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Seeking Security: Pathogens, Open Access, and Genome Databases
the idea of obtaining a reasonably complete understanding of living systems, although still some distance off, is in view (Kanehisa and Bork, 2003; Venter et al., 2003). And just as it was difficult even a decade ago to envision all the changes that the widespread use of computers and global computer networks would bring, it is impossible now to foresee all the effects that the life-sciences revolution will have over the next decade.
The rapidly growing understanding of natural systems has tremendous potential to create better lives for people the world over. For example, understanding fully how pathogens and hosts interact is a major long-term research goal. To reach it, scientists must gain a detailed understanding of what makes the immune response effective and of how pathogens cripple or evade the immune response to cause disease. As more details of the interplay between pathogenic microorganisms and the immune system become known, scientists will probably be able to create new and powerful strategies to fight infection, create better vaccines, and develop faster, more precise diagnostic tools (Moxon and Rappuoli, 2002; Rappuoli and Covacci, 2003). Perhaps scientists will someday be able to deliver those benefits in a matter of days or weeks, so that when new pathogens emerge, treatments and vaccines will become available quickly enough to contain what might otherwise be catastrophic outbreaks of infection and disease. The benefits of the life-science revolution are broad and include treatments and preventive measures for conditions as varied as sudden infant death syndrome, cancer, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases, and such neurological disorders as Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, agriculture, energy production, chemical manufacturing, and even computing all stand to be transformed by the genome revolution.
Of course, such powerful technology can also be used for destructive purposes. This is the “dual-use” problem familiar to those who work on arms-control and disarmament issues: most technologies that are important in the peacetime economy—including communications, cryptography, computers, materials science, aeronautics, and nuclear energy—are also technologies for weapons. The products of life-science research must be included prominently in any list of technologies that can be used for good or ill. Just as fundamental knowledge about how pathogens interact with the immune system will lead to new ways to prevent and cure infections, it could also help someone bent on designing genetically altered versions of natural pathogens that could be exploited as weapons by governments or terrorists. Some types of research has been called “contentious research” (Epstein, 2001) or is said to fall into a gray zone where the benefits of publication may not outweigh the dangers. In a 2001 publication, Gerald Epstein described this category as “fundamental biological or biomedical investigations that produce organisms or knowledge that could have immediate weapons implications and that therefore raise questions