Letters for the Week of August 20 

Readers sound off on incense, bagels, and Barack Obama.

Page 2 of 3

Lastly, come enjoy the 2011 Solano Stroll, tip the bands, and check out our lovely street!

David Krebs, Albany


"Reform Bagelism," What the Fork, 7/27

Accept No Imitators

So, wait a minute .... You're telling me that certain people and companies have been selling a non-boiled bread product that they label as a bagel? Wow. Now I'm afraid to ask about various "pretzel" products floating around.

Thomas Lord, Berkeley


Miscellaneous Letters

A Synthetic Biology Lab in Berkeley

In April of this year, UC Berkeley researchers announced the creation of the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI), which will ramp up efforts to "engineer" cells and biological systems. Part of its research will include experiments that insert manufactured stretches of DNA into existing organisms to create new, self-replicating artificial life forms — experiments that pose implications for worker safety, public health, and environmental safety. A collaboration of university and industry, the SBI enterprise is designed to catapult basic research into profit-making applications. From a press release: "SBI will be an important link in a constellation of research centers focused on synthetic biology at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), both of which have made the field a research priority. SBI is unique in its planned collaborations with leading companies, designed to translate leading research on biological systems and organisms efficiently into processes, products, and technologies."

Where this extensive new research will take place is a matter of some speculation. LBNL, managed by UC Berkeley but funded by the Department of Energy, is seeking to open a second campus somewhere in the East Bay. The new facility hopes to combine three existing facilities presently scattered throughout the cities of Berkeley and nearby Emeryville: the Joint BioEnergy Institute, the Life Sciences Division, and the Joint Genome Institute. Potential sites for a new campus include a number of locations in the City of Berkeley itself.

What do residents make of this idea? Lawsuits have stymied LBNL's effort to expand into the region's Strawberry Canyon watershed, described by activists as "a rich repository of wildlife." Now concern over second campus proposals, which include targeted locations along the West Berkeley shoreline, has centered on issues of job creation, tax revenues, zoning, and predictions of rising sea levels. It remains to be seen whether health and safety issues uniquely associated with this research also will be raised. Do adequate safety protections exist? Or are entirely new safety assessment and reporting methodologies for this research required in order to safeguard worker, public and environmental well-being?

Biosafety level (BL) containment labs are ranked from 1-4 according to the risk of harm they pose, with increasing levels indicating increasing danger. Typically, BL1 labs perform research on non-human infectious agents; BL2 labs use biological agents that could infect humans but are assumed to cause only "moderate harm"; BL3 labs experiment with biological agents capable of killing humans but for which there are known antidotes (like anthrax); and BL4 labs conduct research using agents that could kill humans and for which there is no known antidote.

Which safety lab levels will the new campus house? What constitutes "moderate harm?" Will the citizenry of this densely populated urban area know what pathogens are being used for research? Since academic and private interests operate under different safety, liability, and oversight restrictions, which research safety guidelines will apply? What remedies will apply in the event of lab worker injury, or environmental or public safety hazard? Will there be a public safety infrastructure facilitating transparency and accountability? Is the patchwork of voluntary regulatory guidelines from existing agencies adequate?

A brief review of just a few incidents of lab worker exposure to hazards suggests that even current biolab regulation and oversight is not adequate. These include Dr. Jeannette Adu-Bobie, who after visiting a New Zealand lab suffered a meningococcal infection from a laboratory strain causing loss of both legs and an arm; Ru-ching Hsia, a Department of Agriculture scientist who became infected by laboratory E.coli strain and lapsed into a coma for a month; and University of Chicago scientist Malcolm Casadaban, who died after unknowingly being infected with a laboratory plague bacterium. One of this essay's co-authors, molecular biologist Becky McClain, won a whistle-blower suit against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after reporting public health and safety concerns. She fell ill after an untrained lab worker used a human infectious genetically engineered virus, without suitable biocontainment, on McClain's personal workspace. She began experiencing periodic paralysis and spinal pain, a result consistent with the DNA-coded effects that had been engineered within the pathogen. Recently, researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a University of Illinois laboratory worker was infected by a genetically engineered cowpox laboratory virus, one with which she had never worked. CDC investigators not only found cowpox DNA in many areas around the lab, they also discovered that supposedly harmless stocks of viruses had been contaminated. Problematically, releases of laboratory bio agents are difficult to track since exposures often are not visible to a worker who succumbs to a mystery illness. Scientists can become ill from dangerous biological exposures without knowledge of having suffered an exposure.

Public health also is a serious consideration. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) killed nearly 800 people in 2003. Lab versions of the SARS pathogen are known to have escaped BL3 and BL4 labs via infected lab workers. And a few years ago, at Berkeley itself, workers handled deadly Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (which spreads in the air) without containment when it was mislabeled as harmless. The United States' 2001 anthrax scare and the unknown source of the virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain of E.coli that has recently infected thousands in Europe and, so far, killed 27, raise serious questions about the effectiveness of tracking, as well as accountability.

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