ScienceScope

Science  22 Sep 2000:
Vol. 289, Issue 5487, pp. 2017
  1. Sue Them All!

    There's a surprise twist in a long-expected claim for damages filed this week in the death of Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old volunteer in a gene therapy trial. Paul Gelsinger, Jesse's father, seeks unspecified compensation from the University of Pennsylvania (which hosted the trial), the director of Penn's Institute for Human Gene Therapy, several clinicians, and a biotech firm. But the suit, filed in Pennsylvania state court, also names a prominent ethicist at Penn, Arthur Caplan, who advised the researchers.

    Gelsinger's attorney, Alan Milstein of Camden, New Jersey, says that Caplan was named because he helped to shape the trial and the consent document that Gelsinger signed. But Caplan says his involvement was purely informal. “It's standard in such cases to name as many people as possible and let judges and juries sort it out,” Caplan notes, adding, “I worry that this may intimidate bioethicists from talking to their colleagues.” Penn has already acknowledged “weaknesses” in its oversight of the trial, but says they “did not contribute to Jesse's death.” The university is negotiating with Gelsinger on a settlement.

  2. The End Is NEAR

    NASA officials have told controllers of the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft that they can send their charge on a suicidal plunge to the surface of asteroid Eros. Running short on fuel and money, the $125 million craft will execute a “controlled descent” to the surface on 12 February after spending a year orbiting Eros. In return for obtaining the most detailed pictures ever of a celestial body other than Earth's moon (see pp. 2085-2104 for the latest from Eros), mission scientists will follow the lead of Lunar Prospector, which was intentionally crashed into the moon last year in a search for water deposits.

    Never designed to touch down anywhere, NEAR-Shoemaker will be pulled into a final embrace with the 34-kilometer-long asteroid just before Valentine's Day, hitting the surface at the speed of a brisk walk. Controllers will listen for a day or two for any word of how the “landing” went, but “there is nothing planned after that,” says mission scientist Andrew Cheng of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where the spacecraft was built and is now controlled.

  3. Attractive Facility

    Their darling faces no competition, but congressional supporters of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida, are pulling out all the stops to win another 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Last week a Senate spending panel dropped a heavy hint favoring renewal, exploding a normally secret review process.

    “The committee strongly supports the laboratory and hopes that the Foundation continues its support,” lawmakers wrote last week in a bill that sets the agency's 2001 budget. Although the bill notes that NSFis reviewing the request this fall, a Senate aide says the panel wasn't trying to “influence the decision. But it's a popular project.” And lab director Jack Crow says he “had nothing to do with this,” although he has encouraged other scientists to write legislators on behalf of NSF's budget because “if NSF does poorly, then I know what will happen to us.”

    The lab, created in 1990, is asking for a 30% hike in its current 5-year, $88 million grant to accommodate a 60% growth in users. “It's an incredible facility,” says physicist Chuck Agosta of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Agosta heads the lab's user group, which has lobbied for more funding. “But it's a political entity, too,” he adds.

  4. Genome Giveaway

    Does the human genome sell magazines? Prospect, a British monthly for intellectuals, thinks genes are so marketable that it has pasted a CD-ROM of the entire “rough draft” onto the cover of its current issue, out this week.

    “This is not a scientific publication. … It's just a gimmick,” says Tim Hubbard, head of human genome analysis at the Sanger Centre in Hinxton, U.K., one of the world's top DNA sequencing institutions. At the magazine's request, Hubbard helped squeeze the data onto a single CD-ROM and created browsing software that allows users to “click on a chromosome and jump to that bit of DNA,” he says. The CD-ROM also contains information on the provisional identification of 10,000 human genes.

    Prospect marketing chief Hugh MacLeman, who came up with the idea, says the magazine wasn't aiming for a scoop. “We wanted to get [the genome project] into the public sphere,” he says, because “people who don't work in science have little idea about what has been achieved. It may also help sell more copies of Prospect.”

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