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Asilomar Conference Charts the Course of Biological Research

by Alfred G. Kildow

More than 60 scientists and scholars from around the world attended the three-day conference at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, near Monterey.

The day after Valentine’s Day, USC bioethicist Alexander Capron threw a birthday party in Pacific Grove.

His guests, some 60 of the world’s top biologists – and the lawyers, historians, social scientists and ethicists who are their colleagues, and the journalists who observe them – spent major parts of the three-day celebration arguing with each other. At other times it was a lovefest, with most agreeing that the 25-year-old event they came to commemorate had been both necessary and sufficient to assure that recombining genes would pose no danger to scientists or the public.

Capron, a University Professor and the Henry W. Bruce Professor of Law, convened the gathering to note a singular event in the history of science: the 1975 Asilomar Conference, in which some 140 biologists and physicians met in the presence of four lawyers and 16 science writers to consider the potential dangers of biological research. At the end of the historic meeting, the scientists adopted guidelines under which research on splicing DNA – that they had voluntarily halted the previous year – could resume, subject to safety procedures that took into account the riskiness of each experiment. Nobel laureate David Baltimore, then of MIT and now president of Caltech, called the 1975 conference an “exercise in humility” for biologists.

The Asilomar guidelines became the basis for the federal regulations that govern such research to this day. In the 25 years since, research into “recombinant DNA” (rDNA) has proved not to be harmful, causing some to question the wisdom of the findings of the Asilomar Conference – named for the state-owned conference center where both meetings were held.

But while there was near-unanimity among this year’s attendees regarding the need for the 1975 conference, there was little agreement on anything else – including whether the attendees should issue a statement of findings. (Rather than voting formally, they were satisfied with a statement of general consensus.)

However, those assembled did list many new issues they are confronting; some of the most serious involve the impact of biotechnology on academic freedom.

The most important outgrowth of rDNA research, all agreed, was the creation of the biotechnology industry. That impact was severe, participants said, because not only did it lead to a major industry with positive economic significance for the society at large, but the industry enriched large numbers of biologists and raised the specter of research goals motivated primarily by money, rather than the quest to learn. The generation of this wealth has also led to the now-widespread problem of industry-funded research and clinical trials conducted without governmental oversight, they said.

The formal sessions of the conference – augmented by informal discussions – will doubtless affect the future course of biological research throughout the world, given the prestige and the international scope of the attendees.

Among other issues raised that will likely need to be addressed are:

• Gene therapy, especially “germline” therapy in which genetic alterations are passed on to subsequent generations. (Until a recent federal suspension of gene therapy trials, 372 trials were underway, 153 funded by the National Institutes of Health, the rest by private industry.)

• Organ transplants to humans from other species.

• “GMOs,” genetically modified organisms, now in widespread use in agriculture.

• Novel treatment of allergies, such as through the introduction of small molecules that can interact with cellular mechanisms.

• Stem cells – so-called progenitor cells that contain all the information necessary to create any tissue or organ in the body.

Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and one of the conveners of the original Asilomar Conference, took note of the many conflicts of interest arising in discussion. “While conflicts of interest are inherent,” she said, “what’s needed is a balance of conflicts” to ensure that the public good is well served.

Asilomar Conference Charts the Course of Biological Research

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