nologies. The increasing pace of scientific discovery abroad and the fact that the United States may no longer hold a monopoly on these leading technologies means that this country is, as never before, dependent on international collaboration, a theme explored in depth in Chapter 2.
Although this report is concerned with the evolution of science and technology capabilities over the next 5 to 10 years with implications for next-generation threats, it is clear that today’s capabilities in the life sciences and related technologies have already changed the nature of the biothreat “space.” The accelerating pace of discovery in the life sciences has fundamentally altered the threat spectrum. Some experts contend that bioregulators, which are small, biologically active compounds, pose an increasingly apparent dual-use risk. This risk is magnified by improvements in targeted-delivery technologies that have made the potential dissemination of these compounds much more feasible than in the past. The immune, nervous, and endocrine systems are particularly vulnerable to bioregulator modification.
The growing concern regarding novel types of threat agents does not diminish the importance of naturally occurring threat agents—for example, the “classic” category A select agents—or “conventionally” genetically engineered pathogenic organisms. However, it does mandate the need to adopt a broader perspective in assessing the threat, focusing not on a narrow list of pathogens, but on a much wider spectrum that includes biologically active chemical agents. The potential threat spectrum is thus exceptionally broad and continuously evolving—in some ways predictably, in other ways unexpectedly. The viruses, microbes, and toxins listed as “select agents” and on which our biodefense research and development activities are so strongly focused today are just one aspect of this changing landscape of threats. Although some of them may be the most accessible or apparent threat agents to a potential attacker, particularly one lacking a high degree of technical expertise, this situation is likely to change as a result of the increasing globalization and international dispersion of the most cutting-edge aspects of life sciences research.
The committee has proposed a conceptual framework in Chapter 3 for how to think about the future threat landscape. The task here will be never ending, and as the world becomes more competent and sophisticated in the biological sciences, it is vitally important that the national security, public health, and biomedical science communities have the knowledge and tools to address both beneficial and harmful applications of advances in the life sciences.
In interpreting its charge, the committee sought to examine current trends and future objectives of research in the life sciences, focusing particularly on applications that might be relevant to the development of “next-generation” agents of biological origin 5 to 10 years into the future.