Saturday, February 19, 2011

Rethinking Bioterrorism (or Revenge of the 8th Year PhD Student)

This opinion piece from PLoS, beyond containing a ranked list of techniques and ideas for bioterrorism, notes the interesting dualism between biosafety/national security and the necessity to study its potential causative agents. Research done on the most likely agents for bioterrorism has been limited to 3-4  fairly isolated institutions in the US, mainly in an attempt to hamper any link between life science research and bioterrorism. The most advanced techniques used 20 years ago are now routine; synthetic biology alone has opened a number of previously unheard of avenues. With the advent of  chemically synthesizing the poliovirus and the ΦX174 bacteriophage, various investigators have also demonstrated the importance of a variola virus gene necessary for its virulence, and the reconstitution of  the 1918 influenza virus . These have been classified  by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity as dual use research of concern (DURC),“research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others.” As a result, the freedom of research has been stymied due to imposed biosecurity regulations .

Suk et al. cite the European Union's ranked threat assessment of DURC activities, noting which activities would be most easily exploited by bioterrorists. Interestingly, the most low technique/expertise(e.g. distribution of biological contaminants into food sources) are ranked most highly whereas the most complex/expertise driven activities are lowly ranked (generating a novel pathogen or genetic modification to increase environmental stability of a pathogen). They go on to discuss the importance and continued risk of these low-ranked risks.

- Vy Tran

Suk JE, Zmorzynska A, Hunger I, Biederbick W, Sasse J, et al. (2011) Dual-Use Research and Technological Diffusion: Reconsidering the Bioterrorism Threat Spectrum. PLoS Pathog 7(1): e1001253. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001253

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