News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Pig Hearts for Humans: What the Public Needs to Know About Biotech Risks

In her new book, <i>Intervention</i>, former NY Times technology columnist Denise Caruso talks about the risks of life on a genetically engineered planet.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Turn on the TV, open your Internet browser, or click on your inbox and chances are you’ll find an alarming story alerting you to the possibility some new hazard: cancer-causing toxins in your deodorant, mold spores in your kitchen sponge, radiation from your cell phone -- the list goes on.

In an age of information overload, it’s tempting to tune risks out entirely, especially when even the scientific community can’t seem to come to a consensus on some things: One day eggs are good; the next, they’re bad. One day hormone replacement therapy is healthy; the next, it causes cancer.

But, what if you knew that, instead of one product putting you at risk, an entire field of technology was? That’s what former NY Times technology columnist Denise Caruso tackles in her new book, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet.

Caruso doesn’t use scare tactics -- she doesn’t need to. Instead, she merely points out the risks of living in an age when scientists are recombining DNA from multiple species, experimenting with tissue regeneration by growing human ears on the backs of mice, and looking seriously at pigs for human heart transplants. Even more eye-opening, these innovations are occurring in the near-absence of oversight and with little attempt from government regulators or scientists to educate the public.

So what is life like on a biotech planet? AlterNet interviewed Caruso to find out.

AlterNet: Why did you write the book?

Denise Caruso: Mostly I wrote it because I was shocked by this ongoing schism between the people who were against biotechnology and the people who were in favor of biotechnology. I thought, well, this is supposed to be science, right? It should be neutral. But these sides weren't neutral. They were so different and antagonistic that I wondered, What were they looking at? Then I realized they must looking at different factors -- or, rather, looking at the same thing in different ways. So, that's when I started to dig into the whole idea of risk.

By risk you mean --

Denise: The probability that a hazard will come to pass. Risk isn't a hard concept, but it's hard to measure, and that is where communication breaks down. For example, one day about five years ago I was talking with Roger Brent, who is one of the most macho molecular biologists on the face of the planet, and we got into this conversation about genetically modified food, which I refuse to eat. And Roger said, 'Why won't you eat it? Don't you know that you could eat 10 kilos of genetically modified potatoes and nothing would ever happen to you?" And I said, 'You don't actually know that. You guys don't know anything about the long-term effects of these things. You don't know what happens after it passes through my gut and goes back into the water -- you don't know any of this stuff. And I was actually really surprised that he said, 'OK, you're right, we don't. But how can we protect people and not stop progress at the same time?' And that's one of the core questions I try to address in Intervention.

So how do we walk that tightrope? How do we protect people without inhibiting progress?

We have to redefine risk and rethink how we evaluate it. Calculating risk is tricky with biotech. You have all of these new and very complex systems that we've created that are all coming into contact with each other, trying to interact, and you don't have any historical data to tell you what will happen when they do. What ends up happening is that we are asking scientists to provide a statement of safety or risk about biotech products, but they don't have any data to back up those statements.

In your book you discuss other models of risk analysis -- models that assess chemical or toxic risks. Why can't those models be applied here? What is it about biotech and genetic engineering that calls for special attention and a new method?

Actually, I limit the risks I talk about in the book to transgenic organisms, living things that have been engineered to contain genes from another species. And there are a lot of different ways to parse that. So, I'll take the easiest example: If you look at why the EPA got started and the work it does today, it's looking at chemical toxins -- lab tasks where you keep adding one more drop of something into a tube, and figure out that at three parts per billion of this or that chemical, someone's going to get sick or they're going to get cancer or they're going to die. It's sort of a threshold thing: You find out how much of the substance will create some kind of effect -- some kind of negative effect. But that doesn't apply to transgenic organisms. There's a big difference between manipulating chemicals and manipulating living organisms.

What are your concerns about transgenic organisms?

Well, transgenic organisms are a potential hazard that reproduces. And they don't just reproduce within their own plant or animal populations. Genes move. The fact that we and mice share more than 90 percent of the same genes has got to tell you something about how much we don't know about where all of these genes came from. A lot of evolutionary biologists are trying to figure out how all of that happened. But the bottom line is that if I can catch flu from a bird, then it's not a far stretch to think that some transgene that's in the corn or soy that I eat could also find its way into my cells and do something harmful.

In one of your chapters you talk about pigs as potential organ donors for humans. What problems could that present and what potential is there for medical, economic or social disruption?

The pig example is really interesting because it's capable of causing disruption in pretty much every dimension you mention. For one, it would put an incredible strain on the healthcare system. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who need these transplants and so, healthcare would be trying to deal with a whole new problem. This would have huge economic impact on the country, huge ecological impact, and the social impact -- how are you going to look at somebody who's got a pig heart? Are they a freak?

And then there's the safety of it. If you rub a pig cell up against a human cell, what's the probability that a retrovirus is going to jump and I would just get a pig virus? Most virologists would probably say it's pretty low, but no human immune system's ever seen that before. You can't calculate the probability of it because it's never happened before.

Can you foresee any kind of future where genetic engineering could be used as a weapon?

Oh, sure. I'm sure it's being used as a weapon now. You know weaponized anthrax is genetically engineered.

What about benefits or potential benefits in terms of helping to eliminate hunger or poverty? Transgenes allow us to grow giant potatoes and chickens with really large breasts. Is that something we should still be talking about or should that conversation be tabled entirely?

One of the things that I talk about in the book is that I reject the "saving the world from hunger" argument for transgenic food because everybody in the hunger community knows that the issue with hunger is distribution -- it's not volume, it's distribution. We have plenty of food. So until that's solved, I think we need to table that conversation. I think that the benefit question is really important, and one of the things that I didn't get to write about in the book is that, in the olden days, when they very first started doing risk analysis, back in the sixties, they analyzed alternatives. Nobody ever analyzed one product, one technology, one thing. They identified the problem and then said, What are the range of solutions we have for the problem? And what's the most beneficial and the least potentially harmful out of all of those solutions? But we don't do that anymore.

Why is the public so unaware? Are scientists just ignoring these risks?

The public is unaware because there's no reason for the biotech industry or the regulators to make it clear to people what's going on. The last thing in the world that the biotech industry wants is for people to start sniffing around and figure out what's going on here. A lot of legitimate researchers have asked very legitimate questions about what was happening out in the field of transgenic organisms, and they lost their research funding and journals wouldn't publish their papers.

And they would be cut off because they would ask questions --

Exactly. The biotech industry has an enormous amount of influence over the type of research that gets done and what information reaches the public.

You say in your book this is happening against a backdrop of conflicts of interest. When you follow the money, what do you see?

One of the points that I make in the book is about this revolving door between regulators and the biotech industry. If you look in the upper echelons of management of virtually all of the agencies, people have moved from industry into the agency, work in the agency for years, then go back into industry. So you find that really, the regulators who are writing the legislation and regulations to protect the public interest are actually writing them from the perspective of industry. some agencies even fund studies on risk, then ignore the results. The FDA got sued by a biotech activist group because of an FDA policy that declared transgenic foods were substantially equivalent to traditional food crops. I found some amazing discovery documents, where scientists inside the agency were saying, Please don't say this; we have no idea whether this stuff is risky. But at the end of the day, the judge decided that the FDA had the right to ignore its scientists' advice. Which it did.

Sounds like risk analysis shouldn't just be left up to one government agency or one group of scientists.

Absolutely it should not. The only way you can actually do a proper risk assessment of these new technologies is to find out who all the experts are who have any kind of expertise or interest in the subject. In this case, you'd find all of the biologists -- not just the molecular biologists, not just the people who sit in labs looking at cells through their microscopes, but scientists who study whole organisms and systems, like ecologists, and the members of the public who have an interest or a stake in the outcome.

So, if you wanted to study something related to pollution in the San Francisco Bay, for example, you would bring in people from the fishing and tourism industries, as well as the chemists and the marine biologists. Basically, you would bring in all the people whose knowledge is relevant to the subject. Then you ask everyone the question: What's the problem? What are we trying to solve? What's the risk?

What that approach does is give someone who has to make the decisions -- the regulator -- a beautifully drawn map of what we know, what we don't know and what we could know if we spent some money on research to find out. This could be such a positive force because industry people today who do research are often doing discovery research, not risk research. They want to create a product. They want to build the tightest fence possible around their discovery and say that what's inside the fence is safe. But, of course, that's not how the world works. No organism moves around in the world with a little bubble around it.

Whose jurisdiction should risk analysis be under? Should it be at the federal level? Is that even realistic? You mentioned earlier that any group -- a nonprofit or even a chamber of commerce -- if given the appropriate model, could do risk assessment.

Today I think the only way you can really effect change at the federal level is by starting at the local level. The feds, the agencies, they're all so insulated by money, by power, that nothing happens until people can rattle their tin cups against the bars loud enough for somebody to hear them, and I think that one of the things that's very powerful about this method of risk assessment is that it can be completely decentralized. That said, it would be much better if it were centralized like it is in Sweden and some places in northern Europe, where you have these participatory citizens groups that work with the government to do risk assessment on the really big, critical issues where science and technology meet the public.

Are you anti-biotechnology?

Not at all. I purposely made sure the book wasn't a rant against biotech. It's a rant against irresponsible risk assessment. Believe me, it's a lot easier to sell a book that's a rant about biotech. What people want to read about is -- they want to read a cross between Silent Spring and Michael Creighton. They want birds dropping out of trees and dinosaurs being brought back to life, but that's not what's happening out there. Personally, I think what's happening out there is actually scarier. It's scarier that we're paying too little attention to know when the birds are going to start falling out of the trees. If or when.

Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at AlterNet.