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As gene editing spreads, risk of biological weapons looms

As gene-editing techniques through Crispr-Cas9 become more widely shared, citizen-scientists experiment with DNA.
As gene-editing techniques through Crispr-Cas9 become more widely shared, citizen-scientists experiment with DNA.(Adobe)

WASHINGTON — In the past few years, so-called biohackers across the country have taken gene editing into their own hands.

As the equipment becomes cheaper and the expertise in gene-editing techniques, mostly Crispr-Cas9, more widely shared, citizen-scientists are attempting to reengineer DNA in surprising ways.

But that is stirring worries that someone somewhere will use the spreading technology to create a bioweapon.

Until now, the work has amounted to little more than do-it-yourself misfires. A year ago, a biohacker injected himself at a conference with modified DNA that he hoped would make him more muscular. It did not.

Earlier this year, at Body Hacking Con in Austin, Texas, a biotech executive injected himself with what he hoped would be a herpes treatment, but it failed. His company already had livestreamed a man injecting himself with a home-brewed treatment for HIV, but his viral load increased.

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As a teenager, Keoni Gandall already was operating a cutting-edge research laboratory in his bedroom in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Gandall, now 18 and a research fellow at Stanford, said he wants to ensure open access to gene-editing technology, believing future biotech discoveries may come from the least expected minds. But he is quick to acknowledge that the do-it-yourself genetics revolution one day may go catastrophically wrong.

“Even I would tell you, the level of DNA synthesis regulation, it simply isn’t good enough,” Gandall said. “These regulations aren’t going to work when everything is decentralized — when everybody has a DNA synthesizer on their smartphone.”

Already a research team at the University of Alberta has recreated from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox, by stitching together fragments of mail-order DNA in just six months for about $100,000 — without a glance from law enforcement officials.

The team purchased overlapping DNA fragments from a commercial company. Once the researchers glued the full genome together and introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles.

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To some experts, the experiment nullified a decadeslong debate over whether to destroy the world’s two remaining smallpox remnants — at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a research center in Russia — since it proved that scientists who want to experiment with the virus can now create it themselves.

The study’s publication in the journal PLOS One included an in-depth description of the methods used and — most alarming to Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University — a series of new tips and tricks for bypassing roadblocks.

“Sure, we’ve known this could be possible,” Koblentz said. “We also knew North Korea could someday build a thermonuclear weapon, but we’re still horrified when they actually do it.”

Analysts urged the journal to cancel publication of the article, one calling it “unwise, unjustified, and dangerous.”

Even before publication, a report from a World Health Organization meeting noted that the endeavor “did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skills, significant funds or significant time.”

But the study’s lead researcher, David Evans, a virologist at the University of Alberta, said he had alerted several Canadian government authorities to his poxvirus venture, and none had raised an objection.

Many experts agree it would be difficult for amateur biologists of any stripe to design a killer virus on their own.

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But as more hackers trade computer code for the genetic kind, and as their skills become increasingly sophisticated, health security experts fear the potential for abuse may be growing.

“To unleash something deadly, that could really happen any day now — today,” said George Church, a researcher at Harvard and a leading synthetic biologist.

“If they’re willing to inject themselves with hormones to make their muscles bigger, you can imagine they’d be willing to test more powerful things,” Church added.

Authorities in the United States have been hesitant to undertake actions that could squelch innovation or impinge on intellectual property. The laws that cover biotechnology have not been significantly updated in decades, forcing regulators to rely on outdated frameworks to govern new technologies.