Originally created 02/19/01

Doctor sees medicine as a field in transition



It's a different scientific world altogether from the one Malcolm Kling found when he came to the Medical College of Georgia in 1967. From those early days of defining humane ways to treat laboratory animals to today's genetic revolution, Dr. Kling has been promoting ethical research.

Perhaps never more so than now, scientists and researchers should examine the why of their work and not just the how, said Dr. Kling, who until recently was the interim vice president for research at MCG and had for decades ensured the humane treatment of laboratory animals there.

His retirement became official at the end of last month, but instead of the usual tributes and dinners, Dr. Kling allowed himself to be talked into having a lecture series at MCG named after him. The first annual Malcolm Kling Lectureship in Research Ethics is being planned for later this year.

As easily as he can look back at the past, Dr. Kling can gaze cleareyed at the technological changes and the future problems they might present along with their promise.

The explosion in scientific advances has changed everything, Dr. Kling said.

"Even the language of science is much different than it was in the '60s," Dr. Kling said recently in his office at MCG. The explosion in knowledge, however, has also meant a specialization and fragmentation of knowledge.

"It is symptomatic of our inability to keep up with everything," Dr. Kling said. "Philosophically, I worry a little bit about that because I had the advantage of coming along at a time when you could sort of be a generalist; you understood how the body worked and how you could manipulate it. Now you're lucky if you can understand one component of the immune system. So if you're an immunologist, you may or may not have a clue about what's going on in the central nervous system."

New knowledge has also placed a greater emphasis on monitoring because of the potential power in a single laboratory. Last month, scientists in Australia admitted they had accidentally turned a relatively benign mouse virus, called a mousepox, into an always fatal, genetically altered mouse-killer.

"It has the ability to destroy the immune system" of mice, Dr. Kling said. "(That's what) worries me in terms of the potential for something to go wrong with the process. I'm not necessarily saying someone intentionally doing something evil with it. It's just that things don't always work the way they're intended."

Take, for instance, the human genome. Scientists last week published the first relatively complete draft of the code and for years have been identifying genes or families of genes associated with certain diseases. No one has figured out how to successfully alter these genes to avoid the disease, but that day might be coming. AndDr. Kling wonders whether the ethical concerns will carry as much weight when it does.

"Other than demonstrating that, yes, you can do this manipulation, and perhaps you can insert other pieces of genetic material into this particular species, what do you do with it?" Dr. Kling asked. "What are the consequences of doing that?"

While mice are routinely cloned, and it has been done in higher-order animals such as sheep and cattle, humans are not to that point, and federal law bans proceeding down that path. Eventually, though, it will happen, Dr. Kling said. And the consequences of that have not been widely discussed, he added.

"It's something that I suspect a large percentage of our population doesn't even know about," Dr. Kling said. "(We've) turned a blind eye to some of these things. I think we all have an obligation ... to decide do we collectively as a society say we want to go down this path. Where do we go with some of our basic science issues relative to what we can manipulate genetically? Do we want to change it and make a better product yet at the same time realize that in certain hands this could be a damaging product?"

Genetic screening of embryos is already possible.

"Then you've got all these other issues to deal with," Dr. Kling said. "If you find out, then what?"

In some ways, common sense will likely prevail in regard to issues such as cloning, Dr. Kling said.

"I'm not sure there's a reason for cloning a human being," as there would be for say sheep or cattle," Dr. Kling said. "I don't think there's any reason to clone a monkey. We don't need a better monkey."

Monkeys, such as the aged rhesus monkeys used in Alzheimer's disease research by Dr. Jerry Buccafusco at MCG, are one example of Dr. Kling's contribution to the college.

"You can't have a program like that unless you have a first-class veterinary staff to care for all of the diseases and all of the situations that old monkeys get themselves into," Dr. Buccafusco said. "He (Dr. Kling) was a tremendous colleague and academician and a world-class veterinarian, no question about that."

Despite his retirement, Dr. Kling is planning to teach toxicology to second-year medical students this year as part of a pharmacology course he has taught since his arrival.

"To be able to pull a lot of different things together such as biochemistry, physiology, pathology, histology - I explain how this drug acts and what it does to all these underlying systems - that's the good part about it. That's when it's really fun, when you can see the light click on."

He is considering teaching biology to sophomores at Georgia Military College, which has a campus in Augusta. He hasn't taught students that age since the '60s.

"I think it'll be fun to see what it's like at that age," he said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.