Federal health officials have been told that a new act of Congress is needed if the nation wants strict controls on the potentially risky new research that joins genes from different organisms to make new forms of life.
Such research cannot be controlled by current public health or safety laws, lawyers from concerned government agencies have concluded.
Their view was disclosed yesterday before 28 of the nation's leading scientists and other advisers assembled at the National Institutes of Health to hear NIH director Dr. Donald Frederickson describe what he said could become the first "epoch-making," yet worrisome, attempt to license scientists to do research.
Frederickson gave "a qualified yes" on whether he personally believes a law is needed. His yes was qualified, he said, because he heads an interagency committee trying to make that decision in the next three weeks, and "I don't want to state a certainty. I don't want it said that I'm trying to lead the committee in one direction or another."
But his statement and others yesterday indicated that Congress and the nation will see a growing debate over the wisdom and control of genetic manipulation.
An ordinance partly restricting the research Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists can do has been passed by the Cambridge City Council. New York, California, Michigan and other states also are considering restrictions.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and Rep. Richard Ottinger ;D-N.Y.) have introduced companion bills to require all researchers to comply with federal safety guidelines. The Senate health committee expects to hold hearings in March or April on legislation.
"I don't think there's any field of science in which the thrust to regulation had moved so fast." Dr. Walter Rosenblith, MIT provost, said yesterday. "Also, I think it would be foolish to think this movement will stop" with this research.
NIH last June issued strict guidelines to govern scientists using Health, Education and Welfare Department funds to join the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), or genetic material, from different bacteria, plants or animals. The guidelines have since been made compulsory for researchers getting funds from any federal agency.
But they do not govern scientists spending other money - such as 24 researchers who will soon get American Cancer. Society funds - or those in industry. Several drug and other firms are starting or are weighing experiments because they may produce valuable new medicines, plants or other products.
Several drug firms' officials have said they will comply voluntarily with most of the NIH guidelines but want exemption from disclosing in advance what they are doing so they can protect patent rights.
Richard Riseberg, NIH counsel, said the interagency committee is considering a law that would give some federal agency, probably HEW, authority to protect the public form any ill-advised research while permitting industrial and other independent research to go ahead.
He said such authority does not exist now in federal law, not even in the Toxic Substances Control Act that Congress passed last year to regulate use of all chemicals and chemical combinations. Recombined genes are new chemical combinations, but the toxic substances law exempts research laboratories.
Riseberg said that "the general trend of discussion" has been to have supervision of experiments performed by inspectors from HEW's Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, a center with experience in controlling disease organisms and monitoring medical laboratories. plants or other products.
Several drug firms' officials