Making Drug-Resistant Germs In The Lab

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Bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics can alarm public health officials. But in the laboratory, scientists consider antibiotic-resistant genes to be a useful tool. In fact, the government recently approved more than 100 requests to put antibiotic resistance into dangerous germs.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with the small but dangerous superbugs. We're talking about germs that won't respond to the usual medical treatments, germs that are often the subject of sensational news reports.

U: You may know it as the superbug, but its real name is MRSA, and it's a very dangerous bacteria.

U: ...new details in the TB scare. He flew halfway...

U: ...a staph infection that is resistant to antibiotics.

U: The so-called superbug is killing...

NORRIS: Public health officials would love to get rid of these bugs, but some scientists are deliberately creating bacteria that can resist drugs.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has the story.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: For scientists, the genes that cause antibiotic resistance aren't always scary. In fact, in the lab, antibiotic resistance can actually be useful.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the laboratory, antibiotic resistance is used as a tool.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dan Rockey is a biologist at Oregon State University.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Antibiotic resistance in the laboratory is used daily by many, many, many investigators virtually on - in every laboratory that does any molecular biology probably anywhere in world.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Here's why. Suppose you have a dish of bacteria and you want to insert some extra DNA. Only some of the bacteria in your lab dish will take up the new DNA. How do you know which ones? Rockey says it's easy. If the bit of DNA you stick in there carries a gene for antibiotic resistance, you can just douse all the bacteria with that antibiotic. This will kill the unchanged bacteria, and the ones that are left are the ones with the extra DNA.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's a quick and easy tool for knowing that you've gotten a piece of DNA into an organism you want to work with in the laboratory.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This doesn't pose any risks if the bacteria you're studying can't make people sick. But things get more tricky if you're talking about human pathogens, especially if you're inserting a kind of antibiotic resistance that the germ has never evolved naturally, and it might compromise treatment. Imagine what would happen if that kind of altered bacteria escape from the lab. Doctors might give people an antibiotic without realizing that it was useless.

This is a potential risk to the public that has to be weighed against the benefits of the science.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning, everyone. We're going to begin the meeting.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it turns out, a committee at the National Institutes of Health is supposed to do just that. Dan Rockey recently went to this committee. He studies chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease. To help his research, he wanted to insert a gene for tetracycline resistance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: We want the opportunities to do these kind of experiments in the chlamydia, with the goal of understanding how the microbe works and possible development of vaccine targets.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, chlamydia normally doesn't develop resistance to antibiotics, so Rockey was grilled by the committee about how his lab would contain the bacteria, and what antibiotics other than tetracycline could still be used. Finally, the panel said the plan sounded okay. What's surprising is that this was the first time in 15 years that anyone had come to ask permission to do this kind of experiment, even though antibiotic-resistance genes are a standard laboratory tool.

That means either scientists haven't been engineering pathogens in a way that could compromise medical treatment, or they just don't know when they need to get special permission.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is not, you know, a high-profile, active process. I think by and large, people don't think about it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Louis Kirchhoff is an infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa. He's on the NIH committee. He says scientists know to run their studies by their local bio safety officials. But if you asked those officials to describe what requires the special review...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I think you'd get a lot of blank stares.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For example, a researcher at the University of Maryland in Baltimore recently took a form of typhus. He made it resistant to an antibiotic that's sometimes used to treat the disease. He didn't realize that he had to ask the NIH committee. It learned of the experiment only by accident. The panel reviewed the work after the fact, and some experts pointed out this disease could only be treated by a couple of antibiotics. They worried about making it resistant to one of those drugs.

Didier Raoult is an expert on typhus in Marseilles, France.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I think that you need to think twice.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That argument won, although the committee's vote was very close. So in April, the NIH director said this resistant bacteria should be destroyed. A University of Maryland spokesperson confirmed that the strains were destroyed, but said the scientist was not available to speak with me. Other researchers say there was nothing wrong with his work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I'm really angry about this decision.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: David Walker is a biologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He wanted to do the same kind of experiment in his efforts to make a typhus vaccine.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All this work is done in a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory. It's done in a laboratory under high containment. The only person who could get infected with the organism is the person working with it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It can't spread directly from person to person. Walker thinks it's basically impossible that it would escape the lab and threaten the public.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I'm a partisan but I was convinced that this was not malicious, not harmful, beneficial, and that it was not dangerous.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This example shows how experts can sharply disagree about the risks and benefits of making bacteria antibiotic resistant. And the stakes get even higher when scientists want to do this with potential bioweapons.

The government keeps a list of these germs. It includes things like plague and anthrax. There are laws about what can be done with them. And a special committee has to review certain kinds of experiments, like putting in antibiotic-resistance genes that could compromise treatment.

I called up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ask if this committee had gotten any request to do that. And it turns out, it has. Over the last three years, more than 200 requests. The majority, well over half, were approved.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I'm actually surprised.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Gerald Epstein is an expert on biological weapons and science policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He says, remember, the NIH committee only got a couple proposals. Things seem very different for the committee that looks at potential bioweapons.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It appears to be that, not only that there are many more such experiments being requested there, but that - I don't want to say less scrutiny, but they're being approved more of the time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Maybe more requests have come in just because the laws are stricter for these pathogens, so scientists make sure to ask permission. But if you want to know what diseases got resistance to what antibiotics, or why over 60 experiments were rejected, the CDC spokesperson says for security reasons, they won't give out details.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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