Genetic Research – a Warning from 1977

The following essay is taken from Vernon Coleman’s book Paper Doctors which was published in 1977 and which is now, after many decades, available again as a paperback. (For details see below)

‘There are as many dangers as there are possibilities in genetic research. Researchers studying genes have for some time been using bacteria for their basic studies because the genetic systems of bacteria are relatively simple. There is also the added advantage that bacteria reproduce in minutes rather than in weeks or months so that long-term studies can more easily be carried out. The bacterium most commonly used is one called Escherichia Coli, a bug found in the human gut. The researchers change the genetic information carried by each bacterium by cross breeding, by chemical treatments and even by genetic surgery, using enzymes as tools with which to chop up chromosomes. According to a World Health Organisation statement on the subject, The innovative techniques of DNA recombination consist in isolating and then splicing together DNA molecules from unrelated organisms to produce a new hybrid organism which may contain the genetic properties of either or both or the original organisms. Researchers are also already experimenting with the fusion of cells and the growth in culture of cells containing nuclei from completely different sources.

With these experiments research biologists hope to gain an understanding of the way in which genes are controlled and the way they work to produce healthy or diseased tissues and organs. Researchers hope to be able eventually to develop ways of manufacturing vital substances. For example, if the segments of DNA which are responsible for the production of insulin can be introduced into the E.coli organism, the bacteria culture would act as a factory producing insulin.

Research workers have already learnt how to transfer antibiotic resistance from one bacterium to another. They use this technique to help them mark particular genes as effectively as if they had initialled them. Unfortunately, the manufacture of resistant organisms is potentially very dangerous for it would theoretically be possible for resistant organisms to get out of the laboratory and into the community. These organisms could then cause infections in innocent people and doctors would be unable to treat the infections because the organisms responsible were resistant to available drugs.

There are other dangers involved. It is, for example, particularly dangerous to experiment with a bacterium such as E.coli, a common inhabitant of the human gastro-intestinal tract, because if by accident a lethal version of E.coli got out of the laboratory, it would be able to kill off millions of people quite easily. Genetic information such as that carried in viruses which cause tumours might be introduced into E.coli, and when the newly knowledgeable E.coli found itself inside a human being it would be able to start a tumour.

Even the researchers themselves admit that almost anything is possible in the field of genetics and that we just do not know enough to tell whether a particular piece of research is potentially dangerous or not.

Of course, researchers do take precautions. They wear masks and keep the doors and windows closed when experimenting with dangerous or potentially dangerous organisms, but such traditional precautions are hardly likely to prove effective it a really dangerous bacterium is produced. And, of course, laboratories searching for weapons (whether financed by governments or by industry) will deliberately try to produce lethal bacteria. There is, in particular, the danger of human error. It was, after all, carelessness in a laboratory which led to an outbreak of smallpox in London in 1973, resulting in several deaths and costing several million pounds to contain.

Worried by these many possibilities and various dangers some scientists have already called for a halt. In May 1972 the Journal of the American Medical Association called, without much success, for a moratorium on attempts to implant into a woman's womb an ovum fertilised outside the body. In July 1974 eleven leading molecular biologists working in America had a letter published in Science in which they publicly stated their fears about two particular types of experiments involving the use of genes.

One of the scientists who signed the letter, Paul Berg of the University of Stamford, California, was one of the first men to discover the enzymes with which genes can be taken apart and put back together. These enzymes are the equivalents of the surgeon's tools. Berg and his colleagues were particularly worried that the research they described could result in the development of dangerous organisms, especially organisms resistant to known methods of treatment. Sir John Kendrew, President of the British Association, told the Association's annual meeting in Stirling that the bacterium most commonly used in genetic research could inadvertently be given a cancer gene which might spread cancer in humans. Sir John, who is Deputy Chairman of the MC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said that the problems could be greater than those raised by the atomic bomb.

One result of the controversy over the dangers of genetic research was that in Britain a `Working Party on the Experimental Manipulation of the Genetic Composition of Microorganisms' was set up under Lord Ashby. It included thirteen members of whom only three seemed to be doctors. None of these were in active practice. The other members of the Working Party included the director of a poultry research station, the director of a plant breeding institute at Cambridge and the Secretary of the Agricultural Research Council. The Working Party was appointed to `assess the potential benefits and potential hazards of techniques which allow the experimental manipulation of the genetic composition of micro-organisms' .

Naturally, a committee made up largely of specialist workers in the field under inquiry could hardly be expected to see the potential problems in their true light. Like warriors with bows and arrows who assume that their shields will protect them against any weapon they come up against, the members of the Working Party assumed that any potential hazards could be prevented or at least minimised by currently available techniques. They completely ignored the fact that researchers are moving into new territory where they do not know what will happen. They also ignored the problems of human error, commercial greed, mental illness and psychopathic workers. They assumed that all workers in this field are quite perfect.

They admitted that many bacterial geneticists and molecular biologists are unfamiliar with the hazards involved and the precautions needed; they agreed that the techniques of genetic manipulation are comparatively easy to master and cheap to perform but refused to insist on minimal operating precautions.

The Working Party reported to the Government in January 1975 that 'research into genetic engineering should be allowed to continue because the potential benefits to medicine outweigh the dangers which can be safeguarded against'. Opponents of the suggested moratorium had argued that the work had such enormous individual and military potential that it would be impossible to stop and that it would therefore be unfair to close down Government-sponsored laboratories.

In June 1975 the Advisory Committee on Medical Research of the WHO also discussed at length the safety problems involved in the experimental handling of pathogenic organisms. This committee, also mainly composed of research workers, similarly decided that most hazards could be kept under control voluntarily by techniques already in use and implied that there were no additional risks.

All the research I have described is therefore still continuing. Progress is fairly fast in this particular field and many of the things I have outlined have already been done.’

Quotes from some of the reviews of Paper Doctors when it was published in 1977.

Dr Coleman writes with more sense than bias. Required reading for any Minister of Health

Daily Express

I hope this book becomes a bestseller among doctors, nurses and the wider public…

Nursing Times

Dr Coleman’s well-coordinated book could not be more timely.



Yorkshire Post

Few would disagree with Dr Coleman that more should be done about prevention.

The Lancet

This short but very readable book has a message that is timely. Vernon Coleman’s point is that much of the medical research into which money and expertise are poured is useless. At the same time, remedial conditions of mind and body which cause the most distress are largely neglected. This is true.

Daily Telegraph

If you believe Dr Vernon Coleman, the main beneficiaries of the hundred million pounds worth of research done in this country each year are certainly not the patients. The research benefits mostly the medical place seekers, who use their academic investigations as rungs on the promotional ladder, or drug companies with an eye for the latest market opening…The future may hold bionic superman but all a nation’s physic cannot significantly change the basic mortality statistics except sometimes, to make them worse.

The Guardian

Taken from Paper Doctors by Vernon Coleman – first published in 1977 and now, for the first time in decades, available again as a paperback. Paper Doctors is available through the bookshop on this website.