Event Review: Editing Biosecurity, Needs and Strategies for Governing Genome Editing

By Justin Hurt, GMU Biodefense

On December 3rd, 2018, the New America policy study organization hosted an event entitled “Biosecurity in the Age of Genome Editing,” a panel discussion moderated by Daniel Rothenberg of Arizona State University. The discussion centered around the findings of the recently released study, Editing Biosecurity, Needs and Strategies for Governing Genome Editing, and included authors Jesse Kirkpatrick of Arizona State University, Greg Koblentz and Edward Perello, both from George Mason University, and Megan Palmer and David Relman, both from Stanford University. Each author spoke about specific portions of the study, a two-year project designed to ascertain the inherent risks and security challenges regarding the rapidly developing field of genome editing, which includes such technologies as the highly promising but potentially risky CRISPR gene editing technique.

Jesse Kirkpatrick began the session by discussing the overall format of the study, to include the study’s multi-disciplinary approach, to include not only technological experts in the biomedical field, but also science and technology researchers, policy experts, and ethicists. The study involved a series of workshops undertaken at both Stanford and George Mason University during the two-year period, and included several issue briefs and working papers to highlight specific aspects of the genome sciences field. David Relman then discussed many of the challenges of the study: there were a multitude of science and technology advances and risks that were worthy of focus, a great deal of uncertainty about the likelihood of technological uses and their risks, a dearth of effort in landscaping the problem and assigning appropriate priority to the technological challenges, and finally, the effect of geography and cultural attitudes on the science. Prior efforts were considered and some included, but these generally placed unusual focus on very particular problems in genome editing to the exclusion of others with little to no follow-up. This study was designed to propose a process for assessing genome editing risks with a lasting meaning rather than produce a particular product, utilizing a scenario-based approach.

Edward Perello then led a walk-through of the genome editing process to discuss the function of the editing tools, and discussed the various capabilities of CRISPR, such as cell line engineering (including gene therapies), organismal engineering (such as gene drive), and screening (such as high throughput discovery). The applications for the gene editing technologies they discussed primarily lay within biomedical research and human health, with additional application in agricultural science and industrial biotechnology. Greg Koblentz laid out the biological security risk domains with regard to genome editing, specifically biosafety (including accidental release), biosecurity (via a deliberate misuse), reckless application (producing unanticipated consequences), and dual-use research dilemmas (where ostensibly altruistic research allows for the alternative development of illicit uses).

The authors found that some risks and concerns have been prevalent throughout the entire history of biomedical research (with advent of DNA recombination, viral research, etc.), but that most prior biosecurity efforts have been geared toward a list of specific pathogens, not the misappropriation of scientific techniques. In addition, barriers to misuse are falling simply because the barriers to new research techniques are being broken down, making access to the technologies and their potential risks that much more accessible.

Using a series of 6 scenarios, the study discussed the various risks in each scenario and suggested development of tools for the biosecurity effort. These scenarios were effective in illustrating the technological governance gaps and helped in determining recommended mitigating measures. During the discussion, they highlighted three scenarios: First was “CRISPR Charlatans,” where a reckless actor developed loosely regulated products with adverse effects. The policy options for this scenario included industrial engagements and incentives and better enabling regulatory capacities. Second was “Weaponized Bio-narratives,” in which gene manipulation creates economic harms that sow polarizing fears and doubts about contested events, whether they are actually real or not. In this scenario, solution options included improving communication capabilities and ensuring coordinated messaging and intervention strategies. The third scenario, “Bioweapons for Covert Action,” was based on a state-sponsored bioweapons program with limited strategic value. Here the policy options included clarifying the coverage of the Biological Weapons Convention and strengthening its coverage of science and technology reviews.

As the discussion closed, the key takeaways that the authors discussed were not all pessimistic. They concluded that genome editing has a high potential to improve the human condition. However, it has the potential for misuse, and the technology itself is a disruptor to the biosecurity landscape, in that it expands the “attack surface” that must be defended. In addition, the genome editing study illuminates broader trends and challenges in the security landscape, namely that we must take emerging technologies seriously, engage key stakeholders, and encourage further applied research with a multi-disciplinary approach. The way forward, according to the panel, was to use a strategy of collaboration involving all key stakeholders to design policy proposals. To guard against the worst-case scenarios, innovation will be the critical factor to strengthen security for an ever-expanding attack surface. It is the blending of these pathways and across all applicable disciplines that will produce the most tangible and positive results.

For further information, the study is available online here.

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