Why gain-of-function research is important

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Due to unanswered questions about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, the two Government of the United States and scientists called for further examination of the validity of claims that a virus may have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Much of the discussion revolves around “gain-of-function” research. So The Conversation asked David Gillum and Rebecca Moritz, who work closely with virologists on a daily basis to ensure the safety and security of research, and Sam weiss evans and Megan Palmer, who are science and technology policy experts, to explain what the term means and why this type of research is important.

What does gain of function mean?

Any organism can acquire a new ability or property, or “gain” a “function”. It can happen through natural selection or through a researcher’s experiments. In research, many different types of experiences generate functions, and some pose certain safety and security concerns.

Scientists use various techniques to modify organisms depending on the properties of the organism itself and the end goal. Some of these methods involve making changes in the genetic code directly. Others may involve placing organisms in environments that select for functions related to genetic changes.

Gain of function can occur in an organism in nature or in the laboratory. Some laboratory examples include the creation of more salt and drought resistant plants or by modifying disease vectors to produce mosquitoes resistant to dengue transmission. The function gain can also be useful for environmental reasons, such as modification E. coli So he can turning plastic waste into a precious commodity.

In the current debate around SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, gain of function has a much narrower meaning related to a virus becoming easier to move between humans, or becoming more deadly in humans. humans. It is important to remember, however, that the term “function gain” in itself covers much more than this type of research.

Why would researchers do gain-of-function work on potentially dangerous pathogens?

Gain-of-function experiments can help researchers test scientific theories, develop new technologies, and find treatments for infectious diseases. For example, in 2003, when the initial SARS-CoV outbreak occurred, the researchers developed a method to study the virus in the laboratory. One of the experiments was to grow the virus in mice so they can study it. This work has led to a model for the research of the virus and the testing of vaccines and potential treatments.

Gain-of-function research that focuses on potential pandemic pathogens has been supported on the premise that it will help researchers better understand the changing pathogen landscape, better prepare for a pandemic response, and develop treatments and countermeasures.

But critics argue that this research aimed at anticipating potential pandemic pathogens does not provide substantial benefits and is not worth the potential risks. And they say that anticipating such threats can be achieved through other means – biological research and the like. For example, the current pandemic has provided many lessons on the social and behavioral dynamics of disease prevention measures, which could lead to strong new research agendas on the cultural aspects of pandemic preparedness. Understanding when the risks of gain-of-function research outweigh the potential benefits and alternatives, therefore, continues to be the subject of debate.

What are some examples of gain-of-function research, and how risky is it?

Some potential results of gain-of-function research may include the creation of organisms that are more transmissible or more virulent than the original organism. Other examples include engineered organisms that may escape current detection methods and available treatments, or grow in another part of an organism, such as the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Two researchers working in a high-containment laboratory hold cell cultures infected with the new coronavirus.
photo alliance via Getty

There is no zero risk in conducting experiments. The question is therefore whether certain searches for gain of function can be carried out at an acceptable level of safety and security by using risk mitigation measures. These risk reduction strategies include the use of biological containment facilities, exposure control plans, strict operating procedures and training, incident response planning and much more. These efforts involve dedication and meticulous attention to detail at many levels of an institution.

Laboratory incidents will always happen. A robust biosecurity and biosecurity system, along with an appropriate institutional response, helps ensure that these incidents are harmless. The challenge is to ensure that any research carried out – gain of function or otherwise – does not present unreasonable risks for researchers, the public and the environment.

Whether specific experiments with potential pathogens should be carried out remains a difficult and controversial subject.

How do experts determine which search for gain of function is too risky?

There are several ways to answer this question. The first is whether the research is aimed at developing a biological weapon. the United Nations Convention on Biological Weapons, which entered into force in 1975, prohibits states parties from developing, producing, stocking or otherwise acquiring or sharing biological agents, toxins, and equipment that have no justification for peaceful or defensive purposes. So there shouldn’t be any research, either gain-of-function or otherwise, that seeks to deliberately develop a biological weapon.

Another way to answer the question is to focus on the content of the research rather than the intent. Through experience, researchers and governments have developed lists of experiments and organizations that require additional oversight because of their potential safety and security risks. An example of this came when influenza researchers put a self-imposed pause on gain-of-function research involving the transmissibility of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses in 2012. The US government subsequently imposed a moratorium on work in 2014. The two moratoriums were lifted at the end of 2017 following a long debate and a risk study and the development of additional monitoring and reporting requirements.

Over the past decade, the United States has developed research oversight that could be directly misused to harmful ends. This includes policies on “dual-use research of concern“(DURC) and the policies on”pathogens with pandemic potential”Reinforced to gain in transmissibility or virulence.

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The bottom line is that our understanding is constantly evolving. Just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government had started to review and update its policies. It’s an open question what lessons will be learned from this pandemic, and how that will reshape our understanding of the value of gain-of-function research. One thing that is likely to happen, however, is that we will rethink the assumptions we have made about the relationships between biological research, safety, and society. This can be the occasion to review and improve biosafety and biosecurity governance systems.

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