Bioethical Brush Fires

May 5, 2000

Truth. You don’t need the imagination of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, to understand the public fear of biotechnology – that some great hazard will be unwittingly unleashed. Those fears are part of the reason millions pay a premium for food they believe to be all-natural: bottled water and organic products, for instance.

Similar fears color the view of genetically altered foods, a fact that this week prompted the Clinton administration to let companies label food as free from bioengineering. This would allow marketers to promote the naturalness of their products. Conversely, they could use a label advertising the advantages of gene-altered foods.

This could be a monster itself. Almost every food today is gene-modified to some degree, so any terminology is apt to be disputed. In 1998, efforts to define "organic" drew more than 110,000 critical comments.

That said, voluntary labels are preferable to mandatory labeling of gene-altered foods, which would only amplify baseless fears. Consumers should be able to choose foods based on naturalness. But those who would damn all gene-altered foods with the stigma of a label act no less paranoid than Mary Shelley’s villagers who also drove away a scientific miracle.

Consequences. When it comes to biotechnology, some disclosure must be rigorous. Example: gene therapy experiments, in which subjects receive new genes to replace missing or defective ones. In an example that the tactic works, two French children with "bubble-boy disease" were recently reported to have been successfully treated by inserting a gene in their bone marrow.

The dark side of the science is the way cutting-edge scientists may shave down the edges of candor. In the past nine months, researchers conducting two different experiments have been accused of operating outside strict experimental protocols.

Most recently, the Food and Drug Administration accused a Boston doctor of wrongly enrolling a test subject whose lung cancer was worsened by the experimental therapy, and of failing to report the death of another subject properly. Last September, researchers were accused of failing to inform a test subject who later died of the risks.

The race for new cures (and associated riches) is part of what animates modern science. But even desperately sick patients should be fully informed of risks, and regulators should be fully informed of failures. Otherwise, the village will stop trusting the scientists, and torches will be lit.

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