Inquiry into CDC Lab Kindles Debate On Best Approach to AIDS Research

ATLANTA—What is the role of basic research in an organization with an applied mission?

By | February 9, 1987

ATLANTA—What is the role of basic research in an organization with an applied mission? That issue has surfaced in the recent investigation of the AIDS program at the Centers for Disease Control.

A three-member panel from the Institute of Medicine, in a December report, concluded that one of the AIDS laboratory units had suffered from poor scientific management, low morale and productivity, and a lack of clear research goals. The AIDS lab was created in 1983, when knowledge about the disease was scant, and virologists were given great leeway in their research.

Problems arose, said CDC Director James Mason, as researchers both inside and outside the Centers began to learn more about the disease. That new information led to a narrowing of the scope of the work at CDC.

"Our forte is epidemiological work, and the laboratory becomes a support service," Mason said. "That's not the role these people were interested in." Half of the dozen scientists who have worked in the lab have left or been transferred.

The Institute of Medicine investigation was formed in response to a request from Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), ranking minority member and former chairman of the Senate subcommittee that appropriates funds for the Centers. It was prompted by several cases of alleged tampering with equipment and experiments that occurred last spring. The CDC response to its findings has refocused attention on the nature of the work to be conducted at the Centers.

Applied research on HIV (human iminunodeficiency virus) will remain within the AIDS program, under the direction of Gerald Schochetman. Basic research has been moved into the Division of Viral Diseases, headed by Fred Murphy.

The panel spelled out several areas that the new lab might investigate, including "the mechanisms governing the onset of seropositivity after exposure… how virus and host characteristics govern variations in the manifestation of the disease, and the search for and study of HIV-infected but seronegative individuals." Officials are hoping to recruit an eminent senior researcher from outside the Centers to serve as chief of the lab.

Part of the Mission

Panel members and CDC officials feel the new lab is consistent with what the Centers are now doing. "Basic research has always been part of the CDC mission, at least as it is targeted or directed basic science," said Bernadine Healy of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Julius Krevans, chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, and chairman of the panel, said "the kind of thing we talked about is really directed at AIDS. Although some people might not call that basic, we meant research directed at a level other than immediate application."

James Curran, director of CDC's AIDS program, said the new laboratory will consist of "basic molecular genetic methods—sequencing, finding integrated segments of genome—that are common to retroviruses. The new lab will be central to looking at the role of retroviruses in diseases other than AIDS."

Panelists and CDC officials believe a division of labor also will improve morale. "This committee has focused on scientific leadership as a central facet of laboratory management," the report declared. "Rapid organizational changes [within the AIDS program] had not permitted consistent scientific leadership to be established."

Some of the unhappy virologists point to the head of the lab program, Schochetman, as a part of the problem. "More is involved than just research priorities," said one scientist who requested anonymity. "We need a leader here who understands what the action is in AIDS, what's important in diagnostic research and AIDS research, and who understands and knows how to deal with people."

Healy holds a different view. She sees the issue as one of attitudes, not specific skills. "People with an epidemiological bent were in charge of basic science. Some AIDS basic scientists felt they did not have someone who knew what they were about."

Weicker appears satisfied with the panel's report. "The CDC now has what I thought was most needed, the fruits of totally scientific and nonpolitical scrutiny," he said in a prepared statement.

Curran, although not disputing the report, is worried that its criticism of one small portion of the AIDS program may tar the rest of the Centers' efforts. "Training scientists in the laboratory, doing epidemiological studies, disease surveillance, transfer of technology to state and city public health laboratories to prevent and control infection from the AIDS virus—these activities have not been questioned. And that's our primary mission."

Check is a freelance writer in Atlanta.

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