Why Scientists Held Back Details On A Unique Botulinum Toxin
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's look now into the world of poison - in particular a toxin that causes botulism. It's made by bacteria. And because of its potency, this toxin is seen as the perfect ingredient for a bioweapon. Scientists recently discovered the first new form of this toxin in over 40 years. But NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports they faced a difficult decision about how much of their discovery to reveal.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The new botulinum toxin was found by public health workers at the California Department of Public Health. They have a lab that diagnoses infant botulism, which can be treated.
DR. DAVID RELMAN: So they routinely receive many samples from all over the place from babies with suspected botulism.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: David Relman is a microbiologist at Stanford University. He says the scientists got what seemed like a routine sample.
RELMAN: That then yielded this completely unexpected strain and toxin.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Importantly, this toxin could not be neutralized by any of the available treatments. After about a year of having consultations with government officials and others, the scientists published their findings. And they did something unusual. Their reports in the Journal of Infectious Diseases left out key details so that no one could use their work as a recipe to make a bioweapon for which there was no defense. Relman was asked to weigh in on this decision by the journal's editors. He thinks it was responsible and prudent.
RELMAN: I just think that was a good thing for them to have thought about and acted upon in this particular case.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The episode comes as biologists have been grappling with how to handle potentially dangerous information. Last year, scientists, security experts and government officials spent months in a debate over whether to publish details of some flu research, studies that had created more contagious forms of a bird flu that can be deadly in humans. In the end, those studies were published in full. David Hooper of Massachusetts General Hospital is deputy editor of the Journal of Infectious Diseases. He says the botulinum toxin discovery was a special case, and the full details will be published once a new treatment has been developed.
DR. DAVID HOOPER: So that this is not withholding information ultimately but delaying the information until appropriate public health and national safety concerns could be addressed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But with your understanding that people who sort of needed to know it to develop these countermeasures would have access to it?
HOOPER: That was our understanding, yes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But some say that not sharing scientific work in the usual way, because of fears it could fall into the wrong hands, carries its own risk. Ronald Atlas is a biologist and a bioweapons expert at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
RONALD ATLAS: I agree with the decision in this case but I have real concerns about how often we would do this and what it does to the overall implication of advancement in the life sciences.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says that advancement depends on biologists being able to repeat each other's work and build on those findings - something that's not possible if scientists and journals withhold critical details. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.