Are the gains from gain-of-function research worth the risks?
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.
In the wake of the global pandemic, the pros and cons of gain-of-function research are being fiercely debated. Some scientists say this type of research is vital for preventing future pandemics or for preparing for bioweapon attacks. Others consider it another disaster waiting to happen. The Government Accounting Office issued a report charging that a framework developed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) provided inadequate oversight of this potentially deadly research. There’s a movement to stop it altogether. In January, the Viral Gain-of-Function Research Moratorium Act (S. 81) was introduced into the Senate to cease awarding federal research funding to institutions doing gain-of-function studies.
While testifying before the House COVID Origins Select Committee on March 8th, Robert Redfield, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that COVID-19 may have resulted from an accidental lab leak involving gain-of-function research. Redfield said his conclusion is based upon the “rapid and high infectivity for human-to-human transmission, which then predicts the rapid evolution of new variants.”
“It is a very, very, very small subset of life science research that could potentially generate a potential pandemic pathogen,” said Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University.
“In my opinion,” Redfield continues, “the COVID-19 pandemic presents a case study on the potential dangers of such research. While many believe that gain-of-function research is critical to get ahead of viruses by developing vaccines, in this case, I believe that was the exact opposite.” Consequently, Redfield called for a moratorium on gain-of-function research until there is consensus about the value of such risky science.
What constitutes risky?
The Federal Select Agent Program lists 68 specific infectious agents as risky because they are either very contagious or very deadly. In order to work with these 68 agents, scientists must register with the federal government. Meanwhile, research on deadly pathogens that aren’t easily transmitted, or pathogens that are quite contagious but not deadly, can be conducted without such oversight. “If you’re not working with select agents, you’re not required to register the research with the federal government,” says Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University. But the 68-item list may not have everything that could possibly become dangerous or be engineered to be dangerous, thus escaping the government’s scrutiny—an issue that new regulations aim to address.
In January 2017, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued additional guidance. It required federal departments and agencies to follow a series of steps when reviewing proposed research that could create, transfer, or use potential pandemic pathogens resulting from the enhancement of a pathogen’s transmissibility or virulence in humans.
In defining risky pathogens, OSTP included viruses that were likely to be highly transmissible and highly virulent, and thus very deadly. The Proposed Biosecurity Oversight Framework for the Future of Science, outlined in 2023, broadened the scope to require federal review of research “that is reasonably anticipated to enhance the transmissibility and/or virulence of any pathogen” likely to pose a threat to public health, health systems or national security. Those types of experiments also include the pathogens’ ability to evade vaccines or therapeutics, or diagnostic detection.
However, Parker says that dangers of generating a pandemic-level germ are tiny. “It is a very, very, very small subset of life science research that could potentially generate a potential pandemic pathogen.” Since gain-of-function guidelines were first issued in 2017, only three such research projects have met those requirements for HHS review. They aimed to study influenza and bird flu. Only two of those projects were funded, according to the NIH Office of Science Policy. For context, NIH funded approximately 11,000 of the 54,000 grant applications it received in 2022.
Guidelines governing gain-of-function research are being strengthened, but Church points out they aren’t ideal yet. “They need to be much clearer about penalties and avoiding positive uses before they would be enforceable.”
What do we gain from gain-of-function research?
The most commonly cited reason to conduct gain-of-function research is for biodefense—the government’s ability to deal with organisms that may pose threats to public health.
In the era of mRNA vaccines, the advance preparedness argument may be even less relevant.
“The need to work with potentially dangerous viruses is central to our preparedness,” Parker says. “It’s essential that we know and understand the basic biology, microbiology, etc. of some of these dangerous pathogens.” That includes increasing our knowledge of the molecular mechanisms by which a virus could become a sustained threat to humans. “Knowing that could help us detect [risks] earlier,” Parker says—and could make it possible to have medical countermeasures, like vaccines and therapeutics, ready.
Most vaccines, however, aren’t affected by this type of research. Essentially, scientists hope they will never need to use it. Moreover, Paul Mango, HSS former deputy chief of staff for policy, and author of the 2022 book Warp Speed, says he believes that in the era of mRNA vaccines, the advance preparedness argument may be even less relevant. “That’s because these vaccines can be developed and produced in less than 12 months, unlike traditional vaccines that require years of development,” he says.
Can better oversight guarantee safety?
Another situation, which Parker calls unnecessarily dangerous, is when regulatory bodies cannot verify that the appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls are in place.
Gain-of-function studies, Parker points out, are conducted at the basic research level, and they’re performed in high-containment labs. “As long as all the processes, procedures and protocols are followed and there’s appropriate oversight at the institutional and scientific level, it can be conducted safely.”
Globally, there are 69 Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs operating, under construction or being planned, according to recent research from King’s College London and George Mason University for Global BioLabs. Eleven of these 18 high-containment facilities that are planned or under construction are in Asia. Overall, three-quarters of the BSL4 labs are in cities, increasing public health risks if leaks occur.
Researchers say they are confident in the oversight system for BSL4 labs within the U.S. They are less confident in international labs. Global BioLabs’ report concurs. It gives the highest scores for biosafety to industrialized nations, led by France, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Japan, and the lowest scores to Saudi Arabia, India and some developing African nations. Scores for biosecurity followed similar patterns.
“There are no harmonized international biosafety and biosecurity standards,” Parker notes. That issue has been discussed for at least a decade. Now, in the wake of SARS and the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists and regulators are likely to push for unified oversight standards. “It’s time we got serious about international harmonization of biosafety and biosecurity standards and guidelines,” Parker says. New guidelines are being worked on. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) outlined its proposed recommendations in the document titled Proposed Biosecurity Oversight Framework for the Future of Science.
The debates about whether gain-of-function research is useful or poses unnecessary risks to humanity are likely to rage on for a while. The public too has a voice in this debate and should weigh in by communicating with their representatives in government, or by partaking in educational forums or initiatives offered by universities and other institutions. In the meantime, scientists should focus on improving the research regulations, Parker notes. “We need to continue to look for lessons learned and for gaps in our oversight system,” he says. “That’s what we need to do right now.”
Lab-grown meat will soon be sold in the U.S., but who will buy It?
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.
“Ultimately, we want our products to be available everywhere meat is sold, including retail and food service channels,” a company spokesperson said.The upscale French restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco will have UPSIDE chicken on its menu once it is approved, she added.
Known as lab-grown or cultured meat, a product such as UPSIDE’s is created using stem cells and other tissue obtained from a chicken, cow or other livestock. Those cells are then multiplied in a nutrient-dense environment, usually in conjunction with a “scaffold” of plant-based materials or gelatin to give them a familiar form, such as a chicken breast or a ribeye steak. A Dutch company called Mosa Meat claims it can produce 80,000 hamburgers derived from a cluster of tissue the size of a sesame seed.
Critics say the doubts about lab-grown meat and the possibility it could merge “Brave New World” with “The Jungle” and “Soylent Green” have not been appropriately explored.
That’s a far cry from when it took months of work to create the first lab-grown hamburger a decade ago. That minuscule patty – which did not contain any fat and was literally plucked from a Petri dish to go into a frying pan – cost about $325,000 to produce.
Just a decade later, an Israeli company called Future Meat said it can produce lab-grown meat for about $1.70 per pound. It plans to open a production facility in the U.S. sometime in 2023 and distribute its products under the brand name “Believer.”
Costs for production have sunk so low that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh expect sometime in early 2024 to produce lab-grown Wagyu steak to showcase the viability of growing high-end cuts of beef cheaply. The Carnegie Mellon team is producing its Wagyu using a consumer 3-D printer bought secondhand on eBay and modified to print the highly marbled flesh using a method developed by the university. The device costs $200 – about the same as a pound of Wagyu in the U.S. The initiative’s modest five-figure budget was successfully crowdfunded last year.
“The big cost is going to be the cells (which are being extracted by a cow somewhere in Pennsylvania), but otherwise printing doesn’t add much to the process,” said Rosalyn Abbott, a Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of bioengineering who is co-leader on the project. “But it adds value, unlike doing this with ground meat.”
Lab-Grown Meat’s Promise
Proponents of lab-grown meat say it will cut down on traditional agriculture, which has been a leading contributor to deforestation, water shortages and contaminated waterways from animal waste, as well as climate change.
An Oxford University study from 2011 concludes lab-grown meat could have greenhouse emissions 96 percent lower compared to traditionally raised livestock. Moreover, proponents of lab-grown meat claim that the suffering of animals would decline dramatically, as they would no longer need to be warehoused and slaughtered. A recently opened 26-story high-rise in China dedicated to the raising and slaughtering of pigs illustrates the current plight of livestock in stark terms.
Scientists may even learn how to tweak lab-grown meat to make it more nutritious. Natural red meat is high in saturated fat and, if it’s eaten too often, can lead to chronic diseases. In lab versions, the saturated fat could be swapped for healthier, omega-3 fatty acids.
But critics say the doubts about lab-grown meat and the possibility it could merge “Brave New World” with “The Jungle” and “Soylent Green” have not been appropriately explored.
A Slippery Slope?
Some academics who have studied the moral and ethical issues surrounding lab-grown meat believe it will have a tough path ahead gaining acceptance by consumers. Should it actually succeed in gaining acceptance, many ethical questions must be answered.
“People might be interested” in lab-grown meat, perhaps as a curiosity, said Carlos Alvaro, an associate professor of philosophy at the New York City College of Technology, part of the City University of New York. But the allure of traditionally sourced meat has been baked – or perhaps grilled – into people’s minds for so long that they may not want to make the switch. Plant-based meat provides a recent example of the uphill battle involved in changing old food habits, with Beyond Meat’s stock prices dipping nearly 80 percent in 2022.
"There are many studies showing that people don’t really care about the environment (to that extent)," Alvaro said. "So I don’t know how you would convince people to do this because of the environment.”
“From my research, I understand that the taste (of lab-grown meat) is not quite there,” Alvaro said, noting that the amino acids, sugars and other nutrients required to grow cultivated meat do not mimic what livestock are fed. He also observed that the multiplication of cells as part of the process “really mimic cancer cells” in the way they grow, another off-putting thought for would-be consumers of the product.
Alvaro is also convinced the public will not buy into any argument that lab-grown meat is more environmentally friendly.
“If people care about the environment, they either try and consume considerably less meat and other animal products, or they go vegan or vegetarian,” he said. “But there are many studies showing that people don’t really care about the environment (to that extent). So I don’t know how you would convince people to do this because of the environment.”
Ben Bramble, a professor at Australian National University who previously held posts at Princeton and Trinity College in Ireland, takes a slightly different tack. He noted that “if lab-grown meat becomes cheaper, healthier, or tastier than regular meat, there will be a large market for it. If it becomes all of these things, it will dominate the market.”
However, Bramble has misgivings about that occurring. He believes a smooth transition from traditionally sourced meat to a lab-grown version would allow humans to elide over the decades of animal cruelty perpetrated by large-scale agriculture, without fully reckoning with and learning from this injustice.
“My fear is that if we all switch over to lab-grown meat because it has become cheaper, healthier, or tastier than regular meat, we might never come to realize what we have done, and the terrible things we are capable of,” he said. “This would be a catastrophe.”
Bramble’s writings about cultured meat also raise some serious moral conundrums. If, for example, animal meat may be cultivated without killing animals, why not create products from human protein?
Actually, that’s already happened.
It occurred in 2019, when Orkan Telhan, a professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, collaborated with two scientists to create an art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the future of foodstuffs.
Although the exhibit included bioengineered bread and genetically modified salmon, it was an installation called “Ouroboros Steak” that drew the most attention. That was comprised of pieces of human flesh grown in a lab from cultivated cells and expired blood products obtained from online sources.
The exhibit was presented as four tiny morsels of red meat – shaped in patterns suggesting an ouroboros, a dragon eating its own tail. They were placed in tiny individual saucers atop a larger plate and placemat with a calico pattern, suggesting an item to order in a diner. The artwork drew international headlines – as well as condemnation for Telhan’s vision.
Telhan’s artwork is intended to critique the overarching assumption that lab-grown meat will eventually replace more traditional production methods, as well as the lack of transparency surrounding many processed foodstuffs. “They think that this problem (from industrial-scale agriculture) is going be solved by this new technology,” Telhan said. “I am critical (of) that perspective.”
Unlike Bramble, Telhan is not against lab-grown meat, so long as its producers are transparent about the sourcing of materials and its cultivation. But he believes that large-scale agricultural meat production – which dates back centuries – is not going to be replaced so quickly.
“We see this again and again with different industries, like algae-based fuels. A lot of companies were excited about this, and promoted it,” Telhan said. “And years later, we know these fuels work. But to be able to displace the oil industry means building the infrastructure to scale takes billions of dollars, and nobody has the patience or money to do it.”
Alvaro concurred on this point, which he believes is already weakened because a large swath of consumers aren’t concerned about environmental degradation.
“They’re going to have to sell this big, but in order to convince people to do so, they have to convince them to eat this product instead of regular meat,” Alvaro said.
Moreover, if lab-based meat does obtain a significant market share, Telhan suggested companies may do things to the product – such as to genetically modify it to become more profitable – and never notify consumers. That is a particular concern in the U.S., where regulations regarding such modifications are vastly more relaxed than in the European Union.
“I think that they have really good objectives, and they aspire to good objectives,” Telhan said. “But the system itself doesn't really allow for that much transparency.”
No matter what the future holds, sometime next year Carnegie Mellon is expected to hold a press conference announcing it has produced a cut of the world’s most expensive beef with the help of a modified piece of consumer electronics. It will likely take place at around the same time UPSIDE chicken will be available for purchase in supermarkets and restaurants, pending the USDA’s approvals.
Abbott, the Carnegie Mellon professor, suggested the future event will be both informative and celebratory.
“I think Carnegie Mellon would have someone potentially cook it for us,” she said. “Like have a really good chef in New York City do it.”
Time to visit your TikTok doc? The good and bad of doctors on social media
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.
“Health care professionals are quite prevalent on social media,” said Mercer Gary, a postdoctoral researcher at The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York. “They’ve been posting on #medTwitter for many years, mainly to communicate with one another, but, of course, anyone can see the threads. Most recently, doctors and nurses have become a presence on TikTok.”
On social media, many health care providers perceive themselves to be “humanizing” their profession by coming across as more approachable — “reminding patients that providers are people and workers, as well as repositories of medical expertise,” Gary said. As a result, she noted that patients who are often intimidated by clinicians may feel comfortable enough to overcome barriers to scheduling health care appointments. The use of TikTok in particular may help doctors and nurses connect with younger followers.
When health care providers post on social media, they must bear in mind that they have legal and ethical duties to their patients, profession and society, said Elizabeth Levy, founder and director of Physicians for Justice.
While enduring three years of pandemic conditions, many health care professionals have struggled with burnout, exhaustion and moral distress. “Much health care provider content on social media seeks to expose the difficulties of the work,” Gary added. “TikTok and Instagram reels have shown health care providers crying after losing a patient or exhausted after a night shift in the emergency department.”
A study conducted in Beijing, China and published last year found that TikTok is the world’s most rapidly growing video application, amassing 1.6 billion users in 2021. “More and more patients are searching for information on genitourinary cancers via TikTok,” the study’s authors wrote in Frontiers in Oncology, referring to cancers of the urinary tracts and male reproductive organs. Among the 61 sample videos examined by the researchers, health care practitioners contributed the content in 29, or 47 percent, of them. Yet, 22 posts, 36 percent, were misinformative, mostly due to outdated information.
More than half of the videos offered good content on disease symptoms and examinations. The authors concluded that “most videos on genitourinary cancers on TikTok are of poor to medium quality and reliability. However, videos posted by media agencies enjoyed great public attention and interaction. Medical practitioners could improve the video quality by cooperating with media agencies and avoiding unexplained terminologies.”
When health care providers post on social media, they must bear in mind that they have legal and ethical duties to their patients, profession and society, said Elizabeth Levy, founder and director of Physicians for Justice in Irvine, Calif., a nonprofit network of volunteer physicians partnering with public interest lawyers to address the social determinants of health.
“Providers are also responsible for understanding the mechanics of their posts,” such as who can see these messages and how long they stay up, Levy said. As a starting point for figuring what’s acceptable, providers could look at social media guidelines put out by their professional associations. Even beyond that, though, they must exercise prudent judgment. “As social media continues to evolve, providers will also need to stay updated with the changing risks and benefits of participation.”
Patients often research their providers online, so finding them on social media can help inform about values and approaches to care, said M. Sara Rosenthal, a professor and founding director of the program for bioethics and chair of the hospital ethics committee at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
Health care providers’ posts on social media also could promote patient education. They can advance informed consent and help patients navigate the risks and benefits of various treatments or preventive options. However, providers could violate ethical principles if they espouse “harmful, risky or questionable therapies or medical advice that is contrary to clinical practice guidelines or accepted standards of care,” Rosenthal said.
Inappropriate self-disclosure also can affect a provider’s reputation, said Kelly Michelson, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. A clinician’s obligations to professionalism extend beyond those moments when they are directly taking care of their patients, she said. “Many experts recommend against clinicians ‘friending’ patients or the families on social media because it blurs the patient-clinician boundary.”
Meanwhile, clinicians need to adhere closely to confidentiality. In sharing a patient’s case online for educational purposes, safeguarding identity becomes paramount. Removing names and changing minor details is insufficient, Michelson said.
“The patient-clinician relationship is sacred, and it can only be effective if patients have 100 percent confidence that all that happens with their clinician is kept in the strictest of confidence,” she said, adding that health care providers also should avoid obtaining information about their patients from social media because it can lead to bias and risk jeopardizing objectivity.
Academic clinicians can use social media as a recruitment tool to expand the pool of research participants for their studies, Michelson said. Because the majority of clinical research is conducted at academic medical centers, large segments of the population are excluded. “This affects the quality of the data and knowledge we gain from research,” she said.
Don S. Dizon, a professor of medicine and surgery at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, uses LinkedIn and Doximity, as well as Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and most recently, YouTube and Post. He’s on Twitter nearly every day, where he interacts with the oncology community and his medical colleagues.
Also, he said, “I really like Instagram. It’s where you will see a hybrid of who I am professionally and personally. I’ve become comfortable sharing both up to a limit, but where else can I combine my appreciation of clothes with my professional life?” On that site, he’s seen sporting shirts with polka dots or stripes and an occasional bow-tie. He also posts photos of his cats.
Don S. Dizon, a professor of medicine and surgery at Brown, started using TikTok several years ago, telling medical stories in short-form videos.
Don S. Dizon
Dizon started using TikTok several years ago, telling medical stories in short-form videos. He may talk about an inspirational patient, his views on end-of-life care and death, or memories of people who have passed. But he is careful not to divulge any details that would identify anyone.
Recently, some people have become his patients after viewing his content on social media or on the Internet in general, which he clearly states isn’t a forum for medical advice. “In both situations, they are so much more relaxed when we meet, because it’s as if they have a sense of who I am as a person,” Dizon said. “I think that has helped so much in talking through a cancer diagnosis and a treatment plan, and yes, even discussions about prognosis.”
He also posts about equity and diversity. “I have found myself more likely to repost or react to issues that are inherently political, including racism, homophobia, transphobia and lack-of-access issues, because medicine is not isolated from society, and I truly believe that medicine is a social justice issue,” said Dizon, who is vice chair of diversity, equity, inclusion and professional integrity at the SWOG Cancer Research Network.
Through it all, Dizon likes “to break through the notion of doctor as infallible and all-knowing, the doctor as deity,” he said. “Humanizing what I do, especially in oncology, is something that challenges me on social media, and I appreciate the opportunities to do it on TikTok.”