Somerville Officials Debate DNA Law

Residents Protest Plans for Beacon St. Laboratory

Two hundred townspeople crowded into Somerville's City Hall last night for a public hearing over guidelines for recombinant DNA research and development within that city.

Following the hearing Somerville mayor Eugene Brune and alderman Frank Bakey distributed a proposed ordinance patterned after ordinances already passed in Cambridge and Waltham, but even more restrictive.

The proposed ordinance, like Cambridge's, would require all institutions using recombinant DNA technology to adhere to National Institute of Health (NIH) guidelines and would also forbid more dangerous experimentation requiring stricter P3 and P4 levels of containment. The Cambridge ordinance, passed in 1977, allows P3 experimentation.

The debate was sparked by Genetics Institute's (GI) announcement last month of its plan to set up a research and development plant on Beacon Street in Somerville, near the Cambridge line.

Mark Ptashne, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a GI official said at the hearing that the company was willing to follow any guidelines set up by the city. Ptashne added that the firm would be doing experiments only at the P1 and P2 levels, but he saw no reasons that P3 level research should be ruled out.

Cambridge city councillor Alfred E. Vellucci, who led the anti-DNA fight in Cambridge, stressed the proximity of the two cities and advised Somerville alderman to strictly control research. "I, as a citizen and city councillor am opposed to doing any DNA research or the creation of DNA research and development plants in my city of Cambridge," Vellucci said.

Bernard N. Fields, professor of Microbiology, said in a question period preceding the forum that he "did not see any significant hazards (from GI's proposed plant) if NIH guidelines are followed." The work done in hospital microbiology labs is potentially more harmful than the DNA experimentation, because the viruses used in DNA research are weakened strains, he added.

There is no known danger in GI's planned recombinant DNA experimentation, Ptashne said, adding that "We're legislating against purely hypothetical problems."

Somerville residents, however, were not convinced of the process's safety. "You don't have to be a Nobel Prize winner to know that accidents can occur," Hayat Ilane, an area resident, said last night.

The majority of residents who testified at the hearing said they opposed the establishment of the DNA research facility. Some questioned the morality of the proposed research, and others expressed concern over the proposed site for the plant--near the Starmarket--and the problem of securing the facility against vandalism.

A high school student drew a round of applause from residents with her comment, "I know I'm young--I just want the chance to be old.