Genetics Experiment Worries Experts

A Medical School professor's planned genetic-engineering experiment that would use a lethal diphtheria toxin has drawn criticism from some leading genetics experts who are worried that the experiment may be too risky.

The experiment's opponents fear that if the treated toxin were accidentally released into the atmosphere, it could trigger a diphtheria epidemic. Diphtheria is an often-fatal disease whose spread was effectively wiped out by a vaccine.

But Dr. John R. Murphy, associate professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, said his experiment next month would be safe, citing tight laboratory security and the toxins' short lifespan in the atmosphere as factors working against any diphtheria spread.

Dr. Richard Finkelstein, a noted geneticist at the University of Missouri, recently argued in a letter to Medical School Dean Daniel C. Tosteson that the experiment should be cancelled, one of a handful of protests by leading genetics experts of the planned experiment.

Tosteson didn't return repeated phone calls, but Murphy said his Fort Detrick laboratory is specially sealed and sterilized and is run only by well-trained personnel.


That justification didn't sway Dr. Mark Glier, a great scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a leading opponent of the project. "Even in the unlikely chance that a plane crashes into a laboratory or a terrorist group acquires the newly-cloned strain and puts it into a city's water supply, the results could be more of a disaster than the atomic bomb."