Controversial Research Topics (Part 1)

Rarely does the simple announcement of a forthcoming paper create the kind of firestorm that erupted last year after researchers from the University of Tokyo and University of Wisconsin reported that splicing a mutated version of a key viral protein called hemagglutinin from H5N1 onto the human H1N1 virus allowed the new virus to become more transmissible between mammals.  (H1N1, although not currently deadly in large scales or widespread, is one of the strains that the WHO considers a candidate for a potential pandemic if transmissibility were high enough.)

J. KRZYSZTOFIAK via Nature 

J. KRZYSZTOFIAK via Nature 

Almost immediately, and in virtual unanimity, a contentious debate erupted over the publishability of the data.  The US Science Advisory board asked the two scientific journals where the papers were to be published to censor key data so it couldn’t be replicated, fearing public health ramifications of the release of a virus that could be so easily communicated between humans.  The debate even reached the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security, which questioned the necessity of publishing the findings.  In the end, the journals, Nature and Science, were asked to put a moratorium of 60 days on publishing the papers for evaluation and debate.  The decision was reversed after the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity revealed that the engineered viruses were less virulent than feared.

In an unusually strongly-worded editorial, the journal Nature, where the paper had been initially accepted, argued that despite global biosafety standards and biosafety concerns, they had sought an independent safety assessment before releasing the study, and felt the benefits to public health and science knowledge outweighed the former concerns.  The long-awaited study was finally published in Nature May 2012.  It was the first of two controversial papers about laboratory-enhanced versions of the deadly bird flu virus.  The second paper,  published in Science the following month, discusses the methodology behind a deadly H5N1 strain created in a Dutch laboratory at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam by scientist Ron Fouchier.

Despite the publication of the H5N1 study, Wired Magazine reports that the controversy continues, with many notable professors and researchers doubting the true benefits of the insights, and others scared to criticize the findings openly under pressure from the NIH and other funding institutions.  It is extremely likely that the fervor and unprecedented limits of this recent case will renew the conversation about dual-use research and setting broader guidelines for withholding key public data for replicating experiments.

The H5N1 study, however, is just one of many recent experiments and/or areas of research that have raised fears of danger on a sliding scale if placed in the wrong hands or replicated for nefarious intentions.  Here are a few other recent areas of scientific research that have raised international eyebrows with regards to propensity for abuse or unethical implementation.

  • The creation of the Human Genome Project, essentially a comprehensive gene database, raised issues such as eugenics, genetic engineering and enhancement and genetic privacy in the National Human Genome Institute
  • Cloning (human reproductive and animal), which prompted the National Academy of Sciences to write a treatise on ethical guidelines
  • Synthetic life, the creation of a cell whose genetic material had been replaced with synthetic genes, raised fears of both the limits of “Playing God” and what might be done if the synthetic bacteria were released and mutated.
  • Gene therapy and its propensity for unethical engineering in humans, recently explored in a publication that argues gene therapy might be creating “superhuman athletes” that are killing level playing fields in sports.

All of the aforementioned research projects push the boundaries of propriety and ethical standards.  Although they don’t take a physical oath to heal and “do no harm” like medical doctors, scientists generally pursue their fields out of a sense of honor and to better mankind, if not to directly solve problems.  So why are experiments that could be used for harm in the wrong hands worth pursuing?  Why should we not ban them?  And why is open access to publications good for science?  We will follow up with some reasons both for and against in our next post.

In the meantime, we’d like to know how you feel about these and other controversial research studies.  Do you feel we omitted any other key publications?  Tell us how you feel about this topic in our comment section below.