Are the gains from gain-of-function research worth the risks?

Gain-of-function research can make pathogens more infectious and deadly. It also enables scientists to prepare remedies in advance.

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Scientists have long argued that gain-of-function research, which can make viruses and other infectious agents more contagious or more deadly, was necessary to develop therapies and vaccines to counter the pathogens in case they were used for biological warfare. As the SARS-CoV-2 origins are being investigated, one prominent theory suggests it had leaked from a biolab that conducted gain-of-function research, causing a global pandemic that claimed nearly 6.9 million lives. Now some question the wisdom of engaging in this type of research, stating that the risks may far outweigh the benefits.

“Gain-of-function research means genetically changing a genome in a way that might enhance the biological function of its genes, such as its transmissibility or the range of hosts it can infect,” says George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. This can occur through direct genetic manipulation as well as by encouraging mutations while growing successive generations of micro-organism in culture. “Some of these changes may impact pathogenesis in a way that is hard to anticipate in advance,” Church says.

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Gail Dutton
Gail Dutton has covered the biopharmaceutical industry as a journalist for the past three decades. She focuses on the intersection of business and science, and has written extensively for GEN – Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Life Science Leader, The Scientist and BioSpace. Her articles also have appeared in Popular Science, Forbes, Entrepreneur and other publications.
Lab-grown meat will soon be sold in the U.S., but who will buy It?

Chicken that is grown entirely in a laboratory, without harming a single bird, could be sold in supermarkets in the coming months. But critics say the doubts about lab-grown meat have not been appropriately explored.

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Last November, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration disclosed that chicken from a California firm called UPSIDE Foods did not raise safety concerns, it drily upended how humans have obtained animal protein for thousands of generations.

“The FDA is ready to work with additional firms developing cultured animal cell food and production processes to ensure their food is safe and lawful,” the agency said in a statement at the time.

Assuming UPSIDE obtains clearances from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its chicken – grown entirely in a laboratory without harming a single bird – could be sold in supermarkets in the coming months.

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Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.
Time to visit your TikTok doc? The good and bad of doctors on social media

Rakhi Patel is among an increasing number of health care professionals, including doctors and nurses, who maintain an active persona on Instagram, TikTok and other social media sites.

Rakhi Patel

Rakhi Patel has carved a hobby out of reviewing pizza — her favorite food — on Instagram. In a nod to her preferred topping, she calls herself thepepperoniqueen. Photos and videos show her savoring slices from scores of pizzerias. In some of them, she’s wearing scrubs — her attire as an inpatient neurology physician associate at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

“Depending on how you dress your pizza, it can be more nutritious,” said Patel, who suggests a thin crust, sugarless tomato sauce and vegetables galore as healthier alternatives. “There are no boundaries for a health care professional to enjoy pizza.”

Beyond that, “pizza fuels my mental health and makes me happy, especially when loaded with pepperoni,” she said. “If I’m going to be a pizza connoisseur, then I also need to take care of my physical health by ensuring that I get at least three days of exercise per week and eat nutritiously when I’m not eating pizza.”

She’s among an increasing number of health care professionals, including doctors and nurses, who maintain an active persona on social media, according to bioethics researchers. They share their hobbies and interests with people inside and outside the world of medicine, helping patients and the public become acquainted with the humans behind the scrubs or white coats. Other health care experts limit their posts to medical topics, while some opt for a combination of personal and professional commentaries. Depending on the posts, ethical issues may come into play.

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Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French, with minors in German and Russian, from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.