The good, the bad and the deadly: the dark side of biotechnology

Despite the risks, the gains science offers are too good to pass up. AAP

The life sciences provide a great opportunity to improve our lives. But our newfound power in this field also gives us the means to destroy ourselves.

In 2002, Dr Eckard Wimmer and his lab at the State University of New York, published the results of a very interesting experiment.

The scientists had successfully synthesised polio from its base pairs, building it from the ground up. The result was very significant.

The good news was that the group had proved that a virus — and potentially larger organisms — could be pieced together from base chemicals. This was important not only for science, but for medicine: Wimmer and his group later used their results to offer a new method of creating vaccines.

The bad news was that this meant that, in theory, any virus could be constructed by just about anyone with the right equipment and the inclination to do so.

Bioterrorists, it was thought, could now construct anthrax, ebola, and even smallpox, which was eradicated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1980, without getting their hands on living samples.

This capacity for use and misuse is known to bioethicists as the “dual-use dilemma.”

The study on polio is a classic case of dual use, where research has the potential to bring us great benefits, but also enormous potential harms.

The time is ripe

Bioterrorism is a serious concern because it is believed groups like al-Qaeda have the motivation to use dangerous pathogens.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.