ABSA Annual Meeting News

Howdy all!  Just got back from the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA) Annual Biological Safety Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.  While I now devote my time to managing the compliance modules here at InfoEd, it is always nice to visit annual meetings and hear the focused discussion on what is important to universities and governmental bodies.  Science has always interested me and this started my journey into biology, and now electronic research administration.  In addition to presentations on the new-ish Select Agent regulations and ongoing concerns of biosafety and biosecurity, the ABSA membership was treated to several lectures that described the basic science that investigators are using, and more importantly, why these techniques are used (lentiviral vectors, RNAi, Gain-of-Function experiments). This year featured several notable sessions, invited papers, and Award Lectures.  I’ll summarize a few, for those that couldn’t attend.

Paleovirology:  How Ancient Events Shape Modern Virus Pandemics – Michael Emerman

Using genetic sequencing and predictive methodologies, the history of HIV and its simian roots are traced back through time, noting interspecies transfers, sequence drift, and how modern genomics is used to trace the lineage of a modern pandemic virus.

Experimental Evolution of Avian Influenza H5N1 Virus is a Small Step for Science:  A Great Risk for Mankind – Simon Wain-Hobson AND Biosafety and Bioethics:  Special Challenges of Gain-of-Function Experiments and Potential Pandemic Pathogens – Marc Lipsitch

A set of experiments published in the last few years have ignited controversy regarding pathogenic influenza research, particularly where scientists actively or at least preferentially select for more pathogenic or transmissible influenza viruses.  This is a fairly standard way that scientists go about analyzing biology, by making mutations in amino acid sequences and seeing what happens (I did this as part of my dissertation).  When these techniques are applied to viruses that are already quite good at infecting people and causing disease, the public can become nervous about the ramifications of accidental or intended release.  As a scientist, I was initially very concerned about the possibility of restricting scientists’ investigations.  There are many scientists and safety professionals on each side of the debate.  Some have likened this to resuming research on Smallpox.  Each presenter went through the positive arguments regarding GOF influenza research, attempting to disprove any potential benefits of the research (while there were no pro-research presentations, last year’s ABSA meeting did include this point of view).  While the pro’s and cons of the research is beyond the scope of this article, I encourage anyone interested to search for publications by the authors above.

Ask a Biosafety Expert:  A User Driven Advisory Service for the Do-It-Yourself Biology Community – Jason Bobe

I do vaguely remember within the last year or so that there are people out there, who are either untrained in bench science, or who don’t have access to professional lab space, who decide to set up basement molecular biology laboratories to pursue their own research.  It seems that this “community” now has access to biosafety professionals at the website DIYbio.org, which advises on experiments and has a question-submission feature, where knowledgeable biosafety professionals answer submitted questions.  While this is a great concept for educating a naïve but interested public, unfortunately you can only reach those that view the answers, who asked and/or are interested in the first place.  While the potential for abuse in a university or medical center setting is certainly possible, there are at least staff whose job it is to watch out for research that has risk potential.  One saving grace of “basement” science is that these folks cannot access pure quantities of highly toxic or invasive pathogens as easily as lab-based researchers.  While this may be a comfort to some, those of us who know basic microbiology and will not be comforted, as there are dozens of pathogenic microbes that can be easily found and cultured in the real world.

Hope to see you next year!


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