November 10, 2006

Research advances may get caught in war on terror’s crossfire: panel

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Mark Denison, M.D., left, LouAnn Burnett, M.S., and Elizabeth Heitman, Ph.D., at this week’s discussion on terrorism and research.
Photo by Anne Rayner

Research advances may get caught in war on terror’s crossfire: panel

Is concern about terrorism unnecessarily restricting scientific research?

That was the question posed by a panel of experts Tuesday during an ethics ground rounds sponsored by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Ethics Committee.

Consider these developments:

o During the past two years, several U.S. biotech and medical equipment companies have been fined for exporting biological toxins to other countries in violation of federal regulations, and for exporting lab equipment, bone densitometers and even physical therapy equipment to “countries of concern,” including India and Iran.

o A federal advisory board is considering a “code of conduct” that would encourage scientists “to avoid or minimize the risks and harm that could result from malevolent use of research outcomes.”

For more than a quarter century, scientists have voluntarily regulated potentially hazardous research, such as that involving recombinant DNA technology, until the safety of such research could be determined.

Then came Sept. 11 and the subsequent — and as yet unsolved — delivery of anthrax-laden letters to members of Congress and the news media.

Even though no further incidents of bioterrorism are known to have occurred in the past four years, there are “external groups that would like to see all work on emerging infections stopped,” said panelist Mark Denison, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and associate professor of Microbiology & Immunology.

“Is self governance still possible? We're at a point in our history where we may be seeing that change,” added LouAnn Burnett, M.S., assistant director of Vanderbilt Environmental Health & Safety and the university's biosafety officer.

Denison, an expert on the SARS virus that created a worldwide scare in 2003, chairs the university's Institutional Biosafety Committee, which is charged with assuring that research involving biologically hazardous materials is conducted in a safe manner.

“We're struggling mightily to try to make sure to maintain autonomy to make the best decisions about what the best science is,” Denison said. “We still have control … but we need to be aware of the environment we're in.”

Elizabeth Heitman, Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, said she worried that the “code of conduct” being considered by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity could unduly restrict the free flow of scientific information.

The board was established by the federal government two years ago to “improve biosecurity measures” for research that could fall into the wrong hands.

Openness and sharing information is a “fundamental pillar” of laboratory science, Heitman said.

Withholding research results for security reasons also could have harmful consequences if, for example, scientists are not warned by their colleagues about the unexpected dangers of working with a particular chemical or organism, or conducting a particular experiment.

Indeed, Heitman said, “we may put the public at risk from the absence of knowledge.”

It is also ironic, she noted, that the federal government next week will send a delegation to the Far East to encourage the continued flow of international students to the United States, when there are efforts to restrict the “export” of scientific knowledge to the same part of the world.

“We appear again to be in conflict with our own regulatory structure,” she said.

For information about recent enforcement actions by the U.S. Commerce Department's export control program, visit

For the national biosecurity advisory board's draft guidance documents, click on