Thursday, May 27, 2010

And You Think Drilling Rig Regulations are Too Lax!

Brace yourself. The really scary stuff is happening in loosely regulated biotechnology labs. From the New York Times:

...The casualties include an Agriculture Department scientist who spent a month in a coma after being infected by the E. coli bacteria her colleagues were experimenting with.
Another scientist, working in a New Zealand lab while on leave from an American biotechnology company, lost both legs and an arm
after being infected by meningococcal bacteria, the subject of her vaccine research.

Last September, a
University of Chicago scientist died after apparently being infected by the focus of his research: the bacterium that causes plague.

Whether handling deadly pathogens for biowarfare research, harnessing viruses to do humankind’s bidding or genetically transforming cells to give them powers not found in nature, the estimated 232,000 employees in the nation’s most sophisticated biotechnology labs work amid imponderable hazards. And some critics say the modern biolab often has fewer federal safety regulations than a typical blue-collar factory.

...three trends are stoking concern among safety advocates. In the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks, the federal government stepped up research involving biowarfare threats, like anthrax, Ebola and many other of the world’s deadliest pathogens. Another factor is that the new techniques of so-called synthetic biology allow scientists to make wholesale genetic changes in organisms rather than just changing one or two genes, potentially creating new hazards. Just this month, the genome pioneer J. Craig Venter announced the creation of a bacterial cell containing totally synthetic DNA, which Dr. Venter described as the first species “whose parent is a computer.”

The third trend involves the shifting focus of the
pharmaceuticals industry — potentially the largest source of new biotechnology jobs. Drug makers, responding to competition from cheap generic medications, are moving beyond the traditional business of making pills in chemical factories to focus instead on vaccines and biologic drugs that are made in vats of living cells.

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