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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

DNA, Eventually

Only One Man Was Happy

By Joseph Dalton

George Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology, was serenely explaining why he was opposed to recombinant DNA research. Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci was churlish, peeved that his proposal to extend the research ban another 90 days had failed, although a compromise measure--a 30 day ban--was agreed upon. The only person with a real reason to be pleased with himself at the special Cambridge City Council meeting Wednesday night was Daniel J. Hayes.

Hayes is the chairman of the Cambridge Experimentation Review Board, the eight-person committee set up last August to review proposals for recombinant DNA research at Harvard and MIT. Wednesday night the Review board finally returned its verdict--recommending DNA research be allowed to continue in p-3 labs.

"We've finished our charge," Hayes proclaimed Wednesday night, although he added he expected to be called back by the council to elaborate on the review board's proposals.

Hayes and the other review board members got high marks for their work from such diverse scientists as Wald and Matthew S. Meselon, chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Meselson and Wald come down on opposite sides of the ideological fence regarding recombinant DNA research, but both men said Wednesday night they are impressed with the work of the citizens' panel.

"The review board did a very important and highly successful job educating itself and exercised sober judgement," Wald said.

The review board report recommended recombinant DNA research be allowed to proceed in Cambridge in p-3 labs according to certain established National Institutes of Health guidelines, supplemented by special strictures. There are four levels of labs with p-1 the lowest and p-4 the highest level of containment.

The other strictures were incorporated into the report's recommendations from the reports of other groups studying recombinant DNA research, Hayes, a former mayor of Cambridge, said Wednesday.

Probably the most important of the additional security steps is the recommendation that all experiments undertaken at the p-3 level use a host-vector system of at least an EK-2 level of biological containment.

EK-2 host-vector systems refer to Eschirichia coli, a strain of bacteria that rarely survives outside the lab, which can be used as a host bacteria for recombinant DNA experiments.

It was the requirement of the EK-2 hosts in p-3 labs that left Meselson with his only reservation about the report. "I think the guidelines they set up would be safe for p-4 experiments," Meselson said Wednesday, adding that he didn't think the weak strain EK-2 requirement was used at any of the other 12 research sites funded by the NIH.

But Hayes said the extra precaution was incorporated because board members felt some experiments now done at p-4 might be downgraded to p-3 labs. Hayes said he felt this move would "put one more caution on the experiment, at not much trouble to the researcher."

He added the EK-2 stricture was originally proposed in a University of Michigan study that recommended the use of Eschirichia coli at all lab levels, from p-1 to p-4. It was limited by Michigan regents to p-3 and p-4 levels to save money, Hayes said.

The question, as Richard G. Leahy, associate dean of the Faculty for recourses and planning, pointed out Wednesday, is pretty muich a moot point for the University. Harvard's new p-3 labs will not be ready until May or early June, Leahy added.

But Meselson and Vellucci, strange bedfellows on almost any DNA research issue, both voiced an important thought as the committee's report was received. At one point in the special council meeting, Vellucci said, "Thank you very much for the report, and we hope the Nobel committee won't overlook Cambridge."

And Meselson referred to a more readily evident kind of politics, saying he though "the spirit of the report was good--I just hope it doesn't degenerate into politics."

Although it doesn't mean anything to Harvard, the 30-day extension the council instituted will affect MIT, where some p-3 labs are ready for experiments.

But the eight-member panel of Cambridge citizens, the first citizen panel in the country to investigate DNA research had done its job, and politics of any kind notwithstanding, that's why Daniel J. Hayes was pleased.

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