Artificial DNA breakthrough could lead to new drugs, treatments

In what is being called a major scientific breakthrough, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute say they created the first microbes containing artificial DNA. It could not only alter the basic genetic code, the fundamental building blocks of life, but also lead to new drugs and treatments.

"Throughout history, there have been four building blocks in DNA in every organism on earth," CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus said. "... And for the first time, they made two new letters - so four letters to six letters to actually make DNA."

He said this changes "everything that's possible."

"There are 20 amino acids in nature made up by these letters," said Agus. "Now we can go to potentially 150 or 170, so the potentials are limitless. Science is at a new point where things are going to take off."

The development could also aid the treatment of diseases.

"For example, several years ago, it cost $10,000 to make malaria treatment for a year," said Agus. "Well, if you engineer bacteria that have the enzymes to make that drug, it now costs $10, and so when we now have these new codes, we could start to make lots of new drugs, vaccines, and it really opens a new window for how we treat disease, diagnose disease and eventually prevent disease."

There are ethical risks to consider, however.

"In 1953, when the double helix of DNA came out, everybody was afraid that we would misuse DNA," Agus said. "Well, then came insulin, and we made insulin from DNA, and we actually radically improved human life. The hope is the same happens here. But with the 'God particle' happening early last year, this is the 'God complex,' and I'm certainly worried that we need to establish boundaries."

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