Cover: Assessing the Need for and Uses of Sequences of Interest Databases

Assessing the Need for and Uses of Sequences of Interest Databases

A Report on the Proceedings of a Two-Day Workshop

Published Mar 21, 2019

by Ritika Chaturvedi, Paul Brenner, Monique Martineau, Martha Blakely, Marek N. Posard, Seifu Chonde


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Research Questions

  1. What are the primary use cases for an SOI database (or databases), and who are the users?
  2. Is there utility in a database (or databases) of SOIs for the purpose of screening orders?
  3. What are the scientific, technical, safety and security, funding/continuity, user/sharing, and maintenance requirements for such databases?
  4. What are the risks and safety implications surrounding the existence of such a database (or databases)?
  5. What are the potential funding models for such a database (or databases) that ensure access and continuity?

Over the past decade, the biotechnology economy has experienced remarkable growth, resulting in the rapid expansion of biological knowledge and application. Such advances have lowered the technical and financial barrier to entry for bioexperimentation outside the traditional environments of academia and industry. Together these developments provide exciting new opportunities for scientific growth. However, they create openings for actors with malicious intent to harness readily available tools and techniques to create biological threats or bioweapons. In this report, we present the results of a workshop designed to convene key experts from diverse stakeholder groups to understand how a genetic database of "sequences of interest" (SOIs) can best support stakeholders — government agencies, academic researchers, and commercial groups — to improve the utility, safety, and security of biotechnology research endeavors. The sessions consisted of a mix of presentations, panel discussions, and small and large group discussions. This report should be viewed as an exploratory first step in discussing a very complex topic with broad and often conflicting stakeholder interests.

Key Findings

  • There is a need for broad stakeholder engagement, collaboration, and transparency across government agencies, as well as among the various nongovernment actors in industry and in the research community.
  • There is no consensus on the attributes or boundary conditions that form an operational or implementable definition of an SOI.
  • There is a need for and value in several distinct use cases of SOI databases.
  • Gene synthesis companies would like a federally sanctioned database for screening orders; in contrast, representatives from federal agencies are hesitant to provide regulation beyond the select agent list and the voluntary Department of Health and Human Services screening framework guidance.
  • Several databases exist for the purposes of screening synthetic biology orders; some combination of their design and capabilities may be optimal as a next step for research and development purposes.
  • There is a need to balance access to a database with the associated security risks.

This research was sponsored by U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate and conducted within the Strategy, Policy, and Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated by the RAND Corporation under contract with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

This report is part of the RAND conference proceeding series. RAND conference proceedings present a collection of papers delivered at a conference or a summary of the conference.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.