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Is it safe to buy a used liver from a pig?

How we can continue to advance technology without needlessly subjecting society to more thalidomide babies or Chernobyl melt-downs? The query is made more urgent by the fact that, given the new powers of biotechnology, the next miscalculation may prove to be damaging in ways we can’t presently imagine.

Denise Caruso was one of the top technology writers of the 80s and 90s, hanging out with the A-list digerati and penning an influential column for The New York Times. Then in 2000 she dropped out, dismayed by the excess and bombast of the first Internet boom, to launch a small non-profit group in San Francisco called the Hybrid Vigor Institute. The name reflected Caruso’s belief that the best problem-solving happens when different fields of expertise converge. 

That’s exactly the theme she explores in her new book “Intervention: Confronting the Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet”(Hybrid Vigor Press, $17.95) — perhaps the most balanced and readable look yet at assessing the risks of genetic engineering.

Caruso’s question is simple: how we can continue to advance technology without needlessly subjecting society to more thalidomide babies or Chernobyl melt-downs? The query is made more urgent by the fact that, given the new powers of biotechnology, the next miscalculation may prove to be damaging in ways we can’t presently imagine.

Readers are probably most familiar with the long-running controversy over the safety of genetically modified foods, such as soybeans or corn. (Caruso points out that a more accurate adjective is “transgenic”; food crops have already been genetically modified via traditional breeding techniques for centuries.) It’s a debate that has been troubling and unsatisfying, in large part because neither side seems entirely on-point.

Passionate anti-GM food activists often tend to be careless with basic science. And many scientists are quite intractable in their belief that GM foods must be safe, in a manner that seems more dogmatic than evidentiary. For onlookers who value scientific thought yet still harbor lingering concerns about this powerful new technology, there seems no reasonable middle ground.

“Intervention” assigns this state of affairs directly to the way we assess the risks of new technologies in the first place. Using the example of transgenic crops, Caruso shows how regulators — influenced by both researchers and commercial interests — narrowed the scope of their risk assessment to very specific concerns. Example: soybeans were given genes for herbicide resistance, so that farmers could more easily eradicate weeds without damaging the crop. The primary question that U.S. regulators then studied prior to approving the transgenic plant waswhether a soybean produced by the modified plant was “substantially equivalent” to a soybean from a traditional plant.

When the answer turned out to be yes, the crops were approved; transgenic soybeans are now the dominant variety grown in the U.S. Caruso argues that this narrow view distorted the risk assessment. Even if the beans are nutritionally similar, for example, what does the presence of a new herbicide-resistant gene in the plants themselves mean for agriculture?  Already the herbicide-resistant gene has “drifted” into other wild plants. And what are the long-term consequences of encouraging farmers to use more herbicides on a regular basis?  These are clearly worthwhile questions to ask but in this narrow regulatory framework, Caruso writes, “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t matter.”

Caruso looks at the first transgenic crops — soy, rice, and cotton — and finds that in many cases the actual benefits of the products have been limited. In some situations they’ve even been economically damaging, due to practical factors unforeseen by regulators.  Caruso isn’t claiming that any one particular organism is a disaster in the making or that transgenic organisms are evil. What she argues instead is that the current regulatory system simply doesn’t fully balance all of the potential risks against a hard-eyed look at the benefits the promoters promise.  More worrisome yet, having decided on very limited grounds that these inventions are “safe,” regulators don’t pay continuing attention to what unforeseen side effects may arise over time.

Transgenic crops, of course, are only the first wave of the genetically novel organisms we will see in the next few years: fish are being engineered to grow more quickly; cows are being modified to produce pharmaceuticals in their milk; even insects are being reprogrammed in the hope they might no longer carry infectious disease. And all of this is happening with what many scientists agree is still a rather sketchy understanding of how genetic mechanisms work and interact with the environment.

Unlike many critics of biotechnology, Caruso doesn’t demand that work be halted, but rather argues that in the face of such unknowns, our means of risk assessment must be sharpened.  In fact, in a neat bit of participatory journalism, Caruso actually tried it herself. She received a grant from the National Science Foundation and convened her own risk assessment panel to study “xenotransplantation”: the use of genetically modified pigs to grow replacement organs for human. But rather than viewing this simply as a technical issue, she stocked her panel with a variety of disciplines, from economics and medicine to zoology and anthropology.

One of the biggest concerns abut xenotransplantation is that it might introduce new and potentially deadly viruses into humans. But very quickly, the panel came up with a variety of issues well beyond the purely medical issue of patient safety, ranging from how to dispose of thousands of transgenic pig carcasses to the potential international competition to produce replacement organs at the lowest cost. Caruso’s grant didn’t let her pursue the xenotransplantation question further, but the exercise clearly demonstrated the power of a multidisciplinary approach to risk assessment.

So where do we go from here?  One can only hope that the meticulously-argued “Intervention” will receive a wide reading in Washington, where our national risk assessment policies are forged. We’re still at the early days of our efforts to rewrite the genomes around and within us, so there’s time for a sensible review of how we balance risks and benefits going forward. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that we will manage to avoid another thalidomide or Chernobyl, but this time with potential damages that could span continents and last for generations.

I recently wrote about another new book called “Follies of Science”, a look at 20th century visions of the future. While most of those old images of robots and flying cars were charming and innocent, three pages were quite chilling. They featured magazine advertisements that breathlessly proclaimed the almost limitless benefits of lead paint, asbestos and radium.  Somewhere in the myriad upcoming products of genetic engineering and synthetic biology we’re almost certainly a creating the next generation’s equivalent of asbestos — or worse.  “Intervention” makes a strong case that it doesn’t have to be that way. And by now, you’d think we would know better.