Archived news articles - 2006

The Straits Times, May 19, 2006

New safety guidelines for scientists

SCIENTISTS who tweak the genes of plants, animals or bacteria in the laboratory will now have to follow a set of safety guidelines.

The rules will also ensure that research practices here are internationally acceptable and credible, which will make it easier for local R&D work to be recognised globally.

Hundreds of ongoing experiments call for the use of genetically modified organisms or GMOs - which are plants, animals or bacteria that have had one or a few selected genes introduced into them by molecular techniques.

The guidelines, set up by the seven-year-old Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC), require research bodies to have institution biosafety committees (IBCs) to track the progress of these experiments. Risky ones have to be first approved.

Associate Professor Chan Woon Khiong, who chairs the GMAC sub-committee on research into GMOs, explained that experiments involving, say, infectious organisms like the H5N1 virus must have both IBC and GMAC approval before work begins.

This is because such studies expose researchers and even the public to risk and have to be monitored.

Low-risk experiments involving whole plants and animals need only IBC approval, while routine procedures do not need permission from either.

Prof Chan gave researchers the assurance that they would not be swamped by paperwork. The two-page application form would take 'five to 10 minutes' to fill, he said, and clearance would come within 10 days.

Seeking IBC approval has already been routine for researchers in major institutions like the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for the past few years, because they want to maintain high standards that win recognition for their work outside Singapore.

Prof Chan said the guidelines would make standards consistent across all research bodies here and also 'help create a level playing field in terms of safety', since smaller research bodies might have been using guidelines of foreign countries.

Those who flout the guidelines - developed from a two-year trial involving NUS, NTU and four other research bodies - will face penalties under the Biological Agents and Toxins Act and the Animals and Birds Act.

No laws regarding the use of GMOs have been formulated, but GMAC is careful about holding the reins too tightly.

Mr Sivakant Tiwari, the chairman of the sub-committee overseeing the labelling of GMOs said: 'It's about ensuring safety, but also giving flexibility to researchers.'

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