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Senior Scholar Gigi Gronvall, PhD, presents emerging biotechnologies paper at Biological Weapons Convention meeting of experts

By Nick Alexopulos | Aug. 10, 2018

Gronvall BWC paper cover page
Full paper (PDF)

Remarks delivered by Gigi Gronvall, PhD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, on Aug. 9, 2018, in Geneva at the Meeting of Experts on Review of developments in the field of science and technology related to the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention. Gronvall presented a paper she co-authored with Diane DiEuliis, PhD, and Amanda Moodie, MA, scholars at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Their paper was submitted to the BWC by the United States:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to present the paper, “Recent Advances in Gene Editing and Synthesis Technologies and their Implications.” The goal for the paper is to identify scientific advances of concern to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) community, and to suggest approaches for how to minimize risks.

Advances in biotechnology, including the modern ability to engineer genomes, bring benefits to medicine, agriculture, industry, and the environment. They may also help us develop medical countermeasures like vaccines or drugs to protect against biological threats. Nonetheless, these new biotechnologies could expand the range of ways biology could be used for harm.

One example is gene editing. Humans have manipulated the genes of natural organisms for thousands of years through artificial selection, by selecting for characteristics to increase food production of agriculturally important animals, plants, yeast, and fungi. But now, this type of manipulation can be more precise, targeted, and reproducible. The best known modern method for gene editing is called CRISPR. The US Department of Agriculture recently approved an oilseed crop and soybean variety for growth in the US, both edited using CRISPR to produce more omega-3 oil and to be tolerant to drought. However, CRISPR could be used to manipulate biological agents already of concern to the BWC. While gene edits to make these pathogens deadlier, spread more rapidly, or evade diagnosis or treatment were certainly possible with older techniques, using gene editing methods like CRISPR is more technically straightforward.

Gene synthesis is another technology described in the paper that has many positive uses for new products, vaccines, and basic research but it could also be misused. As costs to synthesize DNA have decreased, the gene synthesis industry has grown from a small handful of companies to an international marketplace of dozens of companies. Commercial gene synthesis could therefore help someone create harmful biological pathogens “from scratch,” though it is important to remember that this is not “easy.” It still takes skill. But this possibility is of concern particularly for the reproduction of viruses, including viruses that are difficult to access, such as Ebola or even smallpox. Many gene synthesis companies screen their customer orders before filling them but not all. Addressing these risks will require discussion and action among many BWC State Parties.

Other technologies discussed in the paper include specific cases of gene editing such as gene drives and metabolic engineering. Gene drives are a way to drive, or push, the prevalence of a gene in a sexually reproducing population so that instead of 50% inheritance, close to 100% of offspring will inherit a specific gene. Gene drives require rapid life cycles, so they would theoretically work best in insects and are not a concern for altering human populations. The environmental issues raised by gene drives are being closely examined in other international forums outside of the BWC. Metabolic pathway engineering is a way to turn cells into factories, and could be misused to produce drugs, toxins, or other chemicals. For example, researchers have already demonstrated the biological fermentation of opioids and production of a marine conotoxin in the bacteria E. coli. It should be noted that pathway engineering is highly technically challenging, requiring sophisticated tools for rational design and complex computation.

A third part of the paper discusses a science-based risk/benefit framework developed by the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This framework could be used to evaluate biosecurity risks over time, as new biotechnologies develop. There is a side event today on this framework presented by the chair of the committee’s report, Dr. Michael Imperiale.

A fourth part of the paper underscores that the concerns surrounding gene synthesis and gene editing are part of a larger discussion about the potential misuse of biology, and highlights that vigorous discussions are taking place in the scientific community and US government, as well as international forums such as the InterAcademy Partnership, or IAP.

Finally, in addition to these issues that should be of concern to the BWC, it must also be stated that biological safety mishaps, inadvertent misuse, or negligence could lead to unintended consequences. When a disease is first detected and reported, it may be difficult to determine whether it is a result of deliberate misuse, a natural emergence, or an accident. This reality requires a harmonized, thoughtful approach to prevent and mitigate the risks of misuse, as well as close cooperation between the BWC States Parties and the international scientific community.

Thank you all for your attention.

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About the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security:
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security works to protect people from epidemics and disasters and build resilient communities through innovative scholarship, engagement, and research that strengthens the organizations, systems, policies, and programs essential to preventing and responding to public health crises. The Center is part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is located in Baltimore, MD.