Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

What's Left Unsaid

A pair of studies from Stephen Arnon at California Department of Public Health and his colleagues in the Journal of Infectious Diseases report on a novel strain of Clostridium botulinum isolated from an infant. This strain, the researchers write, produces botulinum toxins type B as well as a new toxin they dubbed type H.

This, Arnon and his colleagues note in one paper, is the first new botulinum toxin to be found in more than 40 years. In the other paper, the researchers report that they sequenced the two botulinum toxin gene clusters, finding that the new toxin is encoded by a novel sequence.

But what the papers do not include is that gene sequence.

As the first paper also reports, that type H toxin is unaffected by any known antitoxin. And with that sequence, David Relman from Stanford University notes in a related commentary, a recombinant protein could easily be made.

"The dilemma faced by these authors, and by society, revolves around the question, should all of the information from this and similar studies be fully disseminated, motivated by the desire to realize all possible benefits from the discovery, or should dissemination of some or all of the information be restricted, with the goal of diminishing the probability of misuse?" Relman adds. The New Scientist notes that Relman was among the researchers who dissented with the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity's decision to approve the publication of the H5N1 bird flu papers that showed how the virus could be made to be transmissible between mammals.

In a separate commentary, Massachusetts General Hospital's David Hooper and Martin Hirsch, the deputy editor and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Infectious Diseases, write that they weighed the "the public's right to know and the free flow of scientific information with national and international security needs." Hooper and Hirsch add that the researchers discussed their work with the journal editors and a number of government agencies before deciding to publish the papers without the gene sequence.

Relman, in his editorial, says he agrees with this decision, as it buys time for researchers to develop an antitoxin, but he notes a few changes that he'd like to see to such an investigator-driven decision.

"Although government officials may have participated in a discussion about these papers, to my knowledge relevant stakeholders outside the government were not involved," Relman says. "Going forward, decisions should be based on the best available guidance from experts representing broad, diverse constituencies, including nonscientist representatives of the public, and should be made in a transparent manner."