Last October, the U.S. government suspended funding for a type of scientific research on avian flu known as “gain-of-function” studies. This kind of research involves creating more contagious forms of highly pathogenic avian flu in the laboratory to learn what genetic changes are required for a flu strain to cause a pandemic. The funding moratorium on such “gain-of-function” studies coincides with a formal “deliberative process,” including a risk-benefit assessment. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that Washington has paused an ongoing program to debate the wisdom of engaging in such research.
The main question is whether the scientific knowledge provided by making flu strains more contagious outweighs the risk of a lab accident or deliberate misuse that could lead to an outbreak of these enhanced viruses. Assessing the risks and benefits is not easy, and scientists and public health experts are sharply divided. In this case, we have argued that the foreseeable benefits are small and that the risks cannot be justified when there are many safer, alternative ways to prepare for pandemics; others vehemently disagree.
Yet such questions are going to arise again and again thanks to technological breakthroughs in genetic engineering. The government’s response to the “gain-of-function” experiments is therefore even more significant. The flu controversy represents an opportunity for the government and the scientific community to establish an effective precedent on an issue that is only going to get more controversial and complicated.
RISKS AND BENEFITS
Scientists' ability to manipulate the genomes of living organisms is expanding at an impressive rate. An important recent development is the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, a system of editing genes in any living organism that is cheap, efficient, and easy to use. It offers the prospect of curing human genetic diseases, making mosquitoes resistant to carrying malaria, and developing hardier crops, among other applications.
The potential benefits are enormous. For some applications, so too are the potential risks. In human genetics, some of the greatest concerns are ethical, arising inducing mammalian gene rearrangements using this technology, packaged in a virus, raise other concerns. A respiratory transmissible agent engineered to produce lung cancer, designed as a means for evaluating new treatments, could be a weapon in the wrong hands. Another application that allows the deliberate spread of particular genetic material in plant and animal populations, CRISPR-based “gene drives,” could lead to the accidental spread of unwanted traits, or could be misused by malevolent actors to harm crops and livestock.
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