Jeremy Rifkin, a critic of genetic engineering and biotechnology, filed suit in federal court yesterday to halt two research projects at the National Institutes of Health and Columbia University that involve the insertion of genes from the AIDS virus into mice and into human cancer cells until the responsible scientists submit statements on the projects' potential environmental impact.
The suit by Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends also claims that HHS has violated the 1982 National Environmental Policy Act by failing to issue environmental impact statements on a variety of other federally funded genetic engineering experiments around the country, such as research involving the insertion of cancer-causing genes, called oncogenes, into a common type of bacteria.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court here against the Department of Health and Human Services, charges that federal laws to ensure the safety of biomedical research have failed to keep pace with the new technology that allows scientists to introduce genes from disease-causing organisms into bacteria, animals and human cells.
Rifkin said yesterday that NIH issued its national guidelines on research that uses so-called recombinant DNA in 1976, before the discovery of oncogenes or retroviruses, the family of viruses that includes the AIDS virus.
"It's been 10 years, and there's been no analysis" of the impact of such scientific developments on the guidelines, he said. "The technology has rapidly changed."
HHS officials said yesterday that they had not seen the suit and declined comment.
One of the projects the group is seeking to halt is an experiment in progress at NIH in which genes from the AIDS virus are inserted into fertilized mouse eggs to create mice that carry the AIDS genes in all of their cells. Because of concern that such mice might carry infectious virus particles and might, if they escaped, mate with wild mice to establish a new animal reservoir for the virus, the work is being done in a maximum-security laboratory with unprecedented safety precautions.
The suit also seeks to stop research by Richard Axel of Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Axel, according to Rifkin, has genetically altered a line of human tumor cells called HeLa cells to allow them to be infected with the AIDS virus. Axel, through a spokesman, declined comment.
Rifkin said both experiments pose dangers because they "increase the host range, potentially" of animals and of human cell types that can be infected by the AIDS virus.
The suit also targets experiments in which cancer-causing oncogenes are inserted into bacteria or animal cells along with other genes called enhancers, which heighten the oncogenes' ability to turn normal cells into cancer cells.
It cited an announcement last year that five molecular biologists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris had developed unusual cancers. All had worked with oncogenes and cancer viruses in two adjacent laboratories on the same floor. Two of the scientists have died, and the others are gravely ill, according to the suit. The results of an official French investigation of the incident have not yet been released.