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Last Updated

26 Jan 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, January 26, 2003


Terror threat casts chill over world of bio-research

Arrest of Texas professor highlights emergence of security as a major issue

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

For three decades, Dr. Thomas C. Butler pursued medical science with quiet dedication at Texas Tech University, treating patients, publishing research papers and occasionally flying off to India or East Africa to study diseases.

But only this month did he achieve fame. After Butler reported 30 vials containing plague bacteria missing, about 60 local, state and federal law enforcement agents swooped down on the medical school as word of the bioterrorism scare was broadcast worldwide.

When the scientist then admitted that he had, in fact, destroyed the samples, he was hauled off to jail in handcuffs, accused of lying initially to the FBI. He has been released on bail, but he has surrendered his passport and is required to stay home on electronic monitoring to await a federal grand jury hearing next month.

Colleagues have rallied around Butler, a white-haired 61-year-old with the kindly face of a television physician, insisting that he is no terrorist. They suspect he fibbed about the missing vials because he had not completed the paperwork required to document their destruction. They consider the FBI's reaction to be far out of proportion to the threat, even if the vials had disappeared.

"It scares the hell out of all of us," says Ted Warren Reid, a biochemist at Texas Tech who was preparing to collaborate with Butler on a study. "I think this guy is a typical absent-minded professor. You have 10 things going on at once and you forget something."

The reverberations are being felt across the country.

"Personally I found this event in Texas very chilling," says Susan C. Straley, a plague researcher at the University of Kentucky. "I'm scared. It's sort of a police-state atmosphere."

But security experts say the episode in Lubbock, Texas, is only one sign of how terrorism is remaking the world of biological research. Scientists used to thinking of their work as life-saving must now consider whether a terrorist could turn it into a weapon for mass killing.

Laboratories accustomed to the unlocked doors and open publications that promote scientific exchange now face voluminous paperwork, background checks and even censoring of sensitive journal papers.

"Many feel biology has lost its innocence now, just as physics lost its innocence with the development of the atomic bomb," says Joseph Henderson, a former Department of Energy safety official who studies biosecurity at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

While the biology problem first came to public attention with the anthrax attacks 15 months ago, it is likely to grow only more serious as biotechnology advances, Henderson says: "As science gives us the power to re-engineer viruses and bacteria, we may be looking at the next generation of bioweapons whose dangers we can't yet even imagine."

Already two new laws - the USA Patriot Act and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act - have imposed a dizzying array of new restrictions and reporting requirements on scientists whose work involves any of 62 pathogens listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as potential bioweapons.

The rules are being phased in, with many scheduled to take effect Feb. 7. But many scientists privately acknowledge that they have yet to read or understand the regulations, whose complexity rivals that of the tax code.

Universities can no longer employ citizens of seven countries associated with terrorism to work with the listed bacteria and viruses - even if the employee is a permanent U.S. resident working in a mailroom shipping the organism. Other employees must undergo a "security risk assessment" by the Justice Department to weed out those with criminal records or ties to domestic or foreign terrorist groups.

Research organizations must register with the federal government, providing detailed safety plans and lists of people who will work with the dangerous agents. They must maintain detailed records of experiments with the pathogens and how they were disposed of, reporting theft, loss or release of any of the listed germs.

Some researchers fear the bureaucratic burden will discourage scientists from working with them.

"Will all these forms we have to fill out impede our ability to do research?" asks Dr. Michael Donnenberg, head of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "It weighs into the question of whether to work with these agents."

Donnenberg, for instance, is planning a research project involving a bacterium called Burkholderia mallei, which causes a disease called glanders in horses and other animals. Though it rarely infects humans, it is on the CDC list as a potential bioweapon.

After some consideration, Donnenberg decided the promise of his proposed research - trying to find a vaccine against glanders - makes it worth the extra costs and hassle. But he has serious concerns about how the terrorist threat is distorting biomedicine.

"My greatest overall emotion is that the money is not being spent well - that we could spend the money on other diseases that cause much more suffering and death, such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria," he says. In addition, he fears that the federal government, which increased bioterrorism funding from $503 million in 2001 to $2.9 billion last year, might interfere with scientists' freedom to publish their findings.

Trying to forestall government censorship, the Association for Microbiology has begun to conduct security reviews of papers submitted to the 11 journals it publishes, from Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy to the Journal of Virology.

After reviewing several hundred manuscripts so far, editors have deleted details from two papers, said Ronald Atlas, president of the association and co-director of the Center for the Deterrence of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism at the University of Louisville.

"We removed some information that we thought might be dangerous," says Atlas, declining to be more specific. But he insists the association will not cut papers so much that other scientists can't replicate the work.

Atlas says some kinds of biological research are likely to "go behind the fence, just as the nuclear physics community has gone behind the fence." But he worries that walling off some research will have consequences more dire than in the nuclear field. "If we slow biological research, people die," Atlas says.

One irony of the current era in biotechnology is that the same breakthroughs that promise to cure terrible diseases and produce new drugs and vaccines can have implications for terrorism that the researchers might not foresee. Last year, Australian researchers trying to create sterile female mice inadvertently made a lethal form of mousepox by adding one gene to the virus. Experts worry similar alterations could be made to smallpox, one of the most feared of bioweapons, making it more deadly.

'Persephone effect'

A paper published by the Hopkins biodefense center this month dubs the dual nature of bioscience achievements "the Persephone effect," for the innocent flower-picker in Greek myth who was kidnapped by Hades, taken to the underworld and forced to live there half the year as his queen.

"If biological science is Persephone, she can live both on earth and in the underworld," says Gigi Kwik, an immunologist at the Hopkins center and lead author of the paper, published in a new journal, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, whose appearance is itself a sign of the times. "Learning to cure disease, you also learn to cause it."

The Hopkins paper calls on scientists to take the initiative in designing reasonable controls to prevent excessive government interference or incidents like the flap in Texas.

"Clearly we need more research than ever on plague," Kwik says. "You don't want to make the rules so onerous that you drive people out of the field."

But the Texas Tech affair has disturbed many scientists, as did a similar episode last year at the University of Connecticut. Asked to destroy some decades-old anthrax samples, graduate student Tomas Foral, 26, put two vials in a laboratory freezer for further research. He was charged with illegally possessing anthrax, and a judge ordered him in November to complete 96 hours of community service.

In 1980, when Straley, the University of Kentucky microbiologist, began working with the Yersinsia pestis bacterium, which causes bubonic plague, "we certainly never thought of it as a potential weapon. It was a model for the study of human pathogens and how they cause disease." Still, Straley says she has no objection to the new federal regulations. "Working with virulent strains carries certain responsibilities. We have to adapt," she says.

Caution or overkill?

In court papers, Butler acknowledged having misled officials about the vials he destroyed. "Because I knew that the pathogen was destroyed and there was no threat to the public, I provided an inaccurate explanation to [university safety officials] and did not realize it would require such an extensive investigation," Butler told FBI agents, the documents say.

But his supporters say that the episode represents clumsy overkill by law enforcement officials who lack scientific training.

Because plague is common among prairie dogs in the Southwest, a determined terrorist could collect the bacteria from the wild, they say. Butler's vials contained only tiny amounts of bacteria of unknown virulence, and it was not treated to become an aerosol that victims could breathe in.

"Trust me, under your kitchen sink there are chemicals just as dangerous as this stuff," says Peter Agre, a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins who knew Butler at Hopkins, where he did his medical residency, and at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "He was a diligent, dedicated doctor and the last person who would do anything wrong. It's a terrible overreaction."

Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder, declines to discuss his client's actions. But he says the government is scaring away the very scientists who can make the country safer from bioterrorism. "If I'm a scientist, you're not going to catch me working with these agents," Holder says. "Not after this."