Funding Pause Issued for ‘Gain-of-Function’ Research

November 4, 2014 | By Jerry Ashworth | Post a Comment

pipet-1255060-mScience can be innovative and cool, and then science can be dangerous and scary. It’s this second category of science that I worry about. Apparently the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) feel the same way, judging by a recent announcement.

OSTP and HHS last month launched an initiative to better assess the potential risks and benefits associated with a subset of life sciences research known as “gain-of-function” studies. With an ultimate goal of better understanding disease pathways, gain-of-function studies aim to increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility. Let me get this straight — this is science to make a disease more potent! Oh my!

While the agencies review the risks and benefits of such research, they will pause funding for any new studies that include certain gain-of-function experiments involving influenza, SARS and MERS viruses. Specifically, the funding pause will apply to gain-of-function research projects “that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.”

However, the funding pause will not apply to the characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS and SARS viruses unless there is a reasonable expectation that these tests would increase transmissibility or pathogenicity.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which met Oct. 22 to begin developing recommendations for such research, serves as the official federal advisory body providing oversight of this area of dual-use research. It will work with the National Research Council of the National Academies to develop a scientific symposium to debate gain-of-function research issues. The funding pause will end once the agencies adopt a new policy regarding gain-of-function studies sometime next year.

The National Institutes of Health said it would continue to accept new applications for research projects involving gain-of-function studies. However, it will not provide any new or continuation funding for research affected by this pause while it is in effect.

It’s a bold step to halt funding for such research for further analysis, but safety should be of ultimate importance. As we saw with the recent Ebola scare, all precautions should be taken when dealing with deadly diseases. One hopes this pause will be time well-spent to ensure such research is appropriate.

What is your reaction to this pause in funding? Do you think any benefits will come from it? Let us know.

 

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