'There are things worse than death': can a cancer cure lead to brutal bioweapons?

John Sotos, chief medical officer at Intel, paints a dark picture of technology turned to nefarious purposes, with tailored diseases rewriting genomes on the fly.

Splitting the atom brought humanity nuclear power and nuclear weapons. A cure for cancer could have the same potential for pushing humanity to new highs – or terrifying lows. According to John Sotos, the chief medical officer of Intel, the same technology that might someday allow us to defeat illness for good also poses the prospect of tailored diseases attacking individuals, families or even whole races and rewriting their genomes on the fly.

Sotos made his remarks at the DEF CON hacking conference in Las Vegas, a place where hackers gather to share tips and tricks for how to break into almost anything with a circuit board. But Sotos’ nightmare scenario still stood out as plausible and terrifying.

The Intel executive, best known for his work over six years as a consultant on the TV show House, argued that the eventual success of Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot”, a US government-funded programme that’s aimed at finding vaccine-based treatments for cancer, would necessarily open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential.

He argued “the cancer moonshot is going to really drive new technologies to manipulate DNA because cancer is a disease of DNA. [And] the same exquisite targeting that allows it to attack only your cancer cells also overcomes the blowback potential for bioweapons.”

In other words: if you can build a treatment that can be restricted to attack only cells with the genetic flag for cancer, you can build a bioweapon that can be restricted to attack only individuals with a particular genetic flag revealing their ancestry, gender or family.

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