knowledge for the public. His results show that the media and the public talk about these issues in different ways.

Public opinion is more critical than mainstream media. The field is small and the coverage limited. There are perhaps 10 pieces written about synthetic biology every year in Swedish newspapers and the articles are written by the same two or three journalists.  Even if the numbers of journalists that cover the topic vary between countries, they more or less report the same. Their sources are a few prolific scientists, often Craig Venter who works on synthetic genomics.

“What surprised me was to see that the media coverage used the exact same words, framed in the exact same way. I was also surprised to see that the media image is shaped by such a small number of people”, says Mirko Ancillotti.

Mirko Ancillotti says there are a few things to be observant about here: Since mainstream media receive their image of synthetic biology from a small group of scientists, it is obvious that the terminology they use is not neutral. It is not just a matter of the choice of words, it is a matter of perspective. His studies show that mainstream media almost never question the way synthetic biology is framed. For example, the impact on the environment tends to be presented in positive terms only. And the same goes for other potential fields of application. According to Mirko Ancillotti, we should be weary of allowing scientists to manipulate public opinion and says journalists have an important role to play.

As the project came to an end, Mirko Ancillotti had an opportunity to continue with a PhD and in February 2016 he started working on ethical and public health considerations of antibiotic resistance. The project will use discrete choice experiments, a method that uses both qualitative and quantitative approaches to capture people’s preferences and trade-offs between risks and benefits. He will also use his philosophical training to look at the moral and ethical dimensions involved in the management of antibiotics resistance. Studies show that the Swedish public is very much aware of the problems and consequences of overuse. This makes Sweden an ideal place to develop a discourse on these issues that involves the public.

Meet a PhD Student: Mirko Ancillotti

The PhD project is the result of collaboration between CRB and the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Microbiology at Uppsala University. The initiative came from a group around Professor Dan Andersson who wanted an early assessment of the ethical issues of introducing peptide based antibiotics, something that Mirko Ancillotti hopes he will be able to provide.

Peptide based antibiotics have been compared to chemotherapy or radiation therapy. A means to an end, but not something we should use if we don’t need it. In principle, these antibiotics do not increase bacterial resistance much, but they should still be used with caution. They will kill bacteria, but also interfere with the body’s immune system, leaving the person who takes the antibiotics more vulnerable. Using discrete choice experiments in this context will make it possible to, among other things, find out how people make trade-offs between different types of risk.

“Peptide based antibiotics create an interesting ethical dilemma. When we use regular antibiotics, we put ourselves and the people around us at risk by contributing to increased resistance, while the  peptide based antibiotics first and foremost put ourselves at risk”, says Mirko Ancillotti.

About Mirko Ancillotti

Mirko Ancillotti joined CRB in September 2013 and started his PhD in February 2016. In 2014-2015 he worked on a research project on public understanding and media portrayal of synthetic biology.

Mirko Ancillotti holds a degree of Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Pisa in 2012. His Master thesis regarded John Harris’ influence on contemporary bioethical debate on cloning and enhancement.

Mirko Ancillotti is also a frequent guest on the Ethics Blog. Read his latest post on the distance between media representations and public perceptions of synthetic biology here.

Josepine Fernow, 24 May 2016

Mirko Ancillotti is also assistant editor of the CODEX website with rules and guidelines for research.