Saturday, November 6, 2010

Beyond Biology

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Three disparate things that I read recently made me sit up and take another look at the threat that biotechnology poses to the future of humankind. The first was an announcement made by scientists of the J Craig Venter Institute on their work on genome transplantation that enabled them to transform one kind of bacteria to another type. This is the first time in history that a completely synthetic organism has been created. The second was a declaration made by Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former President of British Association for the Advancement of Science - considered to be one of the most eminent scientists of today. He states "I have staked one thousand dollars on a bet: That by the year 2020, an instance of bio-error or bio-terror will have killed one million people." The third was that scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University have created the first human/animal Chimera (animal containing genetic material from parents of two or more distinctly different species) fusing together cells from humans and rats.

The first piece of information shows that biotechnology is racing ahead at breakneck speed and has the ability to change things in a fundamental way. This ability has already been translated into the development of drugs and other products - biotechnology now produces 40 per cent of the drugs that the US Food and Drug Administration approves of every year.

The second indicates that scientists of the calibre of Sir Martin Rees believe that it is likely that this ability could be used with malicious intent. Bio-weapons are the ideal weapons for terrorist and/or anarchists. The cost of setting up a laboratory for biotech research is significantly smaller than that of developing nuclear or chemical weapons. The manufacture of lethal toxins requires modest equipment, essentially the same as is needed for medical or agricultural programmes: the technology is "dual use".

Research teams have been able to reconstitute the polio virus, as well as the 1918 pandemic influenza virus (that killed somewhere between 20 to 40 million people) using only published DNA information and raw material from mail order services. This knowledge and technology is already dispersed among hospital staff, academic research institutes and factories. Bioterrorism is thus a real possibility in the next decade with the invention of ways of killing that had previously existed only in the realm of science fiction.

Sir Martin Rees also mentions the possibility of error on the part of otherwise responsible laboratories and agencies. Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project in Texas that monitors the use of biological agents says that lab accidents happen a lot more frequently than the public knows. In recent years, the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease in the UK (2007), the death of a lab worker at Texas A&M ( 2006) due to brucellosis after cleaning a high containment container, the exposure of 3 researchers at Boston University Medical Centre (2004) to tularaemia or rabbit fever have occurred.. All these laboratories are well run and subject to many regulations. The same cannot be said for other laboratories in different parts of the world. Perhaps the worst bio-error took place in 1979 in the former Soviet Union when weapons-grade anthrax escaped from a facility in Sverdlovsk, now known as Yekaterinburg, killing 68 people. The accident was covered up by the authorities and came to light only in 1998.

If there is a major outbreak in the future, there may be severe clamping down by governmental authorities on the kind of research and agents that can be used in experimentation. This however would not have impact on research in rouge laboratories or by anti-social elements.

The Human Chimera experiment in China is one that could not have been able to be carried out in any other country in the world. Most do not, at least at present, have the scientific capability. Those that do, such as the US and Western Europe have strict codes of ethics and regulations in place that expressly forbid such experimentation. Even between the US and Europe however, there is a vast difference in the regulatory framework. In the US, products of biotechnology have been extensively tested and marketed. In the EU, few biotechnology products have received regulatory approval while most have faced a de facto moratorium.

Many countries do not have any kind of regulatory framework relating to biotechnology or restrictions on the kind of research that can be carried out. Frightening experiments could be conducted, without the knowledge of the rest of the world, or authorities within the countries themselves. These could even attract groups to set up research facilities in the future- the same principle that attracts groups and individuals to tax havens such as Barbados, St Kitts, Canary Islands etc.

The advancements made in the field of biotechnology have the potential to change the life of humankind for the better by impacting health, eradicating disease and creating miracle drugs. But we need to also ponder seriously on what we need to do to prevent Sir Martin Rees' wager coming true.

Ilmas Futehally is the Vice President of Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in Mumbai, India.

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