Pandora Report 3.3.2017

Welcome to March! On Tuesday, Russia cast its seventh veto and China cast its sixth veto to aid in protecting the Syrian government from UNSC actions and sanctions regarding chemical weapons attacks.

DIY Gene Editing Gets Faster, Cheaper, and More Worrisome
CRISPR/Cas-9 lab projects may not have been a possibility when I was in high school, but today’s students are getting a taste for genome editing. The technology has allowed relative amateurs to easily and cheaply learn gene editing tactics. “The question is, can we rely on individuals to conduct their experiments in an ethical and appropriately safe way?” says Maxwell Mehlman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, who is working with do-it-yourself scientists to develop DIY Crispr ethical guidelines. “The jury is out,” he says. “Crispr is too new. We have to wait and see.” GMU’s Dr. Koblentz has noted dual-use research is a wicked problem, and it seems that CRISPR/Cas-9 is one as well. Do-it-yourself (DIY) CRISPR kits can be purchased online for $150 and you can even get a handful of tutoring sessions for $400. While these products and experiments utilize harmless organisms, it’s not hard to see why so many are worried about the potential for misuse. Harvard University’s Dana Bateman visits high school classrooms for a lesson on CRISPR and during her time, she poses several ethical questions to the students. Dr. Bateman “asked a group of seventh-grade students whether Crispr should be deployed to bring extinct animals back to life. After a spirited discussion, one student asked, ‘How can we decide if we aren’t sure what will happen?’ Ms. Bateman replied that such questions will increasingly be part of public debate, and that everyone, including 12-year-olds, can benefit from learning about Crispr.” Learning the ins and outs of CRISPR isn’t so easy that it’s comparable to switching batteries in a remote, but probably closer to a complex set of IKEA instructions (ok, that’s a bit of an over simplification, but you catch my drift). Simply put, CRISPR does make DIY gene editing easier and cheaper, but foundational knowledge or instruction is still necessary. In this moment, we’re racing to catch up with the pace of innovation and understanding the risks versus rewards is proving more difficult. What are your thoughts on this hot topic?

China’s New BSL-4 Lab Plans 10729_lores
The Chinese mainland is hoping to see the construction of at least five BSL-4 labs by 2025. A laboratory in Wuhan is currently in the accreditation and clearance phase to work with the most deadly pathogens we face. While many celebrate the building  of this new lab, others are concerned about the biosafety and biosecurity risks. The increase in biodefense labs and programs has created several trade-offs for work with such high-risk pathogens.  Each new lab presents a new risk – for both biosafety failures and biosecurity failures. Biosafety failures are already plaguing U.S. labs – will this be the case with China’s labs? “The Wuhan lab cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million), and to allay safety concerns it was built far above the flood plain and with the capacity to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, although the area has no history of strong earthquakes. It will focus on the control of emerging diseases, store purified viruses and act as a World Health Organization ‘reference laboratory’ linked to similar labs around the world.” Skeptics have pointed to several escapes of SARS from a high-level containment facility in Beijing. Several biosafety and biosecurity experts are highlighting the need for transparency and an open and responsible culture. Addressing issues with staff at all levels and opening the floor for an honest and frank discussion regarding concerns from those working in the environment is vital to addressing the issues that may not be seen at a higher level.

WHO’s List of Superbug Super Offenders  screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-19-28-am
If there was an A-list for multi-drug resistant organisms, this would be it. This first-of-its-kind list, highlights the “priority pathogens” that comprise of twelve families of bacteria “that pose the greatest threat to human health”. “The list was developed in collaboration with the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen, Germany, using a multi-criteria decision analysis technique vetted by a group of international experts. The criteria for selecting pathogens on the list were: how deadly the infections they cause are; whether their treatment requires long hospital stays; how frequently they are resistant to existing antibiotics when people in communities catch them; how easily they spread between animals, from animals to humans, and from person to person; whether they can be prevented (e.g. through good hygiene and vaccination); how many treatment options remain; and whether new antibiotics to treat them are already in the R&D pipeline.” Not only is the publishing of this list an indicator as to the seriousness of the issue, but it signals a desperate plea for the pharmaceutical industry to develop new antibiotics. The three most critical bacteria on the list are carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae that are both carbapenem-resistant and ESBL-producing.

Kim Jong Un and the Case of the of VX Nerve Agent 
Last week saw the shocking revelation by Malaysian police that Kim Jon-nam, half-brother to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, had been assassinated with the nerve agent, VX. The use of VX has left many wondering gif Kim Jong-un decided to use this overt form of assignation to signal his possession and willingness to use it or was this a botched assassination that was supposed to look like a natural death? Since this event has taken us into uncharted territory, many chemical and biological weapons experts are weighing in on what this means. GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director, Gregory Koblentz, pointed out that “it’s very hard to make an accurate intelligence assessment”. The dual-use nature of bio-chem weapon production facilities and materials makes intelligence gathering that much more difficult. “While Kim Jong-un is unpredictable, seasoned Korea watchers see method in what may sometimes seem like madness. And that leads them to doubt that he actually intends to use nuclear weapons — which make more sense as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US and other powers. Pyongyang’s chemical arsenal is a different prospect, however. ‘If there’s a conflict on the Korean peninsula, North Korea would probably use chemical weapons early on,’ Koblentz said.”

PHEMCE Review: Accomplishments and Future Areas of Opportunity 
GMU Biodefense PhD student and VP of Marketing at Emergent BioSolutions, Rebecca Fish, is looking at the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) and their recent strategic implementation plan. Highlighting their four goals and sample accomplishments, Rebecca looks at their work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) like Ebola response and Zika. While PHEMCE has made great progress, there is still room for engagement and opportunity. Rebecca points to their plans to incentivize innovation, “while biotechnology is increasing at an exponential rate, and the opportunity for misuse (bioterrorism) is increasing, the number of companies interested in making significant investment in medical countermeasures development is decreasing. There are important MCM innovation gaps that need to be addressed.” She notes that PHEMCE activity encompasses a great deal of federal agencies, which can make work that much more challenging. “However, the PHEMCE effort still requires strong, centralized leadership and a comprehensive strategic plan with measurable outcomes against which progress can be reported. It’s impressive that so many groups are working on these challenges, but who is determining the overall strategic plan? How does it come together? Which single individual has responsibility for the entire biodefense strategic effort? Who is managing the enterprise U.S. biodefense budget? No one. No one has clear accountability for the U.S. biodefense strategy, and this puts our country at risk.”

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Announces 2017 Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity
The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University has announced the new class of emerging leaders in biosecurity. GMU is happy to announced that one of our Biodefense PhD students, Saskia Popescu, was named among the 2017 emerging leaders. “The program’s goal is to build a multidisciplinary network of biosecurity practitioners and scholars. ELBI is supported by a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project. As part of its commitment to grow and support the field of biosecurity, the Center has selected 28 Fellows from the US, the UK, and Canada. As in previous years, this year’s Fellows have backgrounds in government, the biological sciences, medicine, national security, law enforcement, public health preparedness, and the private sector.” Congrats to the new class of emerging leaders!

Multivariate Analysis of Radiation Responsive Proteins to Predict Radiation Exposure in Total-Body Irradiation and Partial-Body Irradiation Models
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull, is working to strengthen medical countermeasures in the event of a radiological or nuclear attack. Advanced screening and medical management of those exposed are vital during such an event. “In such a scenario, minimally invasive biomarkers that can accurately quantify radiation exposure would be useful for triage management by first responders. In this murine study, we evaluated the efficacy of a novel combination of radiation responsive proteins, Flt3 ligand (FL), serum amyloid A (SAA), matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP9), fibrinogen beta (FGB) and pentraxin 3 (PTX3) to predict the received dose after whole- or partial-body irradiation.” Researchers found that the novel combination of radiation responsive biomarker proteins are an efficient and accurate tactic for predicting radiation exposure. You can read the paper here.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • OPCW Call for Nominations For A Workshop on Policy & Diplomacy for Scientists – The OPCW Technical Secretariat is organizing a workshop, “Introduction to Responsible Research Practices in Chemical and Biochemical Sciences”, from September 12-15, 2017. “The objective of the workshop is to raise awareness among young scientists on the policy and diplomacy aspects that are related to the use of chemicals in various scientific disciplines, including chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, and other related fields.” Check out their link for more info on applying for admission and/or a scholarship.
  • Epidemic Tracking Tool Wins Open Science Grand Prize – A new prototype, Nextstrain, has won the new Open Science Prize. This tool analyzes and tracks genetic mutations during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks and they’re hoping to use it for other viruses. “Everyone is doing sequencing, but most people aren’t able to analyze their sequences as well or as quickly as they might want to,” Bedford said. “We’re trying to fill in this gap so that the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — or whoever — can have better analysis tools to do what they do. We’re hoping that will get our software in the hands of a lot of people.”