Scientific Community Decries Research Using Reverse Genetics


Recent genetic research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has triggered a great divide among the scientific populace. On one side of the chasm stands the team of researchers who insist that learning more about how flu strains exist and mutate in the wild will, in turn, serve to protect humans. Poised on the other side are many scientists who counter with the argument that this type of research accomplishes nothing more than the introduction of unnecessary risks in our world.

reverse genetics

Infographic provided by National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease

Creating Controversy Through Reverse Genetics

The researchers conduct their controversial experiments by using a technique called reverse genetics. In this context, the term, reverse genetics, refers to a method of constructing a virus from portions of bird flu strains found in the current wild bird populations. The next step involves manipulating the virus by mutating it until it is airborne and readily transmits from animal to animal.  How do researchers make their case in support of this work, which they contend greatly benefits the public good?

In the article, which appeared in The Guardian, author Ian Sample discusses the findings of the scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as both points of view.

Lead Scientist Defends His Research

Leader of the university research team, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, makes the case that he and his team of analysts have proven the very likely possibility that influenza viruses in the wild could mutate into ones transferable to humans and cause widespread threat.

The most compelling evidence rests in their success of creating (or nearly recreating) a deadly virus, which mimics the 1918 Spanish flu (believed to have originated in birds). This flu killed approximately 50 million people in 1918. Further experiments conducted by the researchers show which vaccines or anti-viral drugs may effectively counteract the virus. Kawaoka maintains that the life-saving benefits of their findings far outweigh any criticism by those concerned about risk.

Global Contingent of Scientists Criticize the Research

A large number of scientists within the U.S. and abroad strongly oppose this type of research and all arguments surrounding it. The most persuasive and obvious reason is the actual danger posed at the research labs themselves, regardless of high levels of security. If a potentially deadly experiment falls into the wrong hands either accidentally or willfully, incalculably tragic consequences could occur.

According to critics, this risk ultimately trumps any potential benefits, including the idea that creating new and lethal viruses could lead to saving lives on a large scale. In fact, the opponents claim, that Kawaoka and his team have failed to provide substantial evidence of a significant impact on public health.

One scientist at the forefront of the opposition, Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, asserts that the chances of the exact same series of mutations occurring in a virus in the wild as the one constructed by Kawaoka’s team are extremely unlikely. This would make Kawaoka’s claims that the research could lead to effective vaccines or treatments for the virus a moot point. Like-minded critics continue to call for funding to stop immediately on work they deem to perilous and, in their words, “insane”.

Innovating on a Foundation of Integrity

Ultimately, the decision about whether or not this type of innovative research will continue lies in the hands of those who make it possible. Will researchers, arguing that this type of research significantly benefits the greater good, sway funding decision-makers to continue offering support? Who is right?

As innovators, we must choose the focus and purpose of our research and development with the greater good at the forefront of our minds. In an age where the threat of global terrorism looms, we must take time to weigh the pros and cons and deeper purpose of each proposal objectively. Failing to do so puts our integrity and innovation itself at risk. Let’s gather the facts and carefully consider possible outcomes today as we frame our tomorrow. What do you want to build today?