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Advances in 3D printing technology: Increasing biological weapon proliferation risks?

Research fellow Dr. Young Joon Seol works on a project to print experimental muscle tissue for reconstructive surgery/Army Medicine Flickr Account
Research fellow Dr. Young Joon Seol works on a project to print experimental muscle tissue for reconstructive surgery/Army Medicine Flickr Account
Kolja Brockmann

The states parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) are gathering in Geneva from 29 July to 8 August for a series of Meetings of Experts. Among other topics, states are reviewing scientific and technological developments that impact the objectives of the treaty. Additive manufacturing (AM)—also referred to as 3D printing—is one of the technologies that is starting to receive attention, next to more well-known biotechnologies and genetic engineering techniques. Advances in AM have been met with concerns over its potential to facilitate the development, production, delivery and thus proliferation of biological weapons—and have highlighted the potential role of export controls in reducing these risks.

Concerns with this technology are therefore shared by the Australia Group (AG), a multilateral governance body that rarely interacts with the BWC. The AG’s relationship with the BWC has been controversial due to its exclusive membership and the alleged impact of export controls on the sharing of technology. Nevertheless, the AG has effectively set the standard for controls on the trade in relevant goods and key biotechnologies—with many non-members adopting the group’s control lists in their own export control systems.

 

AM and bioprinting

AM is often talked about as if it were one unitary technology, however, it is better described as a category of automated manufacturing techniques. The main commonality of these techniques is the deposition and fusing of layers of materials. These techniques (see a selection of techniques in figure 1) can be used to build an object of virtually any shape or form, reducing the loss of material and enabling more complex objects and new performance characteristics.  An increasing variety of materials can be used as feedstocks to produce objects using these techniques, including polymers, resins, metal powders and so-called bioinks.

Selected additive manufacturing techniques
Figure 1. Selected additive manufacturing techniques. Source: Miller, J. S. and Burdick, J. A., ‘Editorial: special issue on 3D printing of biomaterials’, ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, vol. 2, no. 10 (Oct. 2016), p. 1658.

One technique that is currently receiving particular attention is bioprinting. In contrast to the inanimate materials used as feedstock by other AM techniques, bioprinting constructs objects made from biological materials such as living cells. Using bioinks involves the added complexity of their high sensitivity to environmental conditions, growth and differentiation factors, and the particularities of the construction of tissue. In bioprinting, the bioinks are deposited using, for example, small nozzles for extrusion or an inkjet to achieve precisely layered arrangements of cells and support structures. These materials then grow into functional tissue based on the cells’ biological processes.

 

What challenges does AM pose to non-proliferation and export controls?

AM promises to bring production to the end-user. It could decentralize production and thus reduce the need for the physical transportation of goods across borders. AM is also said to be ‘deskilling’ certain aspects of manufacturing, making it easier for producers with less knowledge and experience to produce more complex products. This characterisation should however be used with caution and it is better to view AM as causing a shift in knowledge and skill requirements rather than their reduction. However, AM does threaten to provide a substitute for other, controlled production techniques and the associated equipment, thus potentially enabling the circumvention of the barriers imposed by export controls. Perhaps more crucial than the new performance characteristics it enables is the increased digitization and automation of this production technology. As such, it further increases the importance of intangible transfers of technologyparticularly the digital build files which encode both the characteristics of the object to be produced and the commands for the AM machine—which can easily be transferred for example via e-mail. Compared to physical goods, digital transfers of technical data are harder to track and control. Moreover, the specialized audit capabilities to verify compliance with technology export controls are still very rare. States must therefore rely on intelligence and law enforcement information to detect illicit transfers and internal compliance mechanisms in companies are ever more important.

 

Increasing capabilities, substitution and remaining barriers

AM has a range of potential applications in the development, production and delivery of biological weapons. All of these are still evolving—as with almost all AM technologies—and thus provide a moving target for regulatory measures. Among the many potentially relevant applications of AM, three are worth particular consideration: 

 

Printing of production or laboratory equipment

AM can be used to print components of production and laboratory equipment and other items required for the production of biological weapons. In this way, AM could limit the footprint—acquisition of particular equipment, materials and specialized knowledge—of a clandestine biological weapon development or production effort. There are however also several technical barriers that currently remain: Especially when using polymers, chemical compatibility and resistance still limit the range of materials that can be used. Moreover, there has so far only been limited testing of relevant properties of products and how printed items interact with chemicals and biomaterials. While AM may offer an alternative production pathway for some parts and equipment, it currently only results in a modest substitution effect as much of the equipment that is of concern can already be acquired through commercial providers for laboratories and the pharmaceutical industry. Using new AM techniques for this purpose likely still involves more significant technical expertise, knowledge and process development requirements. This means that only under very specific circumstances an actor may choose to pursue this pathway to manufacture production or laboratory equipment. 

 

Bioprinting of tissue samples

Among the many positive applications of bioprinting in medicine, the printing of tissue for pharmacological testing is potentially also relevant in the context of the development of biological weapons. Such synthetic tissue is already being used to test pharmaceutical compounds for toxicity and other characteristics. As this technology matures, bioprinted samples may be used for biomedical research and testing that is involved in the development of biological weapons. For example, bioprinted tissue could be used to assess specific interactions between biological agents and certain tissue types under conditions that are otherwise difficult to simulate. However, these techniques are not uniquely enabling. Established methods, such as animal testing, are currently still more accessible and require a more common set of knowledge and skills. While bioinks and suitable printers are commercially available, the knowledge required to take advantage of this technology is less accessible to an actor with malicious intent.

 

Printing of delivery systems or their components

Potential risk scenarios like terrorists using adapted commercial drones to disperse a biological weapon have long been known to experts. The use of AM to produce components for delivery systems such as drones contributes to making their designs more adaptable, increase their capabilities and could thus make them more suitable for use as a delivery system for biological weapons. Plans and build files for printable parts of commercially available drones are openly shared in the do-it-yourself (DIY) community. Simultaneously, the capabilities and customizability of off-the-shelf drones have also increased. Certain spray tanks and types of nozzles that are already subject to export controls can be produced using AM. However, the relatively low level of sophistication of these parts means that they do not necessarily present a major obstacle to their acquisition by a state or a non-state actor. 

 

Addressing AM in the Australia Group and the BWC

The applications of AM relevant to the development, production and delivery of biological weapons are still relatively unknown. However, developments in bioprinting, as well as in the printing of drone components and laboratory equipment, continue at a rapid pace due to commercial and scientific interests—and an active DIY community. While relevant applications of AM currently still require considerable talent recruitment and process development efforts, particularly the digitized and automated nature of AM will likely mean that these barriers will be successively removed. Although the convergence of biotechnology and AM currently only produces moderate biological weapon proliferation risks, these are expected to increase. It is thus important to neither under- nor overestimate the immediate impact. 

Discussions in the AG on if and how to exert controls over the transfer of relevant goods and technologies area are therefore confronted by a difficult array of challenges. These include tracking advances in a rapidly evolving set of technologies and defining the associated risks. At the same time, export controls should not stifle developments for civilian applications of these technologies. Many of the challenges posed by AM extend beyond the biological and chemical weapons context and are relevant to missiles and the nuclear and conventional arms fields. Thus, they are of interest to all the export control regimes. Members of the regimes should therefore consider it as a topic for possible dialogue between the regimes, in particular regarding potential technical parameters for controls on AM machines and controlling intangible transfers of technical data that are used in AM.

At the same time, while export controls are currently a focus of regulatory discussions in the context of AM, meeting the challenges it creates in connection with biological weapons requires a more comprehensive approach. As such, discussions in both the BWC and the AG also need to pay attention to the role of research ethics and risk mitigation procedures in relevant research fields. This would include a stronger emphasis on raising awareness about possible weapons applications at relevant universities, research institutes and in DIY communities, as well as the development of stronger industry compliance and due diligence standards. States thus need to engage with all stakeholders and carefully monitor the nuanced risk picture currently faced to prevent AM from becoming an enabler of biological weapon proliferation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Kolja Brockmann is a Researcher in the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control programme.