Biosecurity by Design: Getting Ahead of Risk in the World of Designer Organisms

This post was written by Katherine Budeski, an intern on the NTI | bio team. Budeski is a rising senior at Montana State University majoring in Biochemistry with minors in Hispanic Studies, Global Health, and Political Science.

In 2007, Nuclear Threat Initiative co-founder and then-CEO Sam Nunn warned the Pacific Health Summit in Seattle, WA that, “bioterrorism will be an equal threat to nuclear terrorism in the years ahead.” At NTI, he added, “we believe that the threat posed by biological agents challenges our traditional ways of thinking about prevention, deterrence, nonproliferation and response, and requires that we think anew.”

Today, as the world balances the promise and peril of biotechnology innovation, responsible stewardship in the life sciences is an imperative. But are we too late?

Dr. Reshma Shetty, a co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, addressed that question and more at the June 13th launch of NTI | bio, an NTI program committed to biosecurity and global health security. “We waited until we were already reliant on computers to focus on cybersecurity issues,” she said. “Biology is already ubiquitous. We need to work on biosecurity before biological design becomes ubiquitous.”

During the event, which marked the third in NTI’s new seminar series conceived by NTI CEO and Co-Chair Ernest Moniz, Dr. Shetty contributed to an on-going dialogue at NTI to address rapidly evolving technological advances in the field of synthetic biology and the ways in which NTI, scientists, and policy makers alike can mitigate the potential for global catastrophic biological risks. One of the goals of NTI | bio is to partner with the life sciences community in the development of norms and concrete actions to reduce biological risks associated with advances in technology. One approach involves incentivizing “biosecurity-by-design,” which builds in biosecurity from the outset, simultaneously fostering creative new technical approaches while advancing biosecurity and biosafety.

Dr. Shetty began with an introduction to the exciting field of synthetic biology, the cutting edge interdisciplinary field that brings together engineering, biology, and other fields such as genetics and computer science to create designer biological systems, like cells, viruses, and enzymes. She explained that rapid advances in synthetic biology stem from the confluence of multiple factors, including the dramatically decreasing cost of engineering organisms and improving technologies that quickly assess their effectiveness. “As we become more sophisticated at designing biology, the envelope of feasible threats expands, but so does the envelope of feasible biological countermeasures,” she said, adding that as the process to design organisms is expedited, we also need to certify that we have mechanisms designed to rapidly respond to an outbreak of an engineered pathogen.

NTI Vice President Beth Cameron

Yet in 2018, the resolution to protect the world from potential global catastrophic biological risks is still complex, interdisciplinary, and multifarious. Secretary Moniz stated earlier this year that, “in our interconnected world, biological threats are among the most dangerous and difficult. NTI is committed to generating new international approaches to strengthen biosecurity.” Among the approaches, NTI | bio will facilitate open dialogues with experts such as Dr. Shetty to identify and proliferate global norms for biosecurity and biosafety. Developing scientific norms established by researchers has the potential to significantly reduce the threat posed by dual-use technology by dis-incentivizing irresponsible or even malicious science. Without established global norms, researchers on the frontier of biology may be expanding our arsenal to prevent, detect, and respond to a biological risk while potentially fueling unconventional and unforeseen threats.

Dr. Reshma Shetty is a member of the NTI | bio Advisory Group.

June 27, 2018

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