Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Limits Are Needed for Research Involving Highly Infectious Viruses?

Back in January of 2012, a number of top influenza researchers agreed to a voluntary moratorium on any research involving contagious, lab-altered forms of one strain of bird flu. This week, a number of flu researchers are meeting in New York for the annual conference of the U.S. government-funded Centers for Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. One part of the agenda for this conference will be to discuss  if the moratorium should be lifted, or if it should stay in place.

Some scientists and researchers are concerned that if mutant bird flu viruses somehow got out of the lab, they could cause a devastating pandemic. Others argue that lifting this ban is crucial to making sure that public health officials are reading for any possible threat of a flu pandemic that might emerge naturally, as bird flu viruses mutate in the wild.

Meanwhile, the U.S. National Institutes of Health will be watching and and participating in the conversation about what should be done about overseeing research involving high-risk pathogens. To read more, check out NPR's article, "Bird Flu Researchers To Meet About Research Moratorium" from  July 24, 2012.

The World Health Organization will also be having an open meeting sometime next year on these issues, and has recently released some guidelines on what kinds of risk-control measures should be used by labs researching mutant bird flu viruses.

Are these kinds of voluntary guidelines enough, or do international governments need to step in and provide some oversight when research involves the use of highly contagious viruses? Or, should it be up to the scientific community to decide when research of this kind should continue, and what kinds of limitations should be put in place to protect the public?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Japan Commission finds Fukushima a "profoundly man-made disaster"

The Japanese government's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded in a report released last week that the nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was a "profoundly man-made disaster," rather than a result of a natural disaster.

The earthquake of March 2011 which hit at a magnitude of 9.0, was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, as well as one of the most powerful earthquakes ever measured. It sent a 133 foot tsunami crashing onto the coast that killed over 15,000 people and triggered the chain of events leading to the nuclear disaster.

The commission found that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)  had many opportunities for taking preventative measures prior to when the earthquake and tsunami hit.   The commission criticized TEPCO as being too quick to dismiss earthquake damage as a cause of the fuel meltdowns at three of  of the plant's six reactors, which overheated when the site lost power. TEPCO has contended that the plant withstood the earthquake, and instead placed the blame on the tsunami  that followed. TEPCO executives that the earthquake followed by the huge tsunami was beyond the scope of contingency planning.

According to the commission, the Fukushima nuclear incident shows the danger of "regulatory capture" in which a government agency acts on behalf of the industry it tries to oversee instead of representing  the public interest. The Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, part of the economy industry that promotes nuclear energy, allowed TEPCO to delay upgrades and ignore problems, the report found. The report  faults the Japanese nuclear industry and regulators for not learning lessons from Three Mile Island or the Chernobyl disaster  in the Ukraine, and also cites lack of communication between scientists and the government in sharing information that could help improve the safety of Japanese nuclear plants.

The commission ended its report by calling for the creation of an independent and professional nuclear regulatory body to help build a stronger safety culture in the Japanese nuclear industry.

Read more:

Tabuchi, Hiroko. "Inquiry Declares Fukushima Crisis a Man-Made Disaster." New York Times. July 5. 2012
"Official Fukushima Report  Blames Japanese Culture, Not Nuclear Power". The Atlantic. July 11, 2012
Normile, Dennis. "Commission Spreads Blame for 'Manmade' Disaster." Science Magazine. July 13, 2012.

The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

What kind of control should individuals have of tissue samples from their own bodies?

Henrietta Lacks is arguably one of the most famous individuals in this debate. In 1951, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore created the first immortal cell line with a tissue sample taken from a young black women with cervical cancer. That young woman was Henrietta Lacks. The cells taken from her, called  HeLa cells, quickly became invaluable to medical research. Henrietta Lacks never knew that her doctor had taken a piece of her tumor without her consent, and she and her family received no benefits or recognition for her contribution to the medical science field. 25 years after her death, Mrs. Lacks' family found out what was  being done with the cells, and launched a campaign to get some of what they were owed financially.

A books was published in 2010 by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, that does an excellent job exploring the story. Part of the proceeds of her book went to set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation whose mission is to provide financial assistance to individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from their contributions, particularly contributions made to research without their knowledge and consent.

Do we own our own tissues after they are removed from our body? If so, then it seems reasonable that we should expect to have some say in how they are used and have the right to demand payment when a profitable discovery derives from them. Or, if we can't treat tissues samples from our own body as property, what other rights do we have, and kinds of obligations do researchers have to tissue donors?

For more information, see:

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

Troug, Robert D., Aaron S. Kellselheim, and Steven Joffe. "Paying Patients for Their Tissue: The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks. Science Magazine. 337(6090) 37-38. July 6, 2012. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6090/37.full?sid=b30262f0-c4d4-44e9-a4e4-2515e9234841

Ziellinski, Sarah. "Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal' Cells". Smithsonian.com. January 22, 2010. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-Cells.html

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Animal Welfare: When is Regulation Needed?

Back in February, NPR reported on an agreement reached by Gene Gregory, the president of the United Egg Producers, and Wayne Pacelle, the president of the U.S. Humane Society, to lobby for new rules for egg farmers which would require them to provide larger cages for egg-producing chickens, along with perches and nest-boxes. The compromise came after years of bitter argument about the practice of crowding chickens into wire cages.

Now, the compromise is under attack, not by egg farmers, but by America's hog and beef producers. The National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association are lobbying against any kind of regulation because they fear that it might turn into a slippery slope. If Congress passes regulation that makes it mandatory for farmers to follow new laws for the housing of chickens, the next step might be new regulation that mandates the living conditions of hogs and cattle. 

That National Pork Producer's Council has called the egg legislation a "Federal Farm Takeover Bill" and has been lobbying Republican members of congress, saying that the new bill is likely to lead to higher prices for eggs.  And it looks as if organizations who oppose the bill are winning. The egg producers and the Humane Society had hoped to attach their proposal to the farm bill which is currently making its way through congress. The Senate has not brought up this proposal for a vote however. Its best chance, some analysts say, might be after elections are held in November. 

Meanwhile, one hopes that this partnership between United Egg Producers and the Humane Society will bear fruit, and even be emulated in other areas where the welfare of animals is under debate. 

For more information, check out NPR's article from June 11, "U.S. Pig and Cattle Producers try to Crush Egg Bill."