Global Navigation Element.

Fall/Winter 2004 Vol. 4 No. 3

Table of Contents

©Leon Zernitsky/ Public or Private?

The Debate Over Open Access to Genetic Data on Pathogens

Roughly three years ago a team of scientists at St. Louis University inserted a particular mouse gene -- one that regulates the creature's immunity -- into a mousepox virus. The researchers then injected the altered virus into mice, where it "jammed" the animals' immune systems, flooding them with a natural chemical that blunted their ability to fight off infection. The new virus resulted in an extraordinarily lethal form of the disease, affecting even mice that had been vaccinated previously.

The experiment was conducted with benign motives, as part of a larger effort to explore countermeasures against engineered viruses. But it also illustrated a more sinister possibility: that sooner or later, such genetic engineering might be undertaken by terrorists instead of legitimate researchers, with a disease like smallpox instead of mousepox, and with humans rather than mice.

Policy-makers determined to avoid such a scenario are debating about how to deal with genome data on microbial pathogens. Currently the genome sequences for over 100 pathogens -- including those for anthrax, Ebola, and plague -- are freely available in public databases around the world. In fact, the U.S. government requires that all genome sequences decoded using federal funds be made public, with rare exceptions. But some are concerned that data on pathogens could help terrorists develop an enhanced virus to use as a weapon. As federal agencies discuss whether this information should be restricted, they asked the National Research Council to weigh in.

In terms of fighting bioterrorism, restricting access to this data would probably be counterproductive, a Research Council study committee concluded. While it's true that a malefactor could now obtain data on pathogens, any restrictions tight enough to impede this would likely hobble legitimate research as well -- including work on vaccines against the very diseases apt to be used in an attack. "Open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause harm," said committee chair Stanley Falkow, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Given the interconnections between different areas of the life sciences, the report says, it would be impossible to predict which scientists will need access to which data -- and this means that some researchers could find themselves barred from information they need. Deciding what data should be restricted would be no less problematic, because pathogen genomes are not the only ones that could potentially aid a terrorist. In the case of the altered mousepox virus, for example, genome data from the "host" animal was as crucial to the bioengineering effort as that from the virus itself. If data on all pathogens and all hosts were restricted, the report says, it would severely damage the fabric of the global scientific enterprise.

Moreover, restrictions probably wouldn't be effective, the committee added. Digital data are notoriously difficult to control, and files that contain entire genome sequences are small and therefore easily stored and transferred. And without a uniform international agreement, users who are denied access because of U.S. policy could simply turn elsewhere. Instead of trying to impose restrictions, policy-makers and researchers should focus on exploiting genome information fully to improve our defenses against infectious disease and bioterrorist threats.

The report adds a caveat to its call for continued openness, however. While now it would require a great deal of sophistication to alter an existing pathogen in a targeted way to make it more dangerous, genetic manipulation will someday become easier and more widespread. A panel should be formed to regularly review advances in genome science, to see if future developments warrant additional monitoring of or restrictions on access to data.   -- Sara Frueh

Seeking Security: Pathogens, Open Access, and Genome Databases. Committee on Genomics Databases for Bioterrorism Threat Agents, Board on Life Sciences, Division on Earth and Life Studies; and Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2004, 88 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09305-8; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $18.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Stanley Falkow, professor of microbiology and immunology, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Previous Table of Contents Next

Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences