The Danger of Dual Use Research
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Dual use research is a worldwide concern

An important question we scientists have to ask nowadays is whether our work poses a security risk. We recently heard an FBI expert talk on this and the term he used was dual use research. It's research that, while improving human health, could be used in bioterrorism.

In 2001, Australian scientists experienced this first hand. In studying how to limit out of control rodent populations, they decided to use a non-lethal mouse virus to carry an engineered gene that would produce a mouse egg protein. The goal was for the virus to infect mice and produce the egg protein. Then, when the immune system attacked the virus and egg proteins, it would attack its own eggs, making a female mouse sterile.

The problem was the mouse immune system recognized the egg protein as its own and responded weakly. So, they decided to add another protein interleukin-4 to boost the immune response. Surprisingly, this made the normally benign mousepox virus incredibly lethal.

When the study was published, other scientists recognized the potential danger of this information having been made public. It could be applied to a human pathogen, such as smallpox, to create a super bioterror weapon.

Today, a federal advisory committee monitors and guides scientists on dual use research, but sometimes the parameters are not so clear. The latest controversy involves scientists who created an H5N1 flu virus with the ability for efficient human transmission, something the natural virus can't do yet. Supporters of publishing the results argue that sharing this knowledge will speed the development of a vaccine once the virus begins its pandemic spread. But opponents believe it's a security threat.

We expect dual use research will only grow, and hope researchers along with security experts will get better at this delicate balance.

The following video, featuring one of our University of Texas Medical Branch colleagues, Dr. Clifford Houston, was produced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to raise awareness and understanding about the issue of dual use research.

 

For more information…

About NSABB
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) provides advice, guidance and leadership regarding biosecurity oversight of dual use research, defined as "biological research with legitimate scientific purpose that may be misused to pose a biologic threat to public health and/or national security."

Case Studies in Dual Use Biological Research
This website by the Federation of American Scientists presents case studies meant to educate and raise awareness about responsible biological research. The mousepox study mentioned in this week's episode is discussed in Module 4.0.

Between Publishing and Perishing? H5N1 Research Unleashes Unprecedented Dual-Use Research Controversy
The Nuclear Threat Intitiative (NTI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose goal is to strengthen global security by preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, offers this extensive but layman-friendly article on the H5N1 controversy and the debate that has ensued over the "dual-use" dilemma.