Apr 23rd 2016

How open science can help solve Zika and prepare us for the next pandemic

"A growing number of vocal researchers have advocated that all research funded with public funds is open sourced, and not just the articles but the actual research data sets."

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 which targets one person, say, a U.S. president. This is not science fiction; it is happening.

In 2011 a scientist, Craig Venter, created a new life form by transplanting a computer-designed genome into the cell of a bacterium that had had its DNA removed. Today, a gene-editing technique called CRISPR is being used to engineer extra-muscular beagles, micro-pigs, super-goats, and ever-white mushrooms. Chinese researchers have edited human embryos. The cost of doing basic synthetic biology experiments is only a few thousand dollars, for lab gear and chemicals, and it is possible to design and order up DNA sequences on the Internet.

We are not ready for the consequences of these technologies. We need to urgently develop new bio-defenses, rethink our laws, and bring together researchers from all over the world to solve the problems as soon as they occur.

We can start by forming a global coalition to attack the Zika virus.

Zika is propagated by mosquitoes and causes birth defects in infected mothers. It is likely to spread worldwide within the next year. The solution may lie in open-sourcing information — as leading researchers have recommended.

In February, a high-powered group of health organizations including research institutes, academic journals, NGOs, and funding bodies published a public commitment to “sharing data and results relevant to the current Zika crisis and future public health emergencies as rapidly and openly as possible.” Signatories included journals Nature and Science, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. National Institute of Health.

Said Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust in the statement, “Research is an essential part of the response to any global health emergency. This is particularly true for Zika, where so much is still unknown about the virus, how it is spread and the possible link with microcephaly. It’s critical that as results become available they are shared rapidly in a way that is equitable, ethical and transparent. This will ensure that the knowledge gained is turned quickly into health interventions that can have an impact on the epidemic.”

Open science has been a topic of debate for over a decade. A growing number of vocal researchers have advocated that all research funded with public funds is open sourced, and not just the articles but the actual research data sets. The logic follows similar logic to open source software. When more eyes can look at data, it is less likely the data will contain errors — and solutions can be developed jointly. Just as in software, scientists anticipate that by open sourcing more medical data, they will enable more breakthroughs by increasing the body of pre-vetted knowledge and reducing the redundancy in research efforts.

This type of information sharing did not happen effectively with last major epidemic that sparked global concern, the Ebola virus. When Ebola was raging through West Africa in the summer of 2014, a group at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. published open repository sequence data for 99 Ebola genomes taken from patients in Sierra Leone’s Kenema government hospital. This open sourcing of critical scientific data was the second instance in the outbreak. A team of international researchers had initially published three genomes from patients in Guinea in April.

For the next three months, no more genomic data was released to the public data repositories that had become the go-to source for scientists studying Ebola. The silence puzzled many prominent scientists. A formidable array of genomic sequencing technology was aimed squarely at the virus. Yet the data was not shared.

This delayed progress and troubled three of the most prominent Ebola researchers, Nathan Yozwiak, Stephen Schaffner and Pardis Sabeti. They published a plea for data sharing in the leading scientific journal Nature, titled “Make outbreak research open access.”

Sharing data among researchers has long been a thorny topic. In the cutthroat competition to place articles in top scientific journals — the key currency in academic circles — researchers have traditionally held data close to the vest so as not to jeopardize the exclusivity of their findings and, by extension, article acceptance. Conversely, for pandemics such as Ebola and influenza, security experts have feared that publishing genomic data would allow evil scientists or regimes to stand on the shoulders of upstanding researchers and use publicly published genomics data to create equally or even more lethal pathogens that can kill millions.

A decade ago, when sequencing genomes was incredibly expensive, tedious, and hard, some of the arguments for holding data closed did make sense. This provided a viable moat against rogue states and organizations. But today, the cost of DNA sequencing and synthetic biology experimentation has dropped to the point that anyone can do it; the bad guys already have the resources to unleash bioterrorism.

The good news is that there are far more people in the world who want to do good than bad. We need to bring together the hundreds of thousands of scientists who want to use technology to better the world and solve critical problems. The best way is to create communities and begin crowdsourcing critical research.

For Vivek Wadhwa's site, please click here.

To follow Vivek Wadhwa on Twitter, please click here.


Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering,  Duke University; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University. He is author of  “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”—which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012, and ” Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology”—which documents the struggles and triumphs of women.  In 2012, the U.S. Government awarded Wadhwa distinguished recognition as an  “Outstanding American by Choice”— for his “commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans”. He was also named by Foreign Policy Magazine as Top 100 Global Thinker in 2012. In 2013, TIME Magazine listed him as one of The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.

Wadhwa oversees research at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially advancing technologies that are soon going to change our world.  These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.

In his roles at Stanford and  Duke, Wadhwa lectures in class on subjects such as entrepreneurship and public policy, helps prepare students for the real world, and leads groundbreaking research projects.  He is an advisor to several governments; mentors entrepreneurs; and is a regular columnist for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Accelerators, LinkedIn Influencers blog, Forbes, and the American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism magazine.  Prior to joining academia in 2005, Wadhwa founded two software companies.


Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."