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Genomics and Public Health at ASM

In a Tuesday special interest symposium covering dual-use research issues and the H5N1 publication controversy, experts discussed policies for overseeing such research in the US, and how to extend the reach of such oversight internationally. Dennis Dixon at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases primed the audience with an overview of how the US government oversees dual-use research of concern. The government, he said, aims to "preserve the benefits of life science research while minimizing risk."

However during his talk, Princeton University's Lynn Enquist said that the process by which dual-use research of concern is currently policed is flawed. Enquist, who is the outgoing editor-in-chief of the Journal of Virology and a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, noted that most dual-use research is held at the publication stage. Since the 2003 "Statement on scientific publication and security" was issued, journal editors have essentially acted as gatekeepers of potentially problematic publications, he said. Thus, Enquist added, the bottleneck for the release of such research occurs after is has already been approved, funded, done, and reviewed. According to Enquist, just because certain experiments are "'of concern' doesn't mean who shouldn't do them." At present, he stressed, when it comes to potentially problematic research, precautionary measures are still the best bet.

Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota — who is also an NSABB member — discussed an alternative, 'middle position' perspective on dual-use research, focusing specifically on the H5N1 publication controversy. In an informal risk-benefit analysis he presented, Osterholm said that the potential risk of accidental release of a transmissible influenza virus far outweighs the potential risk of terrorism.

When it comes to the potential for accidental release, "influenza is the one [pathogenic agent] that scares the hell out of me," he said, adding that, by comparison, a smallpox or SARS release would be easier to contain. "The one agent that once it's out the door, it's gone is influenza," Osterholm said. "There is no room for error."

Osterholm added that the potential benefits of publishing research on a transmissible influenza virus include alerting the public to any potential threat of a pandemic as well as helping researchers to more accurately detect influenza virus strains and to select the proper vaccines.

Discussing the results of his group's H5N1 experiments, Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said that he and his colleagues felt their work is "important for pandemic preparedness," particularly for public health policy development.

Public health was also a discussion topic during an afternoon symposium on Tuesday, in which researchers spoke about their experience using whole-genome sequencing for pathogen surveillance, among other things. In his talk, Peter Gerner-Smidt from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed the pros and cons of using a culture-independent approach, like next-gen sequencing, versus a 'gold standard' culture-based technique to monitor specific pathogens. While he noted that sequencing-based approaches are currently more time-consuming and not yet as sensitive and specific as traditional methods, Gerner-Smidt said that "clinical diagnostics is fast moving away from culturing." Going forward, he added, scientists will likely begin to identify pathogens based on a virulence profile and subtype, rather than by genus, species, and genotype. "Whole-genome sequencing is the ultimate diagnostic and subtyping tool," he said.

Gerner-Smidt also discussed potential future directions for metagenomic studies for pathogen surveillance, and how such work could help researchers elucidate virulence complementation, enhancement, or inhibition factors as well as host-pathogen associations.

During that same symposium, the University of Münster's Dag Harmsen reflected upon his experiences using whole-genome sequencing to investigate a German E. coli outbreak (or "Sproutbreak 2011," as the Methodist Hospital Research Institute's James Musser called it during a talk he gave on Monday) and a Dutch Klebsiella outbreak.

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