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

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.
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Getty Images

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.

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Michelle Rose/Massachusetts General Hospital

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The recipient was a 62-year-old man named Richard Slayman who had been living with end-stage kidney disease caused by diabetes. While Slayman had received a kidney transplant in 2018 from a human donor, his diabetes ultimately caused the kidney to fail less than five years after the transplant. Slayman had undergone dialysis ever since—a procedure that uses an artificial kidney to remove waste products from a person’s blood when the kidneys are unable to—but the dialysis frequently caused blood clots and other complications that landed him in the hospital multiple times.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.