Hazards in the lab
Risky viral research gets a government green light
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The United States government has quietly resumed funding for certain high-risk viral experiments that regulators had blocked for four years, according to a February report by Science magazine.
The experiments, known as gain-of-function studies, involve scientists modifying a dangerous virus to make it even more potent and contagious and conducting experiments aimed at finding a vaccine or cure. These experiments often produce highly contagious pathogens potentially capable of wide and uncontrolled spread in human populations. Many scientists fear these deadly viruses could ignite a pandemic if they somehow escaped from the lab or fell into the hands of bioterrorists, and some believe they should be banned.
In 2011 two researchers, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the University of Tokyo, alarmed the scientific world by revealing they had separately modified the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus so that it spread between ferrets. Many scientists warned the modification might mean the potent virus could also jump to humans.
After a voluntary moratorium by the two researchers’ labs, the experiments resumed in 2013 under new U.S. oversight rules. But concerns reignited after more scientists conducted gain-of-function studies and a series of accidents occurred at federal biocontainment labs. In 2014, U.S. officials announced a pause on federal funding for 18 gain-of-function studies involving influenza, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, and severe acute respiratory syndrome viruses.
In December 2017, the National Institutes of Health lifted the funding pause and invited new gain-of-function research proposals that a safety committee would review. Last year, the committee approved resuming the same type of work in the Fouchier and Kawaoka labs that started the whole debate eight years ago.
Kawaoka told Science he’s glad the government developed new oversight mechanisms and that he can resume his experiments: “We know that it does carry risks. We also believe it is important work to protect human health.”
Fifteen million babies are born prematurely each year, but it isn’t always clear whether a particular woman is at risk of delivering early. Now researchers have discovered a blood test that could help predict which pregnant women are at a high risk of spontaneous preterm delivery.
In a study published in January by the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the researchers tested blood samples from 87 women who delivered before 36 weeks of gestation.
They found that a subset of five proteins circulating in the mother’s blood during the first trimester signaled a risk of premature delivery. The researchers plan to confirm their findings with a larger study that will incorporate other preterm birth risk factors. —J.B.
Skin on demand
Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have designed a portable medical device that can print skin onto a large wound or burn. The bioprinter, filled with a patient’s own cells, prints new skin by depositing those cells layer by layer directly onto the patient. A Feb. 12 study in Nature described how the device scans the wound and delivers cells exactly where needed to replicate and accelerate the formation of normal skin.
“The technology has the potential to eliminate the need for painful skin grafts,” said co-author Anthony Atala. —J.B.
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