Who's Afraid Of Jurassic Park? Biotech Ought To Be

As nearly everyone in America must know by now, on June 11 Steven Spielberg will bring to life Jurassic Park, the Michael Crichton thriller about money-mad gene-splicers who use ancient DNA to clone live dinosaurs--which then run amok on a Central American island.

Even before its release, this well-hyped movie has anti-biotech activists in a tizzy. Volunteers from the Pure Food Campaign, led by Washington biotech foe Jeremy Rifkin, plan to picket theaters in 100 U.S. cities. Their flyers feature a dinosaur pushing a grocery basket labeled "Bio-tech Frankenfoods." Their message: "Corporate science" can alter and create life forms with "enormous and frightening" possibilities.

Given the high visibility the movie and Rifkin-inflamed fears are bound to get, you'd think the industry would be working on a staunch defense. No such luck. The public is too intelligent to mix up what's going on in corporate laboratories with the film's Toyota-chomping Tyrannosaurus rexes, one biotech PR executive opined at a recent conference. Another said he didn't care what the public says about biotech--as long as it talks about it.

This complacency has a few of biotech's savvier spinmeisters shaking their heads. Jurassic Park's dark message--that powerful science leads to disaster--will be "the most massive exposure to genetic engineering this country has ever had," warns New York public-relations consultant Lisa Burns. Burns worries that controversy will ensnare her firm's three dozen biotech clients, none of whom, she admits, seems to have given it a second thought. "It's Star Wars technology [with] the immediacy of Jaws," Burns says. "People will worry."

If biotech blows it with Jurassic Park, it won't be its first PR flub. Again and again, the nearly two-decade-old business has responded to controversy with: "Trust us, we're scientists." Rather than prepare for criticism, justified or not, the industry insists that only the ignorant have qualms about DNA research.

Biotech may be in for a rude awakening. Several aspects of Jurassic Park have a basis in fact, chief among them that extracting DNA from insects trapped in amber millions of years ago is indeed happening in labs right now. It's a long way from there to cloning live dinosaurs, of course, but an intelligent observer is certainly justified in asking whether there's anything to fear or whether anybody is keeping an eye on this stuff.

Nonetheless, the key industry trade group, the Industrial Biotechnology Assn., has no response planned and "no real concern," says a spokesman. That complacency could be costly. Last year, the Food & Drug Administration eased regulatory demands on agricultural biotechnology products. Since then, the FDA has logged many complaints about the rule changes. Now, regulators may be on the verge of requiring gene-spliced foods to carry special labels--which could be expensive, complicated to implement, and scary for consumers.

Meanwhile, the public's qualms have already stymied at least one genetically engineered product. BGH, a gene-spliced hormone to increase milk production, has been stalled at the FDA for years. The FDA says the stuff is safe, but consumer and dairy-industry opposition remains fierce. Now, Calgene Inc. is poised to roll out the Flavr Savr tomato, which would be the nation's first genetically altered food. But Calgene's research partner, Campbell Soup Co., has been wary of endorsing the product until the public weighs in.

What's that got to do with rampaging rexes? Plenty. Not because the public need fear bio-dinos, but because Jurassic Park will again remind people that "safety" is relative. Consumers figure physicians, companies, and government regulators are responsibly developing gene-spliced drugs, gene therapy, and other medical wonders. But its trust doesn't necessarily hold when talk turns to putting new organisms or foods into the environment. In such cases, the Jurassic Park theme of epic tragedy from Big Science gone awry may loom large.

Rather than bury its head in the sand, the industry should use Jurassic Park as an opportunity to start talking about biotech's positive contributions. That could increase the odds that in a few years, consumers will rent Jurassic Park videos, munch gene-spliced popcorn, and marvel at how fast progress was made. Instead, biotech's hubris risks having those same couch potatoes breathe a sigh of relief that society nipped all this in the bud.