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Last Updated

20 Aug 2003

Source: Associated Press, July 19, 2002.

Feds Asked to Watch DNA Shipments

By CAROL ANN RIHA, Associated Press Writer

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa company that unknowingly supplied bits of genetic material used by scientists to make their own polio virus from scratch said it had recently asked the government to take steps to oversee the shipment of such DNA supplies.

Last week's stunning announcement by researchers at State University of New York at Stony Brook that they had made the virus in their lab raised a new set of fears about bioterrorism.

It was the first time a virus had been synthetically produced, and it was done with a genetic blueprint from the Internet and DNA material provided by a mail-order supplier.

The supplier was Integrated DNA Technologies, or IDT, of Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City. An official of the company said Wednesday that IDT wrote the Defense Department on May 13 about the possible terrorist use of such biomedical material, but never got a response.

"We had submitted a proposal to the Defense Department, ironically, suggesting that (DNA) sequences ordered by suppliers like ourselves be screened and then reported to federal agencies for the purposes of identifying orders or parts of orders that would be perhaps investigated, questioned, double-checked or whatever," said Roman Terrill, vice president of legal and regulatory affairs for IDT. "The inquiries that we sent weren't really responded to."

Defense Department spokesmen declined to answer questions and only provided a statement about the department's involvement in the SUNY project.

Terrill said IDT only became aware that its supplies were used by the SUNY scientists when they made their announcement of the polio virus in the journal Science last week.

The Defense Department said it funded the project to research protections against unconventional biological agents. SUNY research team leader, Dr. Eckard Wimmer, said the creation of the virus was an attempt to show the reality of the bioterrorist threat.

The fear is that a terrorist or government might attack by spreading a harmful virus or deadly bacteria. Most of the concern so far has focused on security at labs that have supplies of germs or on finding treatments or vaccines to thwart such an attack.

But the SUNY project demonstrated for the first time that deadly diseases could be made synthetically in a lab.

"This approach has been talked about, but people didn't take it seriously," Wimmer said last week. "Now people have to take it seriously."

Terrill said the project illustrates an ethical dilemma: "DNA can be used to cure a virus or to help develop cures. On the other hand, DNA can be used for more nefarious purposes."

IDT is one of a handful of companies across the country that supplies about 15,000 customers with short fragments of DNA used in medical research. These strands, called oligonucleotides, are basic tools in all genetics labs.

But Terrill said the DNA supplier has no way of knowing how the genetic fragments it ships will be used.

"It's kind of like a phone number. They're ordering a phone number where we have the equivalent of seven digits. Without an area code, you really can't specify where the call is coming from. You need a longer sequence to identify it," Terrill said.

Besides polio, the genetic maps to anthrax, Ebola and other diseases are readily available to researchers in libraries and on the Internet, he said.

Gary Comstock, coordinator of the bioethics program at Iowa State University, said there is "a clash of values" between society's desire for innovation and new bioengineering technologies and the desire to protect ourselves from those who would abuse the new technologies.

"Given the events of Sept. 11 and since, I think the issue has a particular urgency for us that it may not have had a year or two ago."