Current Opinion: Recombinant DNA Research

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Current Opinion: Recombinant DNA Research

by The Group on Recombinant DNA, Science for the People, Boston Chapter

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 5, September/October 1976, p. 32

The potentially disastrous effects of gene implantation research on the health of people in local communities have aroused concern in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge City Council met in front of overflow audiences for two open hearings on June 23 and July 7 to discuss the ramifications of gene implantation (recombinant DNA) research in Cambridge for public health. The meetings were called in response to an active debate concerning Harvard University’s plans to build a special facility to house this research, and were also spurred by an expose article on the situation at Harvard in a local weekly newspaper. 

At the second of these two meetings, the Council voted 5-4 in favor of imposing a three-month “good faith” moratorium on certain kinds of gene implantation experiments. The forbidden experiments are classified by the National Institutes of Health Guidelines for Experiments Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules as the more dangerous ones, requiring “P3” and “P4” physical containment.1 In addition, the Council voted to establish an Experimentation Review Board for the city to examine in detail the hazards posed by this and other forms of ongoing genetic research. Nine people were appointed to the Board in early August. None of them are scientists doing research, though several are in public health. The Board will study the problem and make recommendations to the Council about what should be done. 

The Cambridge action has set a precedent for open public debate on this scientific issue, and serves as an example for other local and state governments to curb, through cautious legislation, the rapid expansion of this and other technologies. Unfortunately, the “open” debate in Cambridge was tailored to the special interests of Harvard, whose representatives arranged the list of speakers both in favor of and opposed to the research, for both meetings. 

One serious problem is that the moratorium does not affect gene implantation research which is currently being done at both Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This research, although defined by NIH as “less dangerous” (requiring essentially no physical containment), is regarded by many scientists to be just as dangerous as the P3 and P4 work. The distinction between degrees of danger is based on the question of what constitutes “lower” and “higher” organisms, a subjective decision which so far has not been based on experimental measure of risk. If this distinction made in the Guidelines is incorrect, Cambridge citizens may be at greater risk from these “less dangerous” experiments, since they do not involve the physical barriers between the experiment and the experimenter and the outside world that the “more dangerous” experiments require.

For the alleged improvement of public health, newer and more potent threats to human health and the ecosystem are being developed through the technology of gene implantation. The Group on Recombinant DNA of Science for the People calls for an immediate moratorium on all gene implantation work which allows novel genetic combinations between organisms which are not known to exchange genes naturally. This moratorium should extend over government and biological warfare research as well as private, industrial, and academic research. 

A national moratorium should allow the pursuit of at least three objectives: 

1) Development of Democratic Procedures that will insure open discussion and public decision on the problems posed by gene implantation research. 

2) Reassessment of Dangers and Risks before intellectual and economic investment in the development of this technology grows larger and accidents occur. 

3) Development of Alternative Technologies, such as the isolation of genes from higher organisms using in vitro (outside of the living cell) techniques, that do not involve the manufacture of novel microorganisms. 

The moratorium should continue until these three objectives have been met.

Group on Recombinant DNA, Boston SftP

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  1. P3 containment requires controlled access to the lab area, a biohazard sign on the door when work is in progress, and negative air pressure for the lab, or. at least for cabinets in which manipulations are done. P4 containment adds several more restrictions: air locks at entrances to the lab, clothing change and shower rooms for lab personnel, waste treatment and air decontamination systems for the lab.