Critics raise safety concerns with biotech labs at Berkeley forum

By Robert Rogers
For the Contra Costa Times

No one disputes that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory campus that’s coming to Richmond will generate jobs and tax revenues.

But concerns persist about the work that will be done there, especially in synthetic biology, and the risks posed to the surrounding community.

That was among the topics at a news conference and public forum in Berkeley on Wednesday, touted as the first gathering in the area of local, national and international speakers to address concerns about synthetic biology, an emerging science that implants genetic material into cells to produce fuels and other industrial products.

Titled “Bay Area Biotech Labs Bring Unforeseen Risks,” the panel presentation at the Center for Genetics and Society featured five prominent critics of synthetic biology.

The national lab, which selected Richmond for its next site thanks in part to broad support among Richmond city leaders, is not all that it appears, said panelist Gopal Dayaneni, co-director of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project.

“What we’re experiencing (with LBNL) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Dayaneni said. “Actually, a wolf genetically engineered to look like a sheep.”

Dayaneni, like the other panelists, said the lab enjoys the “shiny veneer” of legitimacy lent by UC Berkeley but is actually a secretive, poorly regulated merger of public and private interests that will be operating on the scientific fringes with potentially dangerous consequences.

“(Synthetic biology) is genetic engineering on steroids,” said Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, a watchdog organization that monitors emerging technologies. “It’s a $1.6 billion industry, and the Bay Area is absolutely the heart of that. … A key institution is the new Richmond lab.”

Panelists called for safeguards to bar “human applications” of synthetic biology, a more robust regulatory structure and better protections for workers.

Becky McLain, a molecular biologist who won a 2010 lawsuit against her former employer, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, said the safety risks that may face workers in Richmond will be even more volatile than those she encountered in an embryonic stem cell lab. A federal jury awarded McLain $1.37 million in damages after she was exposed to a genetically engineered virus that caused her recurring paralysis and other illnesses.

“Danger looks like this,” McLain said, holding up a thimble-sized glass vial. “How do you regulate this?”

Jay Keasling, associate director at the national lab, said Wednesday there are often fears and misunderstandings associated with the development of new technologies. He noted that the work that will occur in Richmond is no different from the research and development at current lab sites, and that the lab adheres to all federal regulations.

“Synthetic biology will help us this year to produce enough antimalarial drugs for 100 million people,” he said.

In January, lab officials announced they had selected Richmond for its newest campus after a yearlong search that involved about 20 Bay Area cities.

The new campus, scheduled to open in 2016, is expected to bring nearly 1,000 new jobs, attract spinoff enterprises and generate millions in tax revenue. Elected and business leaders have heralded the lab as a leap toward transforming the long-impoverished city into the Bay Area’s newest hub for research and scientific innovation.

The Richmond site enjoys broad support among city and county leaders, as well as Congressman George Miller, D-Martinez, whose district includes the shoreline location.

Wednesday’s news conference was a prelude to a larger forum scheduled for Thursday night. “Unmasking the Bay Area Bio-Lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice and Communities at Risk,” hosted by environmental coalition Synbiowatch, is set for 7 p.m. at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley.