Talk:2020(S09) Lecture:week 5

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Responses from Prof. King to the questions you wrote

Dear Students; Please find my brief answers to your questions below. There some excellent books on these subjects, though often out-of-print, requiring you to go to a library. Though now that Amazon and other dealings handle used books, they are more available. If you only have time for reading one book, I would recommend Paul Brodeur's "Expendable Americans", story of the struggle over vinyl chloride-induced cancer, in the factory and community in which vinyl chloride was manufactured. Also very informative is Samuel Epstein's "The Politics of Cancer". For a gripping story of one of the BL-4 labs, on Plum Island, read "Lab257" by Michael Carrol (William Morrow). There are many dramatic stories of uncovering infectious disease agents, but one good one is The Cholera Years by Charles Rosenberg. One of my articles is also referenced in the answer to question 4 below. Jonathan King


1. In today's world, in Boston, who makde the policies regarding public health? NIH?
Most decisions are still made by the State Dept of Public Health. Incorporated cites such as Boston and Cambridge have their own additional health authorities and often deal with local issues. The NIH is a research funding agency and doesn't have regulatory authority. Some threats, such as some heavy metals, food quality, and drug efficacy, are regulated federally through the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Admnistration. The MIT authority on these issues is Prof Nicholas Ashford.

2. What are ways to get the public more involved in the decisions made in bioengineering?
Its not easy. Most bioengineering initiatives proceed through research projects, funded by NIH, NSF, DOE, etc. These are all agencies of the federal executive branch, which implements Congressional laws and policies. Agencies of the executive branch have very limited responsibility to assess public views. That would normallly happen via input to Congressman, in particular those that sit on committees which oversee areas of science and technology. They will periodically hold hearings on subjects of interest, where in theory public testimony can be given.

3. Why build a BL-4 lab in a densely populated area? How are locations chosen for such labs? What are the benefits of studying such dangerous materials?
As I indicated, there is no scientific,medical or policy justification for building bl-4 labs in densely populated areas. The BU argument is that the commute will be easier for the scientists working there. The argument for studying dangerous materials is to understand better the dangers, so as to insure safe handling. Thus it is useful to know about the toxicity of highly toxic chemicals such as dioxin, to set the stage for limiting human exposure to the material.

4. Has your vision of the potential of recombinant DNA technologies changed since the Cambridge City Council hearings and if so, have they changed in a way that would make you alter what you said/argued at the conference? In the end, who do you believe has the right to decide whether or not the BSL4 facility should/can be built in Boston?
I believed then and still believe that the new technology brought new hazards, but that the technology could be deployed safely if one fully assessed the hazards (see King, J (1984) New Diseases in New NIches, Nature 276, 4-7 I have the same views toward radioactive isotopes and toxic compounds. If you understand fully the hazards, you can work with them safely. If the hazards are obscure, covered up, or minimized, the inidividual and societal danger of working with the material is increased. Federally funded facilities have local, state and national constituencies. However, if the risks are going to be borne primarily by local people, and the benefits are vague and uncertain, then I think the local citizenry should be able to veto the siting. I cannot imagine the residents of Brookline, Newton or Wellesley, agreeing to having a toxic waste incinerator cited in their communities, and I would support their rejection.

5. In the video clip, you said that "those guidelines are like having the tobacco industry write guidelines for tobacco safety." who do you think should make the guidelines? Shouldn't there at least be a few different scientists and researchers on the committee?
Regulatory bodies would absolutely need scientific expertise, but not just with respect to experiments; as I suggested in class you would also need public and environmental health experts. That is in fact the kind of committee that the city of Cambridge constituted. However it is particularly important that the interest of those who bear the risks, but get few of the benefits, be fully represented.

6. How do you deal with special interest groups that wish to hide what they have to do with the causes of certain diseases?
The first critical step is to expose what has been hidden. Thus in the 60's and 70's you will find that a number of courageous individuals and dedicated groups worked hard to reveal that radioactive isotopes form the production and testing of atomic weapons was far more hazardous than the Atomic Energy Commission had previously revealed. Scientists such as Linus Pauling, Barry Commoner, and Samuel Epstein
7. How do scientists intervene in hazardous decision-making? How can citizens make their opinions known?
Two stages: first writing articles, letters to the editors, giving lunchtime talks, raising the issues. Secondly calling for and then testifying at public hearings before an appropriate governmental body (legislature, regulatory, etc).

8. Has MIT developed any health regulations for laboratory work since you spoke out at the Cambridge meeting? Is it enough, in your opinion?
The City of Cambridge required institutions operating in Cambridge to develop and implemeent safety guidelines. This happened, and lab safety practices were greatly tightened and improved. OSHA and EPA now also conduct inspections, which keeps people on their toes. I think lab practices are now pretty good. The problem is that the people working in the labs often do not understand the scientific or public health basis for the regulations, and therefore view them as a bureaocratic annoyance.

9. What do you think are the ideal conditions/necessary circumstances for building the level 4 bioresearch lab?
In an isolated setting, with public funded medical and health maintenance programs for everyone living and working nearby.

10. Have there been other outstanding examples of "risky research" since the introduction of recombinant DNA?
Yes, but perhaps unrecognized. Thus the most anti-cancer drugs are potent cell poisons. Thus the search for new anti-cancer drugs brings into existence a new class of potent toxins. Because those aspects are identified as "side effects", putative anti-cancer drugs are hardly every treated as toxic agents.

Jonathan King Prof of Molecular Biology MIT 617 253 4700