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It Was More Than a Tempest in a Petri Dish When Ian Kennedy Cloned the Wrong Virus

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Samuel Ian Thomas Kennedy seemed to be everything the University of California-San Diego wanted in a professor of biochemistry. He had distinguished himself at three British universities, as a brilliant undergraduate at Glasgow, a Ph.D. at Reading, and, at 34, a rising star on the faculty at Warwick in Coventry. It was an academic coup when UC-San Diego recruited Kennedy three years ago. “Probably the best in the world” in his field, said the official university biography. “He is setting a standard for years to come.”

Today Ian Kennedy’s professional world may be close to ruin. A scientific storm has blown up over his work in the new field of recombinant genetics, or “gene splicing” as it is popularly known. Three weeks ago Kennedy angrily resigned his tenured professorship (salary: $26,100 a year) over the suggestion that he had intentionally cloned a forbidden virus, presumably to achieve the scientific feat before rival colleagues could do so.

It is the most serious accusation to date in the highly controversial (and competitive) field of genetic engineering. Recently perfected lab techniques now allow scientists to recombine molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA—which carry hereditary characteristics—of different species, somewhat the way a film editor can construct a movie sequence from different takes. There have been sober warnings about the dangers of such genetic tinkering. So far the work has been cautious, but one benefit can already be measured: an insulin-producing bacteria which someday may replace a diabetic’s insulin shots.

The Kennedy case involved potentially harmful experimentation. Late in August the university’s biosafety committee—of which Kennedy was a member—reported that he had cloned, or artificially reproduced, the Semliki Forest virus. The virus, which was then on the proscribed list of the National Institutes of Health, can cause fever and headache; it is implicated in at least one fatality. The committee report, which went to NIH, concluded that Kennedy had violated NIH guidelines. The university confiscated the genetic material he had cloned and ordered him to cease all work in viruses. The disciplinary action was the first meted out by a university since the NIH guidelines were announced in 1976. Its swiftness and severity may in part reflect UC-San Diego’s sensitivity to the fact that it currently receives $2 million in DNA research grants from NIH.

Kennedy will file his rebuttal with NIH this week, and on October 8 its examiners will meet to consider the dispute. Their findings, Kennedy says with considerable understatement, “could fully impinge on my scientific career—but, of course, I’m optimistic.” The long-range purpose of his virus research has been to develop an antiviral gene with broad medical application.

The controversy broke last May. Four graduate students working in Kennedy’s lab voiced their suspicions of illegal cloning to Dr. Donald R. Helinski, head of the biology department. Once confronted, Kennedy insisted that he had cloned only the legal (and less virulent) Sindbis virus, which causes skin rashes, fever and malaise. It is a strain related to and strongly resembling Semliki. But a sample of the virus Kennedy had used was tested by a state lab at Berkeley and found to be the illegal Semliki.

Kennedy speculated the viruses might have become mixed when a vial of Semliki broke during shipment from his former lab in England. At one point he also suggested that “a direct act of sabotage” might have been responsible. For six months, Kennedy said, he had been receiving anonymous phone calls from someone who objected to all recombinant DNA research.

After deliberation, the committee decided that although sloppy record-keeping or a lapse of memory (his samples were not clearly labeled) might have been responsible for the cloning mix-up, it could not rule out the possibility that Kennedy had deliberately violated the NIH guidelines.

Kennedy steadfastly defended his records, noting that they were “not written with a biosafety committee investigation in mind.” He also charged that “some of the ‘discrepancies’ are the results of incompetence on the part of the biosafety committee, and that disturbs me because some of its members are purported experts.”

Whatever the final act in the bizarre drama, several ironies remain. NIH guidelines have since been revised to make Semliki a legally clonable virus (a revision, it should be pointed out, that had been expected for months). There apparently was never any danger to public health. And it is still a question whether the Berkeley lab’s finding of an illegal clone was totally foolproof.

Kennedy himself sees a final irony in the idea that he needed an illegitimate competitive edge in his virus-cloning work. “I don’t need a jump on anyone,” he says defiantly. “I am so far ahead.”