As do-it-your­self gene edit­ing gains pop­u­lar­ity, ‘some­one is go­ing to get hurt’

The East African - - OUTLOOK - By EMILY BAUMGAERTNER New York Times News Ser­vice

AS A teenager, Keoni Gan­dall al­ready was op­er­at­ing a cut­ting-edge re­search lab­o­ra­tory in his bed­room in Hunt­ing­ton Beach, Cal­i­for­nia.

“I just wanted to clone DNA us­ing my au­to­mated lab ro­bot and fea­si­bly make full genomes at home,” he said.

Gan­dall was far from alone. In the past few years, so-called bio­hack­ers across the US have taken gene edit­ing into their own hands. As the equip­ment be­comes cheaper and the ex­per­tise in gene-edit­ing tech­niques, mostly Crispr-cas9, more widely shared, cit­i­zen­sci­en­tists are at­tempt­ing to re-en­gi­neer DNA in sur­pris­ing ways.

Un­til now, the work has amounted to lit­tle more than DIY mis­fires. In a re­cent in­ter­view, Gan­dall, now 18 and a re­search fel­low at Stan­ford, said he only wants to en­sure open ac­cess to gene-edit­ing tech­nol- ogy, be­liev­ing fu­ture biotech dis­cov­er­ies may come from the least ex­pected minds.

But he is quick to ac­knowl­edge that the do-it-your­self ge­net­ics revolution one day may go cat­a­stroph­i­cally wrong.

“Even I would tell you, the level of DNA syn­the­sis reg­u­la­tion, it sim­ply isn’t good enough,” Gan­dall said. “These reg­u­la­tions aren’t go­ing to work when ev­ery­thing is de­cen­tralised — when every­body has a DNA syn­the­siser on their smart­phone.”

The most press­ing worry is that some­one some­where will use the spread­ing tech­nol­ogy to create a bioweapon.

Al­ready a re­search team at the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta has recre­ated from scratch an ex­tinct rel­a­tive of small­pox, horse­pox, by stitch­ing to­gether frag­ments of mail-or­der DNA in just six months for about $100,000 — with­out a glance from law en­force­ment of­fi­cials.

The team pur­chased over­lap­ping DNA frag­ments from a com­mer­cial com­pany. Once the re­searchers glued the full genome to­gether and in­tro­duced it into cells in­fected by an­other type of poxvirus, the cells be­gan to pro­duce in­fec­tious par­ti­cles.

To some ex­perts, the ex­per­i­ment nul­li­fied a decades-long de­bate over whether to de­stroy the world’s two re­main­ing small­pox rem­nants — at the Cen­tres for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion in At­lanta and at a re­search cen­tre in Rus­sia — since it proved that sci­en­tists who want to ex­per­i­ment with the virus can now create it them­selves.

The study’s pub­li­ca­tion in the jour­nal PLOS One in­cluded an in-depth de­scrip­tion of the meth­ods used and — most alarm­ing to Gre­gory D. Koblentz, the direc­tor of the biode­fense grad­u­ate pro­gramme at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity — a se­ries of new tips and tricks for by­pass­ing road­blocks.

“Sure, we’ve known this could be pos­si­ble,” Koblentz said.

Ex­perts urged the jour­nal to can­cel pub­li­ca­tion of the ar­ti­cle, one call­ing it “un­wise, un­jus­ti­fied, and danger­ous.” Even be­fore pub­li­ca­tion, a re­port from a World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion meet­ing noted that the en­deav­our “did not re­quire ex­cep­tional bio­chem­i­cal knowl­edge or skills, sig­nif­i­cant funds or sig­nif­i­cant time.”

But the study’s lead re­searcher, David Evans, a vi­rol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta, said he had alerted sev­eral Cana­dian gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties to his poxvirus ven­ture, and none had raised an ob­jec­tion.

Po­ten­tial for abuse

Many ex­perts agree that it would be dif­fi­cult for am­a­teur bi­ol­o­gists of any stripe to de­sign a killer virus on their own. But as more hack­ers trade com­puter code for the ge­netic kind, and as their skills be­come in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated, health se­cu­rity ex­perts fear that the po­ten­tial for abuse may be grow­ing.

“To un­leash some­thing deadly, that could re­ally hap­pen any day now — to­day,” said Ge­orge Church, a re­searcher at Har­vard and a lead­ing syn­thetic bi­ol­o­gist. “The prag­matic peo­ple would just en­gi­neer drug-re­sis­tant an­thrax or highly trans­mis­si­ble in­fluenza. Some recipes are on­line.”

“Any­one who does syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy should be un­der sur­veil­lance, and any­one who does it with­out a li­cence should be sus­pect.”

Au­thor­i­ties in the US have been hes­i­tant to un­der­take ac­tions that could squelch in­no­va­tion or im­pinge on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. The laws that cover biotech­nol­ogy have not been sig­nif­i­cantly up­dated in decades, forc­ing reg­u­la­tors to rely on out­dated frame­works to gov­ern new tech­nolo­gies.

The cob­bled-to­gether reg­u­la­tory sys­tem, with mul­ti­ple agen­cies over­see­ing var­i­ous types of re­search, has left gaps that will only widen as the tech­nolo­gies ad­vance.

Aca­demic re­searchers un­dergo strict scru­tiny when they seek fed­eral fund­ing for “dual-use re­search of con­cern”: ex­per­i­ments that, in the­ory, could be used for good or ill.

In 2013, a quest to create a glow­ing plant via ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing drew al­most half a mil­lion dol­lars through Kick­starter, the crowd­fund­ing web­site.

“There re­ally isn’t a na­tional gov­er­nance per se for those who are not fed­er­ally or gov­ern­ment funded,” said Wil­liam So, a bi­o­log­i­cal coun­ter­mea­sures spe­cial­ist at the FBI.

In­stead, So said, the agency re­lies on bio­hack­ers them­selves to sound the alarm re­gard­ing sus­pi­cious be­hav­iour.

“I do be­lieve the FBI is do­ing their best with what they have,” said Dr Thomas V. In­glesby, direc­tor of the Johns Hop­kins Cen­ter for Health Se­cu­rity in Bal­ti­more. “But if you re­ally want to do this, there isn’t a whole lot stop­ping you.”

Un­der­ground Ex­per­i­menters

The FBI has be­friended many white-hat bio­hack­ing labs, among them Genspace in New York City. Be­hind an in­con­spic­u­ous steel door on a gritty, graf­fiti-lined street, bio­hack­ers-in-train­ing — mu­si­cians, engineers, re­tirees — rou­tinely gather for crash cour­ses in ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing.

Par­tic­i­pants in “Bio­hacker Boot Camp” learn ba­sic tech­ni­cal skills to use in home­grown ge­net­ics projects, like con­coct­ing al­gae that glows.

Daniel Grushkin, a founder of Genspace, has be­come a trail­blazer in bio­hack­ing risk man­age­ment, in part be­cause he recog­nises that let­ting neo­phytes ma­nip­u­late live or­gan­isms is “less like a ‘hack­erspace,’ more like a pet store.”

He has posted com­mu­nity guide­lines, for­bid­den in­fec­tious agents in the lab, and ac­cepted a grant of al­most $500,000 to de­sign se­cu­rity prac­tices for some four dozen sim­i­lar labs across the coun­try.

If ne­far­i­ous bio­hack­ers were to create a bi­o­log­i­cal weapon from scratch — a killer that would bounce from host to host to host, ca­pa­ble of reach­ing mil­lions of peo­ple, un­re­strained by time or dis­tance — they would prob­a­bly be­gin with some on­line shop­ping.

Gan­dall’s mission at Stan­ford is to build a body of ge­netic ma­te­rial for pub­lic use. To his fel­low bio­hack­ers, it’s a no­ble en­deav­our. To biose­cu­rity ex­perts, it’s toss­ing am­mu­ni­tion into trig­ger-happy hands.

“There are re­ally only two things that could wipe 30 mil­lion peo­ple off of the planet: A nu­clear weapon, or a bi­o­log­i­cal one,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, an ad­viser on pan­demic in­fluenza pre­pared­ness to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“Some­how, the US gov­ern­ment fears and pre­pares for the for­mer, but not re­motely for the lat­ter. It baf­fles me.”

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