Scientists have created an artificial gene that like a little robot acting on human orders, then made an exact copy of a human brain hormone.
The feat was disclosed at a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday as scientists and senators considered whether the government needs to make more control of the controversial gene-engineering methods by which the new gene and hormone were made.
Their manufacture was called "a scientific triumph of the first order by Dr. Philip Handler, who testified that such research so far seems harmless and Congress can safely delay action until more is known.
The hormone somatostatin is one which the hypothalamus at the base of the brain makes to help regulate the important pituitary gland, the "mastery gland" that controls many body functions. Artificial versions of such hormones are expected to become important drugs or medicines.
Scientific teams lead by Herbert Boyer of the University of California in San Franciso, Dr. Arthur Riggs of the City of Hope Medical Center near Los Angeles and Dr. Wylle Vale of the Salk Institute. San Diego, made five milligrams of somatostatin. They did it by inserting their man-made gene into a colony of bacteria which then in Handler's phrase "merrily enagaged" in the hormone's production, much like tiny factories.
The five-milligrams made so far amount a mere speck. But Drs. Andrew Schally and Roger Guillemin won a Nobel prize last month for isolating similar specks of this and other hormones and Guillemin had to grind up nearly half a million sheep brains to get the same amount.
Dr. Paul Berg of Stanford University a creator of the new gene technology called the California achievement "astonishing." Both Hardler and Berg said its most important result with not be somatostatin manufacture but "the practical promise" that "many such" biological products can be made in the laboratory by man-made genes "to put us at the threshold of new forms of medicine, industry and agriculture."
They said this at a Senate science subcommittee session at which:
Handler said a special panel named by the National Academy of Sciences a regular adviser to the government has reported that the new research can be pursued with "neglible risk" if scientists follow current federal safety guidelines. The guidelines regulate the way scientists can recombine or recorder the material of genes - deoxyribenucleio acid (DNA) - to creat new life forms and the kind of bacteria they can use as hosts or factories to make any new products.
Handler opposed new legislation until experiments now planned or under way determine whether or not there is anything to some of the "worst case" scenarios posed by critics of the new research. They have said some new life forms or altered bacteria might unexpectedly cause new epidemics or other disasters.
Berg and Daniel Callahan, director of the Hastings Center for biomedical ethics, opposed legislation as a threat to scientific freedom and progress. But Dr. Bruce Levin of the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Jonathan King of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mare Lappe of the California Health Department said the potential dangers could become real, and urged strong legislative controls. Dr. Roy Curtiss of the University of Mahama saw the dangers as slights, by present knowledge but also favored legislation.
All witnesses said some way by legislation or ottherwise, must be found to govern such work in private industry, which is not subject to the federal rules covering federally funded researchers.
Last April, Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. said a law must be passed to protect the public and regulate industry. But control bills are begged down in Congress and presidential science adviser Frank Press has asked and Inter-agency Committee on Recombinant DNA - the technical name for recordered genes - to consider whether the government already has enough authority to establish federal regulation without a new law.