Why Scientists Held Back Details On A Unique Botulinum Toxin
Scientists have discovered the first new form of botulinum toxin in over 40 years, but they’re taking the unusual step of keeping key details about it secret.
That’s because botulinum toxin is one of the most poisonous substances known. It causes botulism, and the newly identified form of it can’t be neutralized by any available treatment.
The researchers published two reports describing their work online in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. The information in those reports is deliberately incomplete, to prevent anyone from using it as the recipe for a potent new bioweapon.
"This is not the usual process for publishing manuscripts. We thought in this case an exception was appropriate," says David Hooper, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who serves as one of the editors of the journal.
Normally, the journal would require that the scientists disclose the genetic sequences needed to make the toxin. In this case, however, the researchers didn’t want to do that because of the security risk.
The journal’s editors ultimately agreed that they could go ahead and publish but withhold the information until new treatments were developed. “There was enough scientific importance that we did not want to delay the publication,” says Hooper.
Their decision comes as biologists have been grappling with how to handle potentially dangerous information.
The illustration above shows a 3D ribbon model of the botulinum neurotoxin serotype A, otherwise known as botox, from PDB 3BTA (Ayacop/Wikimedia.org).