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Imperatives of Biotechnology : Suddenly gene research seems less scary

September 23, 1990

In the blink of an eye--as history measures time--genetic science has raced from unproven theory to a landmark hospital procedure: an injection a few days ago of essentially man-made cells that may save a girl's life.

Next month, another team will test a procedure using a cell that seeks out tumors and has been artificially packed with a natural toxin that makes tumors shrivel up.

There is some reluctance among doctors and researchers to describe either of these moments in medicine as historic. Time enough to use the "h" word when it is clear that the experiments worked, Dr. Steven Rosenberg, a surgeon at the National Cancer Institute outside Washington, told Science magazine.

As a matter of science, the doctor is right, but it will not stop the rest of us from thinking of the events as no less than breathtaking.

It was not until 1953 that researchers J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick even offered an educated guess about what a molecule of DNA, a form of nucleic acid that is the basic building block of genes, would look like. Now researchers talk of moving against other types of cancer, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, AIDS and other diseases if the experiments show positive results.

Nearly as remarkable as the events themselves is the fact that genetic engineering survived years of attack by obscurantist critics. They fought biotechnology every step of the way, long after careful checking and double-checking in laboratories demonstrated that no mutant microbes capable of eating the planet were being created.

Government's involvement in genetic pioneering is another wonder to behold. Too often government is more inclined to get in the way than to lead the way, especially when what is afoot is controversial.

The National Institutes of Health took appropriate care. Congress and the White House backed it up, as did every court that examined lawsuits designed to block attempts to unlock the secrets of human genes. It all sounds pretty historic to us.

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