16 April 2003
Need to monitor and regulate scientific research
THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
16 April 2003
Dear friends and colleagues,
RE: NEED TO MONITOR AND REGULATE SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH
In an experiment that involved one single genetic change, a team of scientists in the Netherlands successfully created a new type of coronavirus. In an article in Nature dated 2 April 2003, it was reported that the scientists transformed a coronavirus that is lethal to cats into one that infects mouse cells by replacing a single gene from a mouse coronavirus.
The result strengthens the idea that the SARS coronavirus might have arisen when an animal and human virus met and swapped genes, says the study's lead scientist, Peter Rottier of Utrecht University in the ," he adds.
The study shows that "viruses can easily switch their host range by switching genes", according to scientist Michael Lai of the University of Southern California. He adds that coronaviruses are unusual in that they can reshuffle genes easily.
The reference for the study is: Haijema, B.J., Volders, H. & Rottier, P.J.M. Switching species tropism: an effective way to manipulate the feline coronavirus genome. Journal of Virology, 77, 4528 - 4538, (2003).
This raises once again the concern that research, in particular genetic engineering research conducted by scientists could create lethal viruses, deliberately or accidentally. (In 2001, Australian scientists reported that they accidentally created a killer version of a mousepox virus while experimenting on the virus that killed all the mice involved raising concern that a similar experiment on human viruses might create new lethal viruses with devastating consequences). It is thus more than urgent now to put in place rigorous monitoring of such potentially dangerous research.
We have attached below two articles that raises these questions for your consideration.
With best wishes,
Lim Li Lin and Chee Yoke Heong
Third World Network
121-S Jalan Utama
Deadly virus effortlessly hops species
Genetic engineering helps reveal origin of deadly 'flu
2 April 2003
HELEN PEARSON, Nature
A single genetic change could have created the deadly virus that has killed over 50 people and infected more than 1,600, a new study suggests.
A new type of coronavirus is thought to be behind the pneumonia-like disease dubbed severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Now, in a simple overnight experiment, researchers transformed a coronavirus that is lethal to cats into one that infects mouse cells by replacing a single gene1.
The result strengthens the idea that the SARS coronavirus might have arisen when an animal and human virus met and swapped genes, says the study's lead scientist, Peter Rottier of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "It's a very plausible explanation," he adds.
Rottier's team created the new coronavirus by injecting cat cells with feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV), a common pathogen that kills around 5% of cats. The researchers added a gene fragment from a mouse coronavirus; this makes a coat protein that recognizes and helps to penetrate mouse cells.
After several hours, some particles of the cat virus had exchanged their coat gene for the mouse one - and could then infect mouse cells. This is analogous to what might happen if the two viruses simultaneously infected the same cell.
Coronaviruses are unusual in their ability to reshuffle genes easily in this way, explains Michael Lai of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who works on them. The study shows that the viruses "can easily switch their host range by switching genes", he says.
The SARS virus might also have arisen when an existing animal or human coronavirus mutated into a more deadly form, says Lai. Which of these explanations is true will become clear when the full genetic sequence of the virus is pieced together, possibly this week.
Rottier's team is already producing live vaccines against coronaviruses, using the same technique. They screened the strains of FIPV that infect mice for those that had become innocuous in the genetic reshuffle. Vaccination with one of these strains protects cats from the original, lethal FIPV, they found.
In theory, bioterrorists could abuse this genetic transformation procedure to turn an animal coronavirus into a dangerous human pathogen such as that responsible for SARS. But this and other similar virus-altering techniques are not new, say experts. For example, in 2000, the team used the same method to engineer a mouse coronavirus that infects cats.
"The only way we'll ever understand these natural outbreaks is by first-rate science and getting it published," says Lynn Enquist, editor of the Journal of Virology, where the latest work was published.
1. Haijema, B.J., Volders, H. & Rottier, P.J.M. Switching species tropism: an effective way to manipulate the feline coronavirus genome. Journal of Virology, 77, 4528 - 4538, (2003).
April 8, 2003
Science police needed?
Security specialist proposes international regulation of potentially dangerous research
By Peg Brickley
John Steinbruner is accustomed to getting a strong negative reaction from scientists when he pitches his proposal for mandatory international oversight of inherently dangerous areas of biomedical research. The University of Maryland (UM) arms control expert is calling for an international body of scientists and public representatives who would authorize scientific research that carries potential for grave social consequences.
It's an idea he has taken to meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Medical Association in recent months, and put forth again in London last Friday at a bioterrorism meeting sponsored by the Royal Society of Medicine and the New York Academy of Medicine.
The plan for a global authorizing body to decide in advance what scientists should be allowed to investigate is not an easy sell in a community where even voluntary self-regulation of potentially dangerous research results draws fire, and open publication is a core value.
"I have had experiences where people start climbing the walls," Steinbruner said. But response seemed more muted Friday. "There was no outrage," the former Brookings Institution foreign affairs director said.
He takes that as a hopeful sign that the controversial proposal is gaining some acceptance. Steinbruner describes his idea as "just an extension of the normal peer review process" that precedes publication in major science journals.
But the oversight system he envisions would be mandatory and it would operate before potentially dangerous life sciences experiments are conducted. Even if the line of inquiry wins approval, access to results could be limited to those whose motives had passed muster under the proposed framework he has developed as director of the UM Center for International and Security Studies.
It has problems, he admits, including the fact that a blurring of lines in life sciences means the answers for one field often grow out of questions in another.
How would research findings of unexpected significance fare in the global oversight system?
"We admit there all kinds of surprises to arise, but the basic idea is that you develop standards for lines of research that are obviously highly consequential and when others prove to be so, you try to catch up," Steinbruner said.
Requiring scientists, institutions and even experiments to be licensed "would have a devastating chilling impact on biomedical research," said American Society for Microbiology president Ronald M. Atlas. He sees the answer in self-regulation, which is already in line with ethical requirements to prevent the destructive uses of biology.
The ASM orchestrated and supports a February 15 statement by a group of major life sciences editors and authors, acknowledging the need to block publication of research results that could be helpful to terrorists.
Critics say even the self-censorship espoused by the Journal Editors and Authors Group is an impediment to the rapid progress of science, which is the best way to defuse the lethal potential of some biological research. But Steinbruner fears the self-regulation does not go far enough to head off terrorists.
"That's a start, but it is completely voluntary and it only applies to work which results in published papers," he said. "We're trying to get the community thinking in advance of the work of the need to explicitly justify it when you have a combination of factors that have a potential for danger."
Both Steinbruner and Atlas agree, however, that any effort to keep good science out of the hands of ill-intentioned people must be international to be effective. And both point to existing efforts to push a treaty making bioterrorism an international crime, one long espoused by Harvard University microbiologist Mathew Meselson and chemist Julian Robinson of the University of Sussex.
"What John (Steinbruner) wants to do is to set up a very large arrangement that would check up on research being done and on pathogens being used and shipped," Meselson said. "That is an enormous undertaking, even in the United States, not to mention globally."
Links for this article "Bioterrorism: the current threat," The Royal Society of Medicine, April 4, 2003
J. Steinbrunner et al., "Controlling Dangerous Pathogens: A Prototype Protective Oversight System," February 5, 2003. (PDF)
Center for International and Security Studies
P. Park, "New standards for publication of sensitive research," The Scientist, February 17, 2003
The Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Warfare Armament and Arms Limitation http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/hsp/research.htm