The president's top science advisers are warning that new gene-editing technology could be turned into a biological weapon by transforming a common virus into an unstoppable drug-resistant killer. They recommend that the nation's public health system get a bigger slice of the U.S. budget to prepare.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology recommended that Congress create a $2 billion emergency preparedness fund for to be able to respond to any scenario of a biological weapon by boosting the ability to do research and produce vaccines more quickly. This funding could also to gain ground against emerging natural threats like Zika or Ebola, for example. The panel also wants better coordination between existing federal agencies to quickly identify a biological attack.
Gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR/Cas-9, act like a very accurate set of scissors that snip bits of genetic material and reshuffle the gene so that it can produce a new protein. The promise of CRISPR is to one day be able to eliminate the malfunctioning genes that cause inherited diseases and conditions, such as Huntington's, Down's syndrome or Parkinson's, for example.
Some U.S. biotech companies have already started clinical trials using CRISPR to treat a retinal disease, while a Chinese team reported last week that it has begun using CRISPR/Cas-9 in human patients to treat a form of lung cancer.
While interest in CRISPR/Cas-9 has exploded since its discovery in 2012, the president's science advisers also looked at possible risks of a terror group or rogue state using CRISPR/Cas-9 as a weapon. In that scenario, a scientist working for this group could take a normal virus or other infectious agent, edit some genes, and turn it into a killer disease for which we have no vaccine or other treatments.
"Some of those variations are also pretty straightforward modifications that could occur naturally that could be hastened along in the lab," said David Relman, professor of medicine and microbiology at Stanford University and a member of the president's science advisers group. "If you just take a naturally organisms that we are most worried about anyway and remove one of our tools for treating and preventing, rendering the organisms impervious to our current vaccine or best drug, that's the most straightforward example."
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Relman says CRISPR/Cas-9 has made genetic manipulation cheaper, faster and easier than any existing recombinant DNA technologies. While there's never been a terrorist group or enemy nation use DNA technology as a weapon, it doesn't mean that the United States shouldn't consider it, he added.
"We all felt that the absence of an overt obvious deliberate attack was no reassurance that we might not have to confront the possibility in the future," Relman said.
On of the most powerful things about CRISPR/Cas-9 is how easy it is to use. Ellen Jorgensen teaches a CRISPR class for beginning biology students at GENSPACE, a community biology lab in Brooklyn, N.Y. She gets young scientists and medical students, as well as amateur DIY biologists. Part of the curriculum is talking with students about the ethical issues behind the powerful new tool.
"There are plenty of black hat scenarios with CRISPR, from potential eco-terrorism to inserting it into a virus," Jorgensen said. "The devil is always in the delivery. CRISPR is no different. It has to penetrate the cell and get inside. It's always the hardest part of any gene delivery system."
Jorgensen said many people can use CRISPR, but any potential misuse would require some tinkering. To work as a weapon, any new engineered infectious agents would have to get past the human immune system, which tends to adapt to new organisms over time, as well as find a way to infect other people.
"It's always going to be easier to use a off-the-shelf package or make a bomb out of a pressure cooker than make a biological bomb," Jorgensen said. "CRISPR has the potential to be order of magnitude easier than the methods that we used before to deliver specific gene edits."
Since the gene-editing technology is already wide use, the presidential panel didn't recommend any restrictions on who can use it. But it did say that the White House and decision-makers in Washington need to pay attention.
"We have to have a good working relationship between the biologists who developed these (gene-editing) technologies and those in government who are trying to understand what is possible," said Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton University who heads the presidential council. "I don't think this problem is soluble by some way damning technologies or restricting publications."
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