There is no question that recombinant DNA techniques have changed the way we do science. For the pharmaceutical industry, recombinant DNA technology enabled the development of a new generation of medical products, including recombinant human insulin, cancer therapies, and drugs to treat arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, heart attacks, and hemophilia.
Not all advances achieved using recombinant DNA technologies were for the good. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, it was revealed that recombinant DNA techniques had been used to engineer bioweapons. Research reported to be ongoing at the time included production of chimera viruses and bacteria and viruses possessing enhanced virulence, transmission, infectivity, as well as resistance to existing antibiotics, vaccines, or therapeutics.
The use of molecular biology techniques in legitimate research has raised concerns in the public on several occasions. In 1994 Willem Stemmer, a founder of the biotech firm Maxygen, stirred controversy when he conducted a “proof-of-principle” experiment to adapt polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology and “directed evolution” to select for antibiotic resistant E. coli strains. Dr. Stemmer was compelled by his Board of Directors and encouraged by several prominent microbiologists to destroy all of the strains for fear that the specimens could cause a public health threat if they were accidentally released from the lab.
More recently, Eckard Wimmer and colleagues from the State University of New York at Stony Brook announced in 2001 that they had assembled a synthetic virus in a test tube using the genomic sequence for poliovirus. Other researchers have conducted similar work, leading to concerns over how to ensure future control of biological agents as the capability to produce and manipulate them becomes more sophisticated and accessible.