How genetic editing became a national security threat

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper sent shock waves through the national security and biotechnology communities with his assertion, in his Worldwide Threat Assessment testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, that genome editing had become a global danger. He went so far as to include it in the report’s weapons of mass destruction section, alongside threats from North Korea, China’s nuclear modernization, and chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. The new technology, he said, could open the door to “potentially harmful biological agents or products,” with “far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

So what has warranted this warning, and what can be done to mitigate the threat?

Since the discovery of the double helix in 1953, biotechnology has made progress exceeding that of arguably any other technology in human history. Genome editing is not a new process; it was the subject of the 1975 Asilomar Conference, convened to establish standards that would allow geneticists to conduct cutting-edge research without endangering public health. Since then, advances like the polymerase chain reaction process, the human genome project, and the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project have fueled our understanding of the human genome, accelerated through advances in computing power, data storage, and big data algorithm development. Landmark results include the first synthesis of a virus in 2002 and the first synthetic cell in 2010. Now along comes clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats—Crispr for short—which is changing everything.

Other editing techniques have been around for more than a decade but they are laborious, less accurate, and quite expensive. Before that, previous traditional methods required generations to see results. While some techniques can recognize longer DNA sequences and have better specificity than Crispr, they are costly ($5,000 for each order versus $30 for Crispr) and difficult to engineer, sometimes requiring several tries to identify a sequence that works. Hence the rise of Crispr, which, along with Crispr associated proteins (Cas), provides a precise way to target, snip, and insert exact pieces of a genome. (The Crispr-Cas9 protein has received the most attention in this recent discussion, yet other enzymatic proteins such as the Crispr-Cpf1 use a different type of “scissors” and might be just as effective.)

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PositiveID’s E-N-G Mobile Systems Ships Mobile Lab in Excess of $700,000 to Customer – NASDAQ.com

E-N-G has delivered more than 400 mobile labs to domestic and international customers
DELRAY BEACH, Fla., April 25, 2016 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — PositiveID Corporation (“PositiveID” or “Company”) (OTCQB:PSID), a life sciences company focused on detection and diagnostics, announced today that its E-N-G Mobile Systems (“ENG”) subsidiary has shipped a 40-foot BSL-3 compliant mobile laboratory valued in excess of $700,000. Due to the nature and location of the mobile lab, the customer is being kept confidential. Since its inception, ENG, a specialty vehicle manufacturer acquired by PositiveID in December 2015, has delivered more than 400 mobile labs to customers around the world.

The largest and fastest growing aspect of ENG’s business over the last decade has been its mobile labs segment, which includes government and corporate laboratories for chemical, biological, nuclear, radiological and explosives testing in the field. ENG has delivered more than 100 mobile labs for the U.S. Army, plus numerous laboratories to other government agencies including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, prominent national laboratories, and nine of the 10 regions of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“ENG is an industry leader in designing mobile labs for chemical and biological detection, monitoring, and analysis,” stated William J. Caragol
, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of PositiveID. “This mobile lab, developed under a large contract that will generate significant revenue for PositiveID during the second quarter and keep us on track to reach our revenue goals for 2016, is the latest example of our robust capabilities, expertise and best-in-class products.”

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The world isn’t ready to face the consequences of technology’s new biological breakthroughs

With the advent of synthetic biology and gene editing tools, there are amazing breakthroughs being made in medicine, energy and food. Within a few years, we will see cures for debilitating diseases, new biofuels and grains that can be grown in extreme climates.

We will also have many new nightmares: bioterrorism and well-meaning experiments that get out of hand. Imagine a superbug that can cure — or kill — millions of people or a virus that targets one person, say, a U.S. president. This is not science fiction; it is happening.

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The Antibacterial Resistance Threat: Are We Heading Toward a Post-Antibiotic Era?

In the US alone, the daily consumption of antibiotics amounts to 51 tons, of which around 80% is used in livestock, a little under 20% is for human use, and the rest is split between crops, pets, and aquaculture [3]. A meta-analysis published last year in PNAS [6] found that between 2000 and 2010 the global use of antibiotic drugs increased by 36%, with 76% of the increase coming from developing countries. The researchers projected that worldwide antibiotic consumption would rise by 67% by 2030 due to population growth and the increase in consumer demand.

These frightening statistics prompted CDC director Tom Frieden to issue a warning: “If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era.” An era when common infections are deadly again.

“We need to be very careful in using antimicrobial agents for everything from hand washing to toothpaste,” Harshini Mukundan, microbiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, explains. “Increased selection of drug resistant organisms means that future generations will be helpless in fighting even the most common bacterial infections.”

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PositiveID 2015 Revenues Balloon on License Fee, Recent Acquisitions

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Biological detection systems firm PositiveID today reported a greater than 200 percent jump in revenues for 2015, primarily due to the receipt of a previously deferred licensee fee. However, the company still fell short of its own guidance.

For the 12-month period ended Dec. 31, PositiveID’s revenues ballooned to $2.9 million from $945,000 in 2014.

Approximately 90 percent of revenues for the year came from the license fee paid by Boeing, which agreed in late 2012 to pay $2.5 million for the exclusive rights to PositiveID’s M-BAND airborne bio-threat detector in North America. The remainder of the company’s revenues for 2015 were derived from the operations of laboratory and communication vehicle maker ENG Mobile Systems and non-contact thermometer developer Thermomedics, both of which PositiveID acquired in 2015.

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GAO: US Biodefense Enterprise Needs Central Leadership, Oversight – Executive Gov

The Government Accountability Office has said in a new report to the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the U.S. biodefense enterprise needs an established leadership strategy.

GAO said in the report published Thursday it found that there is no unifying biodefense leadership and oversight structure to facilitate accountability and operational efficiency.

The agency said past reports from GAO and other review bodies called for the establishment of a focal point for government biodefense coordination and the formation of a national strategy that will work to identify and address risks systematically.

Biosurveillance efforts also need a national strategy as GAO previously recommended a central leadership and action to address various challenges, GAO noted.

GAO further said increased threats of disease outbreak and acts of bioterrorism, such as anthrax attacks, reflect a need for early detection and warning through biosurveillance systems.

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Zilinskas: U.S. biodefense needs improvement – Homeland Preparedness News

The United States is increasingly turning to biodefense as threats against the homeland continue to grow, but the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey’s Dr. Raymond Zilinskas recently warned that the larger problem remains that no one knows the … Read More »

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Senate Homeland Security Committee hears testimony on biodefense preparedness – Homeland Preparedness News

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) chaired a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday to address the federal perspective on the state of U.S. biodefense preparedness. “Today, we look forward to learning the perspective of federal agencies … Read More »

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