Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Sign Here for Smallpox

The 9/11 attacks in America saw the rapid arrival of the patriot act, the bombings of the London underground led to calls for a national identity card scheme, retinal scanners and other biometric security measures. In addition to these drastic measures Western governments are calling for a ‘slight erosion’ of our civil liberties in order to fight the war on terror. Whichever side of the fence you stand on these matters, this story that I dug out this morning will be of interest to everyone.

A team from New Scientist uncovered the sobering reality of the gene synthesis business. For those of you who don’t know, gene synthesis entails synthesising DNA for scientists and researchers to study. The service is critical to those wishing to discover medical advances because it gives them a steady supply of any disease that they wish to study. However, what is alarming is the lack of control provided by these companies. New scientist contacted 16 of these companies, and of the 12 who responded only five said that they screen all requests for genetic material, whilst 4 said they screened some applications, and 3 companies did no checks at all. The service that these companies provide is simple, you just email them the gene sequence you want synthesised and hey presto! A few weeks later your new bacterium arrives through the post.

These companies will synthesise genes for as little as $1.50 per pair of DNA strands, with simple viruses being made up of only a few thousand strands. The structure of the viruses is publicly available so that in theory they should be easily identified. Admittedly many deadly pathogens like smallpox are made up of over 190,000 strands of DNA and requesting them is likely to arise suspicion, but parts of the genome of smaller viruses could easily be ordered separately and combined with other micro-organisms to create new strains of killer viruses.

Craic Computing, an American software company have created an application that scans all incoming orders and flags any orders similar to organisms identified as ‘cause for concern’ by the US government. However some of these sequences do have other legitimate uses so all orders flagged by the software need to be double-checked by a human expert. Perhaps this additional human control is the reason why some companies do not bother screening orders. Bob Xue, director of Genemed Synthesis in San Francisco simply stated that performing scans was "not their business".
If it’s not your business then whose is it then Bob? You prick! In case you didn’t realise it Bob, if you sell potentially harmful material you owe it to the rest of us to check whom you are selling it to. Unless of course, you want to be tarred with the same brush as the shit bags that sell crack to 12 year olds.

Some companies do not check the orders but do attempt to verify that email addresses are from valid research institutions. Whilst this provides some precautions is does not accommodate for the fact that email addresses are easy to fake.

Whilst some experts have called for tight global control of synthesised genetic material this action could have a negative effect on advanced medical research and cause delays in the development of vaccines for new diseases. Perhaps what is more alarming is that the technology to synthesis DNA is becoming cheaper and these services will be springing up all over the world making them tougher to control.

Luckily, a team from MIT has launched a study into the pros and cons of synthesised genomes and will publish the results in 2006. A spokesperson from this team argues that a high level of self-regulation is key, so these companies will only do business with legitimate research institutions making it tougher for deadly pathogens to fall into the wrong hands. Whereas a tighter clampdown on gene synthesis from the world’s governments could limit the amount of new research being conducted.

Hopefully (sooner rather than later) everyone will wake up to this major flaw and it will be sorted before its too late and thousands die and medical advances slow to a snails pace.

I’m not trying to be the harbinger of doom, I just thought it would make an interesting post! Maybe in future I’ll be best off leaving the scare mongering to CNN and the other news channels.

DWB

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