Gain of function research

Hi fellow CIDDers, In 2012 a group of scientists from the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands published a report of experiments to understand the mechanisms of flu airborne transmission in a pandemic flu strain (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6088/1534.short). This research involved a gain of function experiment with the H5N1 strain of the influenza virus and the determinants of airborne spread among ferrets. The results of the research were very interesting, but at the same time they stirred a wave of misinformed fear among the public and scientists, which was mainly driven by sensationalists headlines and exaggeration. There was a symposium held by  the NIH in  washington DC to try and solve this issue. Scientist became divided over whether to allow these kinds of research to continue forward or ban any kind of gain of function experiment. While now we are in 2014, the polemic has intensified and a group called “The Cambridge Working group” (http://www.cambridgeworkinggroup.org/) was formed and their main objective is to exaggerate the risks associated with doing gain of function experiments in “potential pandemic strains”. They are asking for an Asilomar type of meeting (back in the day this was organized in the fears over recombinant DNA technology) and come up with rules and restrictions on this kind of work. While dialog is important, another group of scientist have felt that this is a one sided effort in order to impose unreasonable restrictions. This group is called “Scientists for science” (http://www.scientistsforscience.org/) which goal is to help the public understand that the resources and facilities exist for working with potential pandemic strains are the safest for this endeavor and that fear is not the way to advance our understanding of these strains. While there has been a record of accidents in biosafety  facilities, nowadays these are taken care of by the current set of standards and safety regulations put in place.

Scientists for science is looking for a meeting in which both sides can give their point of view. However, we feel that this kind of meeting can neither be organized by the cambridge working group, nor scientists for science. It must be a neutral entity that allows for a balanced dialog and no personal agendas are allowed.

If you are more interested in knowing more visit the two groups websites and make a choice to which side to follow. It is very very important that as an infectious disease researcher you have your voice heard, since this may have a big impact on the research that we may be or not be allowed to do in the future.

 

I’m part of scientists for science, but this doesn’t mean you have to side with me.

Please forward this to everyone you know.

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One Response to Gain of function research

  1. ellscubed says:

    My biggest worry when it comes to gain of function is security.

    For example, if a researcher has turned influenza into an extremely infectious pathogen with high mortality rate…it is still classified as a BSL3 pathogen. Yet the H5N1 strain that sparked this entire debate should clearly only be handled in a BSL4 environment.

    In my personal opinion, the same considerations should be made with respect to antibiotic resistance. If microbiologists are conducting antibiotic-related gain of function research on E.coli, and effectively creating a multi-resistant super bug, they may have turned a benign microbe into an insidious weapon of mass destruction. Under these conditions, its my understanding that an undergrad with little to no training could handle such a microbe.

    For these, and other unforeseen consequences, I believe we should err on the side of caution when it comes to gain of function research.

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