The Danger of Dual Use Research

By Medical Discovery News

June 9, 2012

Dual use research is a worldwide concern

While intently working to solve the mysteries of the universe, scientists need to consider whether their work is a security risk. The question is especially relevant in life science research where new developments can improve human health but could also be misused for bioterrorism.

This type of research is called dual use, meaning that while it enhances current knowledge, it could also be misapplied to create a threat to public health, agriculture, or the environment.

In some cases, scientists don’t anticipate the negative impact of their research until it’s pointed out. In 2001, Australian scientists searching for ways to solve a rodent problem created a solution that was so threatening, it raised the dual use issue.

The researchers’ challenge was to control rodent populations that swell in years of a good grain harvest, potentially spreading infectious diseases and damaging crops. They decided to use a non-lethal mouse virus called mousepox, engineered to carry a gene that will produce a mouse egg protein. Once the virus infects a mouse and produces the egg protein, the mouse’s immune system would produce antibodies attacking the virus and all egg proteins, including its own, which would make female mice sterile.

The problem was a mouse’s immune system recognized the virus-encoded egg protein as its own and did not produce a strong immune response. To overcome this, researchers added another protein – interleukin-4 (IL-4). This protein excites the immune system and boosts the level of antibodies. Instead, the IL-4 gene made the normally benign mousepox virus incredibly lethal. Even mice vaccinated against the mousepox virus died from the infection.

When the Australian researchers published their study, other scientists recognized the potential danger of this information being made public. It could serve as a “blueprint” for a devastating biological weapon. They worried that this same approach could be used with a human pathogen, the lethal smallpox virus.

The debate that followed questioned whether the Australian scientists should have published their results. Today, a federal advisory committee, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, monitors and guides scientists on dual use research. It provides guidelines to help scientists identify studies that could endanger public safety.

But sometimes the parameters are not so clear. The latest controversy involves Dutch and American scientists who created an avian influenza virus (H5N1) with the potential for efficient human-to-human transmission. The natural virus doesn’t have this capability yet. Those who want the study published argue that sharing this knowledge will speed the development of a vaccine once H5N1 begins its pandemic spread. But opponents believe it’s a security threat.

The federal advisory board reviewed the paper and initially found it was dual use. On first review, the board recommended the study be released with the sensitive parts left out. Yet recently it reversed its decision and allowed the full paper to be published. The debate over this issue rages on, and scientists suggest the creation of clearer guidelines based on international consensus.

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