• EpidemicsWorking to halt outbreaks in 60 days or less

    The increasing threat of infectious diseases is intensifying the need for breakthrough technologies and capabilities to protect first responders and equip them with therapeutics that can halt the impact of infectious agents. Current approaches for recent public health emergencies due to infectious diseases have not produced effective preventive or therapeutic solutions in a relevant timescale. Examples from recent outbreaks such as H3N2 (flu), Ebola, and Zika viruses highlight the significant lag in deployment and efficacy of life-saving solutions. To address the growing threat from infectious diseases as well as to properly equip DoD Service members who regularly deploy worldwide to provide assistance in all manner of high-risk environments, DARPA launched the Pandemic Prevention Platform program (P3). DARPA notes that quickly produced nucleic-acid-based technologies may hold key to body creating protective antibodies.

  • Designer pathogensHorsepox synthesis, dual-use research, and scientific research’s “action bias”

    Julius Caesar is said to have stated “alea iacta est” (the die is cast) as he led his army across the Rubicon river, triggering a point of no return in Roman history. In many ways, the horsepox synthesis, published by two Canadian scientists last month, is considered a new Rubicon for synthetic biology and the life sciences. Experts say that now that we’ve ventured across the river, it seems that we may be learning more about dual-use research in general. One expert notes that “Beyond the immediate issue of whether the horsepox work should have been performed (or published), the horsepox synthesis story highlights a more general challenge facing dual-use research in biotechnology: the unilateralist’s curse.” Research unilateralism contains an “action bias”: Horsepox synthesis is more likely to occur when scientists act independently than when they agree to a decision as a group.

  • Designer pathogensPreventing intentional or accidental creation of synthetic biological threats

    Battelle has been awarded a contract by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to develop threat assessment software to help prevent the creation of dangerous organisms. Using predictive algorithms, the software would be able to determine the suspected function of a DNA fragment based solely on its sequence. It would be used to screen DNA sequences to determine whether the sequence is related to any known organisms, predict the function of unknown sequences, and assign a threat level based on the potential for harm. By screening and characterizing genetic sequences before they are synthesized, the software would enable the end user to vastly reduce the risk that biological threats will be created either intentionally or accidentally.

  • Combatting truth decayMisinformation campaigns, social media, and science

    In some key domains of public life there appear to be coordinated efforts to undermine the reputation of science and innovation. Scientists now protest in the streets just to get governments to base policy on scientific evidence. Long-held scientific consensus on issues like the causes and consequences of climate change or the importance of vaccines for public health is increasingly contested. A new initiative will examine the interplay between systematic misinformation campaigns, news coverage, and increasingly important social media platforms for public understanding of science and technological innovation.

  • Combatting truth decayQ&A with Seth Mnookin on the fallacy of “both sides” journalism

    Seth Mnookin is a professor of science writing, director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing, and director of the MIT Communications Forum. In his most recent book, The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, which won the Science in Society Award, Mnookin tackles a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? Mnookin recently spoke about the state of journalism in an era when public trust is threatened by cries of “fake news” from political partisans aiming to discredit unflattering stories and to diminish the efficacy of the free press. “We’ve seen too many journalists confuse not taking sides with not calling out liars and frauds,” Mnookin says.

  • Designer pathogensStep-by-step horsepox study intensifies dual-use research debate

    The publication last week of a research paper offering a manual for re-creating an orthopoxvirus has been harshly criticized by both scientists and biosecurity experts as reckless and dangerous. The research demonstrates the potential to recreate the virus that causes smallpox—one of the greatest scourges the world has ever faced and eradicated. “The risks posed by the publication of methods that could ease the pathway for synthesizing smallpox should have been carefully weighed from the outset,” says one expert. Analysts say that the publication further accentuates the need for urgent global dialogue to develop clear norms and actions for reducing biological risks posed by advances in technology. “As governmental oversight continues to lag behind biotechnology breakthroughs, academic and private stakeholders conducting, funding, and publishing research - as well as those developing new technologies – also must take responsibility for mitigating risk,” says the expert.

  • Designer pathogensThe synthesis of horsepox virus and the failure of dual-use research oversight

    By Gregory Koblentz

    On 19 January 2018, the open access scientific journal PLOS One published an article that describes the de novo synthesis of horsepox virus, the first ever synthesis of a member of the orthopoxvirus family of viruses that includes the variola virus that causes smallpox. This research crosses a red line in the field of biosecurity. Given the high degree of homology between orthopoxviruses, the techniques described in this article are directly applicable to the recreation of variola virus. The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. The reemergence of smallpox would be a global health disaster. Prior to its eradication, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people, more people than all the wars of the twentieth century combined. Based on these considerations, the horsepox synthesis research is all risk and no reward. Given the known risks of this research for pioneering a technique that can be used to recreate variola virus and its questionable benefits, the publication of this article represents a failure of PLOS One to exercise its responsibility to carefully consider the biosecurity implications of the research it publishes.

  • Synthetic biologyThe Gene Drive Files: Who is in charge of bioengineering research?

    Synthetic biology, also called “gene drives” or “bioengineering” – a field that uses technologies to modify or create organisms or biological components – can be used to benefit mankind, but may also be used by terrorists and nation-states to develop design pathogens which could be unleased to kill tens of millions of people. Critics of gene drives are alarmed by the fact that the U.S. military has been the main funder of synthetic biology research in the United States. Given the possible security vulnerabilities related to gene drives developments, a new report by the National Academies of Sciences proposes a framework to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern associated with the field. “While biotechnology is being pursued primarily for beneficial and legitimate purposes, there are potential uses that are detrimental to humans, other species, and ecosystems,” says one of the report’s authors. A nonprofit monitoring synthetic biology research releases new documents ahead of a key UN scientific conference on bioengineering.

  • BiothreatsProposed budget cuts will weaken state, local ability to handle biological, chemical attacks

    Looming budget cuts within DHS are doing little to qualm concern that state and local infrastructure is unprepared to handle a biological or chemical attack. “We are much better prepared than we were” post-9/11,” said one expert “But we are not where we need to be, and the progress is, in some cases, somewhat fragile.”

  • BiothreatsLax policies governing dual-use research, scientists unaware of research’s biosecurity implications

    The National Academies of Sciences has examined policies and practices governing dual-use research in the life sciences – research that could potentially be misused to cause harm – and its findings identify multiple shortcomings. While the United States has a solid record in conducting biological research safely, the policies and regulations governing the dissemination of life sciences information that may pose biosecurity concerns are fragmented. Evidence also suggests that most life scientists have little awareness of biosecurity issues, the report says, stressing the importance of ongoing training for scientists.

  • BiothreatsMap shows how to disable dangerous bioweapon

    The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) ranks tularemia as one of the six most concerning bioterrorism agents, alongside anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox and viral hemorrhagic fever. And Russian stockpiles of it likely remain. American scientists studying F. tularensis recently mapped out the complex molecular circuitry that enables the bacterium to become virulent. The map reveals a unique characteristic of the bacteria that could become the target of future drug development.

  • BiothreatsBiosecurity and synthetic biology: it is time to get serious

    By Eric van der Helm

    Synthetic biology has only been recently recognized as a mature subject in the context of biological risk assessment — and the core focus has been infectious diseases. In the case of biosecurity, we’re already dependent on biology [with respect to food, health etc.] but we still have an opportunity to develop biosecurity strategies before synthetic biology is ubiquitous. There is still an opportunity to act now and put norms and practices in place because the community is still relatively small. “If scientists are not taking care of biosecurity now, other people will start taking care of it, and they most likely will start preventing researchers from doing good science.”

  • Synthetic biologyIdentifying vulnerabilities posed by synthetic biology

    Given the possible security vulnerabilities related to developments in synthetic biology – a field that uses technologies to modify or create organisms or biological components – a new report by the National Academies of Sciences proposes a framework to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern associated with the field. “While biotechnology is being pursued primarily for beneficial and legitimate purposes, there are potential uses that are detrimental to humans, other species, and ecosystems,” says one of the report’s authors.

  • Gene editingMaking gene editing safer

    Gene editing technologies have captured increasing attention from healthcare professionals, policymakers, and community leaders in recent years for their potential to cure disease, control mosquito populations, and much more. The potential national security applications and implications of these technologies are equally profound, including protection of troops against infectious disease, mitigation of threats posed by irresponsible or nefarious use of biological technologies, and enhanced development of new resources derived from synthetic biology, such as novel chemicals, materials, and coatings with useful, unique properties. DARPA is funding the efforts of seven teams aiming to develop new knowledge and tools to support responsible innovation in gene editing and protect against threats to genome integrity.

  • Planetary securityMission to discover habitable Earths launched

    Mission to discover Earth-sized planets and super-Earths in the habitable zone of the solar system has been given the go-ahead by European Space Agency. PLATO will be launched 1.5 million km into space — and will monitor thousands of bright stars over a large area of the sky, looking for regular dips in brightness as planets pass by them. It will investigate seismic activity in some of the host stars, and determine their masses, sizes and ages — with unprecedented accuracy. The mission could lead to discovery of extra-terrestrial life.