Scientists compare dual-use H5N1 and Asilomar meetings

Feb 16, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – Some experts involved in the controversy over two H5N1 transmission papers have called the pause in research and discussions over the dual-use nature of the work an "Asilomar moment," referring to a scientific meeting held in the 1970s to discuss the potential dangers of recombinant DNA research.

Yesterday on National Public Radio's (NPR's) All Things Considered program, three of the more than 100 scientists who took part in that meeting that took place in February 1975 at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, Calif., discussed similarities and differences between the issues raised almost four decades ago and the topics scientists are confronting today and tomorrow at a meeting of flu technical experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO).

One of the participants in the WHO meeting is Paul Keim, PhD, who first raised the Asilomar analogy. Keim is acting chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an outside advisory group to the National Institutes of Health that was asked to review dual-use issues surrounding the studies. The NSABB recommended that two studies be published in Science and Nature without key details.

Paul Berg, PhD, Nobel prize winner in chemistry and professor emeritus of molecular and genetic medicine at Stanford University, told NPR that the meeting was called as scientists took their first steps into the field of genetic engineering, and the discovery that triggered the meeting was his group's first experiments with recombinant DNA.

He said his first reaction when some scientists raised concerns about the research was, "Nonsense!"

However, he said he realized that he couldn't ensure that there was no risk and that the scientific tools were advancing rapidly, with more researchers doing similar work. He said he and other scientists asked their peers to hold off on their experiments until a consensus could be reached on safety ground rules.

Keim, who is also a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University, told NPR that the Asilomar conference produced a set of research guidelines and policies, some of which are still in effect today.

Berg said, "It's like the 1970s all over again." Parallels include a game-changing scientific discovery, concerns raised about the research, a research moratorium, and a call for an international meeting.

However, Maxine Singer, PhD, a molecular biologist who helped organize the Asilomar meeting, said there are several differences between the two situations, according to the NPR report. She said the Asilomar meeting had a forward-looking theme that focused on potential risks of hypothetic work that hadn't been done. But the current debate surrounds work that has already been done. "Now, we're talking about locking the barn door after the horses have gone."

She said other differences are that scientists arranged the Asilomar meeting themselves and allowed reporters to freely cover it. In contrast, she said the H5N1 meeting was called by an outside group with proceedings behind closed doors.

Stanley Falkow, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University who also attended the Asilomar meeting, pointed out that another difference is that scientists seem to be grudgingly going along with the pause in research, only after a public outcry.

He said society supports the work of scientists and gives them freedom to do their work. "There's an implied trust, and I think in part what's happened has shaken the trust of many people," he said, adding that ensuring public trust in science is another important lesson from the Asilomar conference.

See also:

Feb 15 NPR report

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