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Report: Asilomar Symposium on Science, Ethics and Society

On the 25th Anniversary of the Asilomar Conference

Genetic Crossroads
February 28th, 2000

Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, California, February 15-17, 2000

In February of 1975 nearly 150 leading molecular biologists and others gathered at the Asilomar Conference Center to devise procedures to oversee the development of recombinant DNA technology in the United States. These procedures were adopted by the US government and largely remain in place today. Earlier this month another group of molecular biologists and others met, again at Asilomar, to evaluate these policies and to consider whether the "Asilomar process" might be used to respond to new challenges regarding genetic engineering. Participants included key organizers of the 1975 conference.

The Asilomar process is controversial. In the words of the organizers of the February 2000 Symposium, "For some, Asilomar stands as a singular example of scientific responsibility….Yet others see Asilomar as an attempt by scientific leaders to maintain control in the face of possible regulation…shielding science from the public and its elected representatives." (Symposium announcement, p. 1).

The most highly charged discussions at the Symposium concerned financial conflicts of interest and the safety of current human gene transfer experiments. Some speakers argued that the credibility of biomedical researchers claiming to act in the public interest has been irrevocably forfeited as a result of these researchers' new, pervasive, and deep commercial entanglements. One government official suggested that scientists might be prohibited from having a financial stake in any corporation that supports their clinical research.

Other speakers were caustic in their assessment of the "cowboy" culture of much of the gene therapy research community. The recent death of Jesse Gelsinger following gene experiments at the University of Pennsylvania figured prominently in the discussion. Dr. Alan Schechter of the National Institutes of Health charged that "gene
therapy has many of the worst examples of clinical research that exist." Another participant noted that the term "gene therapy" is grossly misleading, and suggested "gene transfer experiments on human subjects" as the more properly descriptive phrase.

It is important to realize that statements critical of the current state of affairs should not necessarily be taken as criticisms of the project of human genetic engineering in general. In fact, those at the Symposium who spoke most strongly against the financial conflicts of interest, overblown claims, and shoddy research that pervade the field today included some of the strongest proponents of human genetic engineering overall, including both therapeutic and enhancement applications of germline engineering. This is hardly a contradiction. These scientists want to see these technologies perfected and applied, and they are aware that current conditions and practices could jeopardize that prospect.

Symposium participants were acutely aware that public support is essential if human genetic engineering is to continue in a manner that suits the researchers/corporate stakeholders, i.e., with health and environmental concerns narrowly framed, and completely free of any consideration of the longer term social impacts. For the most part "the public" was portrayed as an uninformed, emotional, opaque entity. Opposition to GMO foods was described as having arisen last year "out of the blue." Environmentalists were ridiculed for "fearing change." One participant suggested that cognitive scientists and anthropologists should be asked to help them understand how "ordinary" people form opinions about genetic engineering.

The precautionary principle came under sustained attack, with one noted scientist saying, "No one can assure zero risk. Penicillin has risks. We fly in airplanes. So I don't understand how anyone can put forward this precautionary principle as something we all have to adhere to." A minority of participants spoke up in opposition to this assesment of the public, noting that the deepest public concerns draw on normative values that lie outside the domain of scientific analysis.

Germline engineering

Although the Symposium agenda highlighted germline engineering as a topic for discussion, it was addressed only minimally. Dr. Paul Billings of the Heart of Texas Health Care System spoke articulately against germline engineering, citing the near impossibility of estimating the risks involved in manipulating human embryos at early developmental stages, the lack of any overriding medical need, the great expense and misallocation of resources involved, the profound eugenic implications, and the fact that the US would largely be going against world opinion if it allowed germline engineering. He said that scientific research needs to proceed within a larger framework of societal approval, and called for a "radical re-engineering of human genetic research," focused on social well-being and democratic values.

The Open Letter was distributed to all participants on the morning of the second day of the Symposium. At various points in the meeting several participants, including Dr. Charles Weiner of MIT and Bishop Pierre DuMaine of San Jose, called attention to the letter, but there was no move by the group as a whole to address the issues it raised.

Private conversations revealed a range of opinions about germline engineering. More than a few noted scientists attempted to avoid taking responsibility for an opinion by invoking the claim that "germline is inevitable." When pressed, most who held this view were also of the opinion that germline engineering is desirable, or at least not so undesirable that it needs to be banned. One widely honored scientist quite seriously defended germline engineering on the grounds that "poor families could engineer their children to be basketball players."

On the other hand, a few prominent scientists, including some of the strongest advocates of somatic gene transfer applications, expressed considerable doubts about germline engineering, and indicated that they would be disposed to support a ban. If a strong citizen campaign can be mobilized in opposition to germline engineering, scientists in this latter group could play an important role.

Another Asilomar?

An explicit purpose of the Symposium was to consider whether the model of the 1975 Asilomar process might be applied to current newly controversial genetic engineering technologies, including genetically modified plants and animals, human germline engineering, cloning, and stem cell technologies. As noted, under this model research scientists assessed the risks, drew up proposals for guidelines and for oversight committees comprised largely of the researchers themselves, and had these proposals adopted as federal policy.

A majority of Symposium participants seemed to believe that such a process was no longer tenable. In addition to recognizing that their moral authority had been compromised by financial conflicts of interest, participants noted that the issues were now more complex, impacted more clearly on deep social and moral commitments, and are regularly being addressed by a large number of advisory committees and commissions.

It was observed that the 1975 Asilomar conference had been motivated by the sudden realization that plans were underway to genetically engineer pathogenic bacteria that could escape from laboratories, creating a condition of quasi-emergency. One speaker suggested that an analogous development would be the announcement of a successful germline engineering procedure in a primate, and that this could happen at any time. Other speakers suggested that fears concerning xenotransplantation and DNA vaccines might be addressed through an Asilomar-type process.

Although the balance of opinion was against the practicability of the Asilomar model in its pure form, no participants suggested that they should resign themselves to letting "the politicians" determine the future course of genetic engineering research and technology. Rather, they appeared to understand that in the coming period they would have to be more conventionally political in the furtherance of their interests, and of what they believe to be in the public interest.

-- Richard Hayes, Coordinator, Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies. Hayes is a co-editor of this newsletter and attended the Symposium.


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