By Alena M. James
Two years ago, Dr. Stephen Arnon and Dr. Jason Barash discovered a new strain of Clostridium botulinum. Typical C. botulinum strains are known to express any of the seven different botulinum neuron toxins, Botulinum Toxin Types A-G. The new strain discovered by Arnon and Barash, after studying infant botulism at the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento, was found to express neurological toxins, Botulinium Toxin Type B and a new Botulinum Toxin Type H. Dr. Arnon and Dr. Barash published their findings of the new toxin in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 2013, but elected to withhold from the public and the rest of the scientific community any genetic sequencing information regarding the new strain. The withholding of this information has remained a point of contention between the researchers and individuals representing various organizations wishing to study the bacteria.
After publishing a story on the case last Monday, NPR revealed that Dr. Arnon had not been engaging in scientific information sharing practices regarding the new toxin with other professionals also studying botulinum toxins. According to NPR’s coverage, Dr. Arnon remained reluctant to disseminate information on the newly discovered neurotoxin, Type H, with other scientists or with federal officials. In an article published by New Scientist, the editors of the Journal of Infectious Diseases announced that Arnon and Barash held consultations with several representatives from different federal agencies before deciding against publishing genetic sequencing information on the new stain in their scientific article.
From NPR’s coverage of this case, federal officials claim they were not responsible for the researcher’s decision to not make the genetic sequences available and never said not to publish the information. Given the lack of an antitoxin antidote available to stop the dangerous effects of the Type H toxin, many individuals desire to perform research on the strain of C. botulinum that can produce the Type H toxin. Several scientists and federal institutions have tried to request the sequences and/or live strains of Arnon’s new strain of C. botulinum. However, Arnon remains steadfast in not sharing the bacteria.
The case raises an unresolved issue that persists in the sciences. That issue is defining the parameter by which we are able to distinguish dual use research. Dual use research in the biological sciences is research that can be performed to benefit humans, but can also be performed to harm humans. In this particular case, the Type H Toxin has been declared the most deadly toxin and has great potential to be deployed as a biological weapon. The absence of an available antitoxin that can be administered to infected patients raises great cause for concern that the bacteria producing the toxin could be mass-produced to harm innocent people. From NPR’s story, it seems that this sentiment is shared with Type H’s discover Arnon.
Upon Arnon’s discovery of Type H, the CDC, US Army Laboratories, and DHS all expressed interest in acquiring the strain that produces this new neurotoxin. These federal institutions’ interest in studying the toxin in order to develop a cure is the same goal as numerous other scientists who want to perform research on the strain. So how does one build biodefense against a pathogen one cannot gain access? Maybe from Dr. Arnon’s perspective, keeping Pandora’s Box closed maybe the best weapon of defense for the US against the botulinum Type H neurotoxin.
You can listen to NPR’s initial report of this story here.