Advances in the field of biotechnology and synthetic biology are providing tremendous promise with respect to new ways to combat disease, produce useful chemicals, and remediate environmental damage, to name a few applications. However, the same capabilities are becoming increasingly accessible to actors wishing to do harm to humans, animals, plants, and the environment. Scientists and policymakers become increasingly aware that the current regulatory framework may not be adequate. Professor Michael Imperiale, University of Michigan, is one of the experts in the area, and a few days before his public lecture, “The Perils of Science to Create Pathogens: Controlling Biosafety and Biosecurity Threats,” he was kind enough to answer some of my questions on the topic.
Kostas Vavitsas: Could you tell us about your experience in research and policymaking?
Michael Imperiale: I have been studying viruses since I was a postdoc, i.e., for over 35 years. My experience in the policy world began in 2005 when I was appointed as an inaugural member of National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Since then, I’ve also been involved in various other aspects of science policy, including serving on some National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) committees dealing with various issues in this arena.
KV: How easy is it now to reconstitute a virus in the lab? Does it require a high level of expertise or could it be done by anyone with basic molecular biology training?
MI: It depends on the virus. There are a lot of variables that influence this ability, but in general difficulty scales with size of the genome (larger is harder).
KV: There is a lot of concern in the media about potential biosecurity threats by biohackers. Do you agree with George Church that synthetic biologists should need a license to operate?
MI: To me, Church’s proposal raises more questions than it solves. For example, what is synthetic biology? Who is a synthetic biology? If my lab uses synthetic biology approaches, am I included? What does such a license allow (or not allow)? Who issues the license?
KV: What are in your opinion the most sensible biosecurity actions that could be implemented in the US or globally? Do you think the positive aspects of recent biotechnological developments outweigh the potential hazards?
MI: I think robust investment in legitimate research, and in outreach and education, is some of our best protection against deliberate misuse. I also think we need to assess experiments that have potential biosecurity implications and ask, are these important questions to address? If the answer is “yes,” then let’s figure out a way to do them safely and securely. The good news is that the synthetic biology community has been very proactive in addressing safety and security.
Professor Michael Imperiale is associate vice president for research, research policy and compliance at the University of Michigan. He leads the development and review of research policy, and serves as the key point of contact for research compliance. Imperiale, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, also oversees issues surrounding responsible conduct of research and serves as the institutional Research Integrity Officer.
Prof. Imperiale’s lecture, “The Perils of Science to Create Pathogens: Controlling Biosafety and Biosecurity Threats,” is available in-person or via webcast at 11:30-1 Central (US) time on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. It will be held in the Mississippi Room, 3rd floor, Coffman Union (300 Washington Ave SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455) on the University of Minnesota campus. The webcast can be accessed here.