The resurrection of extinct horsepox virus using the tools of synthetic biology has generated controversy in the scientific community (1). Gregory Lewis makes the case that this sequence of events provides a prime example of an under-considered peril posed by some biotechnology research – the unilateralist’s curse (1, 2).
It Only Takes One
The unilateralist’s curse may take effect when scientists make value judgments about whether to proceed with certain projects independently of one another. Synthesizing horsepox virus could lead ultimately to improved smallpox vaccines. However, the close relationship between horsepox and smallpox viruses arouses concerns that someone intent on doing harm might be able to use the newly published information as a blueprint for criminal action.
Although I do not know the proportion of scientists opposed to the horsepox resurrection, for the purposes of discussion let’s imagine opinions break out this way; most researchers decline to undertake horsepox synthesis reasoning that improving a vaccine for a virus (smallpox) that has been extinct for nearly 40 years is not worth the effort or risk. However, one (or a few groups) is convinced the endeavor has value and decides to perform the experiments and publish the results. By going forward a small faction essentially overruled the majority consensus of their colleagues. If the mavericks are correct and the project produces benefits, all is well. But the curse comes into play if the well-intentioned mavericks have misjudged the situation and harm such as facilitating a terrorist attack with smallpox results. The troubling aspect of the situation is an inherent bias to action – all that is needed to begin the cascade of events is a single dissident group or individual. Provided everyone is able to gauge risks accurately and acts ethically, we are fine.
To be fair, the group performing the horsepox synthesis work probably did not knowingly violate a community consensus. Scientific projects often involve comparatively small groups and with limited feedback from uninvolved colleagues. That means researchers often make independent decisions about what projects to pursue and how to go about them.
Several factors prevent the unilateralist’s curse from running rampant. Researchers do not have a totally free hand to do anything because they are subject to several forms of institutional oversight. Before work begins detailed research proposals must receive approval from Biosafety committees as well as Institutional Review Boards if the projects involve work with human subjects. In addition, funding sources may have precise stipulations and strictures regarding what constitutes the allowed work scope and permissible activities.
Notwithstanding the possibility for error, misunderstanding and unforeseen circumstances that emerge in all human endeavors, the scientific community is probably going to manage itself responsibly. What is there to worry about?
The Unilateralist Singularity
The horsepox synthesis controversy illustrates how swiftly biotechnology is evolving. What was a distant, hypothetical possibility 15 years ago is a published study today. The tools have become better and cheaper, the expertise to use them has been disseminated widely and the biotechnology revolution is being democratized before our eyes. More participation and knowledge will likely bring benefits. And perhaps some challenges.
Enter the biohacker, or the ultimate quirky unilateralist singularity. Most will probably work responsibly and adopt the conventions of the professional research community. However, we have seen some decidedly unconventional behaviors as individual biohackers have undertaken unilateral decisions to perform questionable actions (3, 4). Will their peers deem these exploits as misguided, behavioral dead-end outliers? Or are they the harbingers of a future where majority consensus regarding medical biotechnology intervention safety and efficacy is tyrannized by super-self-empowered individuals? The issue is in doubt because even some members of the professional research community have had trouble making ethical choices regarding the use of new biotech-based therapies (5). Hopefully, biohackers seeking role models will choose not to emulate regenerative medicine clinics selling dubious stem cell and other high-tech therapies to the desperate.
Biohackers seeking to achieve personal goals are virtually certain to rely on the published scientific literature to some degree. However, they will be well advised to proceed with caution. The scientific literature itself is intrinsically biased because of an emphasis on publishing positive results. Is that astounding new study the final word or a statistical one-off fluke? For anyone wanting to take an exciting result and leap into a clinical trial it might be good to keep in mind science is struggling with a reproducibility problem (6). The biggest liars on our planet may not be politicians, but laboratory mice.
Maybe it will turn out that key personal examples exert the greatest influence over biohackers and those who might wish to follow their lead. For example, an article described how one young man seeking male enhancement had stem cells injected into his penis and indicated he felt the procedure was successful (4). Although this outcome interpretation is questionable on several scientific grounds, maybe it will be enough to induce others to try the same thing. Perhaps for this quest the unilateralist’s curse will be a sudden rise of terminal priapism cases.
Update – March 10, 2018
A New York Times Sunday Review article by Pagan Kennedy reminds us (me) that self-experimentation on the basis of thin experimental evidence and peer emulation affect professional scientists.
(1) Gregory Lewis. Horsepox Synthesis: A Case of the Unilateralist’s Curse? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 19 February 2018. https://thebulletin.org/horsepox-synthesis-case-unilateralist%E2%80%99s-curse11523
(2) Nick Bostrom et al. The Unilateralist’s Curse and the Case for a Principle of Conformity. Social Epistemology 30(4):350-371. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02691728.2015.1108373
(3) Sarah Zhang. A Biohacker Regrets Publicly Injecting Himself with CRISPR. The Atlantic, 20 February 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/biohacking-stunts-crispr/553511/
(4) Kristen V. Brown. This Guy Injected His Dick with Stem Cells to Try to Make It Bigger. Gizmodo, 27 February 2018. https://gizmodo.com/this-guy-injected-his-dick-with-stem-cells-to-try-to-ma-1823245542
(5) Sheila Kaplan and Denise Grady. F.D.A. Cracks Down on ‘Unscrupulous’ Stem Cell Clinics. The New York Times, 28 August 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/health/fda-stem-cell.html
(6) Monya Baker. 1,500 Scientists Lift the Lid on Reproducibility. Nature, 25 May 1016. https://www.nature.com/news/1-500-scientists-lift-the-lid-on-reproducibility-1.19970
(7) Chris Iliades. Priapism is the Long-lasting Erection That You Really Don’t Want. Find Out When and Why it’s a Medical Emergency. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/erectile-dysfunction/whats-wrong-with-long-lasting-erections.aspx