NEW YORK, Jan. 14 - Despite fears that bioterrorists will use DNA sequence data to create 21st century superpathogens, genomic science should remain public, The Institute for Genomic Research head Claire Fraser said at a special National Academies meeting on national security and the life sciences last week.
Her explanation: genomics just isn't good enough yet to provide the kind of tools terrorists need.
The National Academies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies convened the daylong meeting, stocked with high-tech biologists, scientific-policy specialists, and security VIPs, to establish "dialogue" between national security experts and biology researchers.
Fraser was part of an all-star panel including the Southern Research Institute's David Franz, former commander of the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and former inspector in the UN biological weapons inspections mission in Iraq; Stephen Morse, the Columbia University epidemiologist who directs the national director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness University and former pathogen countermeasures director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and George Poste, former president of R&D at SmithKline Beecham and chairman of Orchid Biosciences.
In his talk, Poste made the dangers of "dual use" technology alarmingly clear, crisply breezing through a fiend's list of nightmare germs. He began by describing microbes tailor-made to produce powerful toxins, and that can evade antibiotics and generate "stealth viral vectors" that can integrate pathogenic DNA directly into the genome.
Other agents have been modified to evade detection by diagnostics and by the human immune system, or can be activated by treatments for other diseases. Still more malevolent microbes might turn the human immune system against itself, causing massive demyelination or toxic shock. These aren't science fiction, said Poste. The now defunct Soviet bioweapon program brought many of them to life.
In light of these pathogenic possibilities, asked Fraser, should genome-sequence information be considered "sensitive," kept under lock and key by government regulation? It's no idle question for TIGR, which has sequenced nearly 100 pathogens and was directly involved in the effort to identify the anthrax strain used in 2001's poison letters.
Her answer: a qualified no. Genomics can't yet provide terrorists with a blueprint for a bioengineered bug - and the benefits of keeping this research public still trump the potential threat.
"There's no debate that this information can be misused, but it has great potential for being used to enormous benefit," she said.
The "parts lists" that are generated in pathogen sequencing and annotation projects could theoretically be used to generate superbugs, she said, since these lists associate virulence, pathogenicity, and antibiotic resistance factors with specific gene sequences that could presumably be duplicated. But, Fraser said, gene function in most microbes is still largely a mystery, since gene annotation still provides only a rough roadmap to function.
"That's some comfort," she said. "When we call something a virulence factor, that's our best guess. It limits the utility of this information [for] someone with a goal of finding new virulence factors and engineering superpathogens."
Besides, classifying sequence data would be shutting the barn door behind the horse, she said: The sequences of most important human pathogens have been widely available for quite some time already.
The national security world should look to genomics to identify and combat bioterrorist attacks, said Fraser, not restrict access to research. Sequencing work will be crucial in developing new vaccines, diagnostics and treatments against the infectious diseases most likely to be weaponized, she said, and also supply new forensic tools and new ways to understand the epidemiology of disease.