Cities seek tight guidelines on genetic engineering

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Five years ago after scientists here helped spark a national debate over the possible hazards of recombinant DNA researh in university labs, the fires are still smoldering.

Now it is a growing band of independent firms aiming to cash in on the so-called "gene splicing" technology that is causing the furor, rather than university laboratories.

There is concern that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) safety guidelines which have governed such research do not restrain industry. As the congressional Office of Technology Assessment pointed out in April, "The guidelines are not binding on industry, and no single statue or combination will clearly cover all foreseeable commercial guidelines themselves are being relaxed as scientists have found tha earlier concern about dangers to have been exaggerated. Thus local communities feel unprotected without some kind of regulation of their own.

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So far this year, two Massachesetts communities have move to clamp restrictions on the fledging industry, while two other Bay State cities, including boston, have such measures under consideration. In cambridge, the city updated a 1977 ordinance, adding provisions specifically aimed at controlling privately funded use of the new technology.

(On the heels of the 1977 ordinance, the communities of Berkeley and Emeryville, Calif.; Princeton, N.J.; and Amherst, Mass., established laws of their own. In addition, Maryland and New York developed rules at the state level governing recombinant DNA research).

"What we've said is, in effect, 'If you want to do any DNA work in our city, you'll have to follow the federal guidelines,'" says Daniel Hayes, a former Cambridge mayor who helped revise the city's ordinance.

In Boston, the city council voted May 27 to appoint a special committee to examine the need for an ordinance to regulate genetic research. The panel would include medical researchers, representatives of the public, and members of the council.

A proposed Boston ordinance would force any genetic research institutions to apply for a permit, while also establishing a city biohazards committee to monitor the work. Patterned after the Cambridge law, the proposal arises from a move by Genetics Institute -- a recombinant DNA firm headed by Harvard biologist Mark Ptashne -- to lease research space at a Boston hospital.

Behind the flurry of renewed community concern is a feeling that national guidelins governing safety standards for federally funded DNA research should apply equally to privare ventures, especially large-scale projects. Some city officials are concerned that federal guidelines, penned by NIH, may be relaxed too rapidly. By passing ordinances keyed to the guidelines while adding mechanisms for community oversight, the cities hope to retain effective control.

"WE wanted to be protected if the federal guidelines should suddenly be repealed," says Donald Manning, a city councilor in Waltham, Mass., where a city ordinance governing recombinant DNA was approved this January.

Some of the city officials an scientist are concerned that potentially harmful organisms could escape from laboratories or contaminate workers. But generally, the tone of the debate has changed. Emotionpacked predictions of disasters have given risks and benefits offered by the new technology.

But whiel communities try to get a grip on privately funded projects, company officials say overregulation could stifle the emerging technology an shift the competitive edge to other parts of the world where recombinant DNA is being studied.

"We think that the risks are far, far less than the scientist originally anticipated," says Robert Fildes, president of Biogen Corporation, a recombinant DNA company currently setting up shop in Cambridge. He would like to see the NIH guideline relaxed, followed by a corresponding loosening of the Cambridge ordinance.

"The mood of the NIH is turning to be one of much more flexibility," dr. Fildes says. "I would hope that, considering this, the cities with these laws would take a similar approach."

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