A brand-new type of botox has been discovered that’s being called “the deadliest substance known to man,” but scientists are keeping secret its DNA sequence because an antidote is not yet known.
The botulinum toxin, known as Clostridium Botulinum, is so poisonous that injecting just 2 billionths of a gram, or inhaling 13 billionths of a gram, will kill an adult.
New Scientist reports: “The toxin blocks the release of acetylcholine, the chemical secreted by nerves that makes muscles work. People who accidentally ingest it, as can happen when the bacteria grow in food, develop botulism and often die of paralysis.”
Typically, the gene sequence of the bacteria that create the toxin would be given to the public database GenBank, but the deadly nature of this botox has prompted a hold on the information.
“Because no antitoxins as yet have been developed to counteract the novel C. Botulinum toxin, the authors had detailed consultations with representatives from numerous appropriate U.S. government agencies,” said the editors of the Journal of Infectious Diseases, where the research was published.
This reportedly included the U.S. Army’s infectious diseases laboratory, the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government health agencies.
“This toxin has unusual risks and consequences for human health,” says David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, noting that if the new strain were intentionally misused, there would be no defense.”
He said releasing the DNA sequence would have posed “an immediate and unusually serious risk to society.”
“I want to applaud the authors for acting in a way that I think was responsible and prudent,” he added.
Last year, Relman was one of a half-dozen members of a U.S. committee who opposed a decision to go public with research showing how to make the deadly H5N1 bird flu readily transmissible among mammals.
There are some who believe not sharing the scientific information in the normal way due to fears of it falling into nefarious hands carries its own risks.
Ronald Atlas, a biologist and bioweapons expert at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, told NPR he agrees with the decision in this specific case, “But I have real concerns about how often we would do this and what it does to the overall implication of advancement in the life sciences.”
Atlas said biologists need to replicate each other’s work to make the next step forward, which is not possible if critical details are withheld by scientists and journals.
If this case sets a precedent for keeping risky information under wraps, it could put the brakes on finding new treatments.
“That’s the last thing you want when you’re facing a public health threat,” he notes.
There is a palpable fear about the use of botulinum toxin as a weapon of biological warfare.
In the 1990s, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo tried to release a deadly agent in downtown Tokyo, but the attacks failed.