Wednesday, September 18

Panel seeks to prevent “˜misuse of biotechnology’


Scientists want advisory board to take extra look at risky research

In a move to increase national security without impeding
scientific growth, a panel of scientists put together a report
urging another tier of prior review for proposed experiments that
could be used by terrorists or hostile nations to make biological
weapons.

Led by Dr. Gerald Fink of the Whitehead Institute at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the National Academy of
Sciences panel recommends the creation of an advisory board made up
of scientists and national security experts.

The board will review certain experiments deemed risky before
and after they are carried out at any research institution.

Currently, researchers at universities working with recombinant
DNA or infectious agents must submit their proposals to an
Institutional Biosafety Committee.

At UCLA, the committee, which is made up of university
scientists, allows researchers to conduct their experiments if they
meet guidelines established by the National Institute of
Health’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

The panel’s recommended advisory board could exercise more
knowledge about national security issues when examining potentially
problematic experiments.

“This urges scientists both in the United States and
elsewhere to think about (how) the science they’re doing
could promote the efforts of bioterrorists,” said Matthew
Scharff, a panel member and professor of cell biology at the Albert
Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY.

The issue of bioterrorism is important, Scharff said.

“I was able to see from the window of my office the
burning Trade Center, and I read the newspapers about someone
mailing anthrax,” Scharff said.

“That changed the world for me,” he added.

Scharff said it took several meetings and discussions among
panel members and peers before the report was finalized.

Another issue the panel focused on was experiment
publication.

The scientific committee, not government agencies, should
determine whether the experiments are published, stressed the
panel’s report.

Currently, the government places restriction on public access to
“sensitive but unclassified” information.

Such vague language causes confusion among scientists and
government officials, according to the panel.

UCLA research is either “classified” or
“unclassified.” The university does not allow
publication restrictions by the government on unclassified
information.

“Nobody does classified research at UCLA, on the campus.
So, therefore, as a result, if we don’t do classified
research, we should be able to publish it,” said Vice
Chancellor of Research Roberto Peccei.

“This whole issue of “˜sensitive, but
unclassified’ is something that is an evolving debate between
universities and the federal government,” Peccei said.

The report specifically targets seven types of experiments that
may result in the “misuse of biotechnology.”

Researchers at UCLA agree that biological weapons are a real
threat.

“Admittedly there is information out there that, for
somebody with the right abilities, could potentially be used for
devious purposes,” said Dr. Kenneth Bradley, assistant
professor of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics.

Bradley’s lab is currently studying the effects of anthrax
toxins on mammalian cells, with hopes of developing molecular
inhibitors to block anthrax toxins from binding to its
receptor.

Bradley believes it is important for the scientific community to
show that they are responsible enough to understand the threats of
bioterrorism and issues of national security.

“We don’t want to wait to be asked to take
initiative,” Bradley said.

Bradley has read a summary of the proposals and said the
recommendations are reasonable.

“I cannot imagine it is going to be a problem for people
who have taken the responsibility to act responsibly when designing
experiments,” Bradley said.

“We do an assessment of the risks to the individual, lab
and exposure to the environment,” said assistant biosafety
officer Rowelle Cruz.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.