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.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.