In response to safety incidents at federal laboratories, the White House recently announced that it will temporarily stop funding new experiments that attempt to increase the infectiousness of disease-causing agents, referred to as “gain-of-function” research. The announcement urged similar ongoing projects working with influenza, SARS and MERS viruses to pause their research while the White House deliberates. This moratorium will be in effect until the adoption of an official policy regarding this type of research, which is not expected until 2015. The publication of specific mutations that increase pathogenicity has been controversial in the past but, whether published or not, this type of next-generation research should be pursued.
Several significant biosafety accidents have provoked censure of safety practices in labs handling these pathogens. Earlier this month, vials of smallpox, a disease thought to be entirely eradicated besides the known and secure samples, were found in a National Institutes of Health lab after being for- gotten for 60 years. Several months ago, a separate Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention lab potentially exposed dozens of employees to anthrax, a deadly bacteria known for use in bioterrorism. These were not isolated incidents, and they have prompted due criticism. At- tempts to increase pathogenicity of the H5N1 avian flu strain have also received heavy criticism, citing the potential of gain-of-function re- search for use in bioterrorism and the current breaches in biosafety as risks for human infection.
When dealing with matters of public safety, caution is necessary and safety violations are inexcus- able. As such, the moratorium has been considered by many a very sensible decision that will even- tually produce a better system of oversight. The government may also decide to permanently halt funding for the risky, but important, gain-of-function studies, how- ever. This is a condemnable course of action.
While hazardous in unsafe conditions, gain-of-function research provides a very useful service. These studies allow for better comprehen- sion of human-pathogen interaction and improve understanding of more dangerous forms that could emerge. Many of the mutations that occur in the lab are found in nature. The abil- ity of pathogens to become resistant to treatment is well-documented and poses large public health risks as cur- rent treatments become less effective. The panic generated by MRSA provides clear evidence of this. As humans continue to encroach on the habitats of animals that are disease reservoirs, the threat of emerging in- fectious diseases increases.
Gain-of-function studies have the potential to provide us with an arsenal of drugs and vaccines that could be used to combat emerging and evolving human pathogens such as H5N1. This type of proac- tive response to emerging infectious diseases is sensible considering the dynamic nature of many pathogens. Determining necessary safety precautions should be a priority for the government so that this important research can continue.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 30 print edition. Email the Tim Bishop at [email protected]