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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.