Thursday, October 18, 2007

What is Evil? Part II

Pete's comment in the last post jarred me into remembering about Unit 731. Unit 731 was a biological warfare unit, part of Imperial Japan's Military Medical Establishment. Unit 731 goes beyond immoral towards depths of psychopathic human depravity. It illustrates the corruption of human curiosity and the scientific method, a noble human trait and one of our greatest tools, into mechanisms of human torture and death dealing. The sad part is that they got away with their research for the most part.

As an aside I can say that there is a Russian scientist named Serguei Popov who developed a novel biological weapon. The experiment was elegant and chilling. I can't help but admire his ingenuity and cleverness as a biomedical scientist, but I am glad, and at least hope, that his experiment hasn't been converted into a weapon. Popov used a variation of a technique used in creating bacterial vaccines. He inserted a synthetic bacterial gene coding for either a part or all of the human myelin protein into Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium that causes a form of pneumonia and is a known human pathogen, and got the gene to be expressed. He injected the modified Legionella strain into rabbits. These rabbits got pneumonia and their immune systems subsequently cleared the infection within about a week and they appeared fine. About six weeks later, the rabbits all had seizures and died of acute rapid multiple sclerosis. What is particularly elegant is that the cause or agent of mortality (the modified bacterial pathogen) is nowhere to be found when symptoms and death occur, so treating physicians wouldn't have a clue that a bioweapon was to blame. The rabbits had already cured themselves of the bacteria, but their immune systems had already been programmed to kill them. What saved the rabbits ultimately killed them due to the administration of a modified pathogen, the opposite of a beneficial vaccine using an attenuated bacterial pathogen. This is an example of the amorality of technology and science. Fortunately, Popov only does biodefense work these days.

Biodefense is also a catch phrase for a broad range of biomedical research from microbiology to immunology that likely will never have any applicability to defending us from biological weapons. The term is a funding vehicle for many scientists to continue their normal biomedical research that might have public health benefits in the long run. This is because the grant institutions like NIH were given money by Congress after the 2001 anthrax scare and told to spend it on biodefense rather than normal public health research. Scientists go where the funding goes, especially when funding is so hard to come by these days. We are not stupid people and the cleverest among us know how to write successful grant applications. The money will be well spent in any event because it will eventually go to public health which would strengthen our biodefense capabilities, but any normal taxpayer would feel that fraud has been committed on some level. A lot of what passes for basic cancer research or AIDS research has little to do with treating human cancers or HIV and is just basic mouse or human immunology research in disguise.


elegant and chilling, indeed.

Its chilling indeed.

Biological experiments didn't stop with the Russians. This reference talks about efforts in apartheid South Africa up to the early 1990's:

"In 1998 South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings investigating activities of the apartheid-era government. Toward the end of the hearings, the Commission looked into the apartheid regime's Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) program and allegations that it developed a sterility vaccine to use on black South Africans, employed toxic and chemical poison weapons for political asssassination, and in the late 1970s provided anthrax and cholera to Rhodesian troops for use against guerrilla rebels in their war to overthrow Rhodesia's white minority rule...."

Fortunately apartheid fell.

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