National Research Council Calls for More Oversight of Biotechnology Research
Before beginning research projects, biotechnology scientists should submit their proposals to specially trained panels of scientists and national security experts to determine whether the study's potential benefits would outweigh any threat of bioterrorists' misusing the information, according to a National Research Council -- a branch of the National Academy of Sciences -- report released Wednesday, the Washington Post reports. Experts in science, law, national security and private industry worked for 18 months on the 110-page report, "Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism," which focuses on how to minimize the misuse of biotechnology knowledge without hindering the development of new medicines, vaccines, microbe detection systems or agricultural technology. "The crux of the dilemma is that the technology that protects us can also be used to cause harm," Gerald Fink, a geneticist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and chair of the NRC panel, said. The panel recommends that researchers first submit their proposals to committees of experts within their institutions, and if a committee raises safety concerns, forward their proposals to the NIH's newly expanded Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee for further review. In those cases, privately funded research institutions would be encouraged but not legally required to submit to federal review; usually only publicly funded research undergoes federal review (Weiss, Washington Post, 10/9). Areas of research that are likely to require review include experiments that would show how to render human and animal vaccines ineffective; develop human, animal or plant resistance to antibiotics; or increase the virulence of human, animal or plant pathogens, according to the committee. (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10/9). The institutional committees could prohibit research projects from being conducted on their premises, and the RAC could caution against allowing the researchers to receive federal funding for the projects (Wade, New York Times, 10/9).
The report also recommends that HHS create a National Science Advisory Board for Biodefense to oversee the effort (Sternberg, USA Today, 10/9). The committee would allow biologists and national security experts to exchange ideas and advise the institutional committees and the RAC (New York Times, 10/9). Although participation is voluntary, the committee stated that "patriotism and peer pressure from fellow professionals" would ensure compliance, the Post reports. However, the report warns that international consensus on research limitations is necessary because without it, the proposed limits "would only impede the progress of biomedical research here and undermine our own national interests" (Washington Post, 10/9).
HHS spokesperson Campbell Gardette said HHS officials "think [the report is] a good product" (USA Today, 10/9). Dr. John Marburger, science adviser to President Bush, said the report is "a very positive move by the scientific community," but he added, "I am sure there are other things that will happen in the future" to address the problem. The administration has not yet decided how to act on the proposal, according to the Times (New York Times, 10/9). NPR's "Morning Edition" on Thursday reported on the recommendations. The segment includes comments from panel members Ronald Atlas, a professor of biology and graduate dean of University of Louisville; John Collier, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School; and Fink (Knox, "Morning Edition," NPR, 10/9). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer. In addition, a one-hour briefing by the National Academies on the report is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.