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Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) Funding Pause: A Risky Response

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By: Kaitlyn Morabito

photo credit: AJC1 via photopin cc

On October 17th, the Obama administration announced a funding pause on new gain of function (GOF) research and a voluntary moratorium of current research on Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and both highly pathogenic and low pathogenic influenza viruses. The re-evaluation of the potential risks and benefits of federally funded GOF research will be pioneered by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies. These organizations will consult with the biomedical community and are responsible for developing a new policy on “dual use of research of concern” (DURC), which includes GOF research, using a deliberate process that is expected to be decided in 2015. Formation of the new policy will determine what DURC research can be done and whether the funding pause will be lifted. Although this funding pause is limited to MERS, SARS, and influenza, this policy will have implications for many other areas of research. While a discussion on the future of DURC is merited, the funding pause has broader implications that may affect our ability to prepare for potential pandemics.

When life science research has the potential to be used for malicious as well as beneficial intentions, it may fall into the category of DURC. Although a lot of the recent debate has surrounded GOF studies involving avian flu virus transmission, the definition of DURC is wide reaching. Infectious pathogen research is a major component of DURC, with a particular focus on agents and toxins which fall into the Federal Select Agent Program, including Ebola and anthrax among others. There are seven kinds of experiments that may be considered DURC and are generally referred to as GOF research. These involve creating mutations within the pathogen, allowing it to gain a function such as increased host range or tropism, transmissibility, or ability to be disseminated. Additionally, changes to pathogens that lead to resistance to prophylactic or therapeutic agents, or make a vaccine or natural immunity less effective, are considered DURC experiments. The final categories involve enhancing vulnerability of a host population and generation of new pathogens or regeneration of previously eradicated or extinct Select Agents. These experiments are considered to be biosecurity threats since modified agents can be used for bioterrorism or accidently released. There has been a lack of open discussion between researchers and policy makers regarding DURC research and there are four major issues that need to be addressed. What dual-use research should be allowed to be done? Should the public fund this research? Who should determine which research can and cannot be done? Should the details and results of these studies be published and available to the public? While these issues are important and need to be discussed and a DURC policy developed, the moratorium on GOF research is not the solution.

The major problem with the GOF moratorium is the overall vagueness of it. There is no end date to the moratorium in which a new policy has to be decided. The initial controversy regarding avian flu transmission studies appeared over two years ago; however, prior to the funding pause, NSABB has failed to hold any scientific meetings to work on DURC policy. Although they have already organized a meeting of scientists in December, without a deadline for the funding pause, there is no motivation to determine the policy. Additionally, the definition of the types of research that fall into this category is vague; the funding pause applies to any work by which researchers could “reasonably anticipate” an increase in pathogenicity or transmission. This definition could apply to nearly any research involving passaging or mutating these viruses.

The timing of this moratorium may hinder work on pandemic preparedness particularly in the case of the recently emerged MERS coronavirus. There is currently no small animal model for the pathogenesis of MERS. Animal models that recapitulate human disease are often developed by passaging a virus through a small animal such as a mouse. However, this type of research is not allowed under the funding pause because the virus may be gaining host range or pathogenicity in the animal. Animal models allow researchers to better understand the virus as well as test treatments and vaccines. Without these models, there is a real hindrance in the development of new prophylactics and treatments, which may prevent epidemics from becoming pandemics.

Another important aspect of pandemic preparedness is surveillance of naturally occurring genetic mutations in viruses. By collecting samples from sick patients or animals and then sequencing the viruses, a researcher can monitor the spread and mutation of different viruses throughout the world. This surveillance is a powerful tool in predicting outbreaks, drug susceptibility, and determining the contents of the influenza vaccine. However, monitoring genetic changes without understanding the level of functional changes is not very informative. This surveillance needs to be used in conjunction with reverse genetics in the laboratory to determine the effects of these changes on pathogenicity, transmission, drug susceptibility, treatment, and immunization. Using laboratory data to supplement surveillance is one aspect of the relationship between surveillance and GOF research. It is also very important to have the reverse relationship with laboratory research informing surveillance. Genetic mutation in viruses is fairly noisy, with many changes having little or no effect on the virus or a detrimental effect. Determining potential mutations in the laboratory that may increase pathogenicity can help determine signals above the noise. Without the ability to supplement knowledge gained by surveillance in the laboratory, the data obtained through surveillance is insufficient to understand the potential outcomes of genetic mutation in viruses.

When talking about DURC, it is impossible for one to avoid the debate swirling around two avian flu studies (1, 2), which involved increased transmission among ferrets. In these studies, an important aspect is often overlooked. Increased transmission among ferrets decreased the pathogenicity of these viruses, with fewer ferrets dying from the transmitted virus. So while this study increased one aspect of GOF, transmission, there was a compensatory loss of function since lethality decreased. This is an important aspect of DURC. By doing these GOF experiments, researchers can also discover loss of function (LOF) mutations, which can be exploited for drug development and also better understand the potential costs of these mutations to the pathogen.

The risk of dual-use research or accidental release of these altered pathogens is real.   This moratorium comes on the heals of a number of highly publicized laboratory incidents including the discovery of a vial of smallpox in an FDA laboratory and the CDC’s distribution of anthrax that had not properly been inactivated. However, the pausing of new research and cessation of current research involving these viruses, which have the potential to cause pandemics, is a bigger threat. A new policy and guidelines for DURC and oversight of research is needed, but until that has been established, researchers should be trusted to determine which DURC should be done.

 

Resources:

1) Science – Avian Flu Transmission in Ferrets Paper

2) Nature – Avian Flu Transmission in Ferrets Paper

3) Office of Science and Technology Policy – Doing Diligence to assess Risk and Benefits of GOF

4) mBio – Influenza-Gain of-Function Experiments

6) mBio – Moratorium on Research intended to create Novel Potential Pandemic Pathogens

7) mBio – Vagueness and Cost of GOF Funding Pause

 

 

 

 


 

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

Tagged with , , ,

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  1. […] the results and fear of pandemic in case of escape of these agents from the laboratory. In 2014, the U.S. government suspended 18 funded GOF studies involving pathogenic viruses such as influenza and SARS. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) […]


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