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Biotech Postal service decision to sterilize mail poses problem for scientists

Biotech: Postal Service Decision to Sterilize Mail Poses Problem for Scientists

A decision by the U.S. Postal Service to use electron beams to sanitize letters and packages could cause problems for biotechnology companies and scientists who routinely ship living organisms through the mail.

Experts say the electrons disrupt the DNA of any living things, thus killing them.

The Postal Service recently began sanitizing mail sent to the national capital at a plant in Lima, Ohio. The technology, made by San Diego-based Titan Corp.’s subsidiary SureBeam, uses high-powered electron beams to irradiate mail running on conveyer belts.

The process cuts the risk of exposure to anthrax, but is just as likely to kill harmless materials being used by scientists and doctors, said Jerrold Bushberg, a clinical professor of radiology and director of the Health Physics Program at UC Davis.

“Anything that is biologically active or any pharmaceutical that is a protein would become inert,” Bushberg said.

Wil Williams, a spokesman for Titan, said the amount of radiation used to cut the risk of anthrax spores in mail is more than 40 kiloGrays.

That compares to 35 kiloGrays of radiation used to sterilize food for astronauts and the Army; 10 kiloGrays to sterilize spices, and three kiloGrays used to kill bad bacteria in poultry.

Robert McKeown, a physics professor at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said the high dose is appropriate given the hardyness of anthrax spores.

He pointed out while shipped foods would not be harmed using this process, irradiating foods like meats at a ten times higher dose than mandated by the Food and Drug Administration could be illegal.

Post Office Protocol Needed

Williams said the process will not harm credit cards, videotapes, and CDs sent through the mail, but acknowledged that the electrons could destroy certain pharmaceutical products.

“The general rule is anything that is alive and that we want to stay alive, the post office will have to come up with a protocol on how to deal with it,” Williams said.

The FDA reportedly has already had discussions with the Postal Service to avoid having to put prescription drugs through the irradiation process.

So far, few in the local scientific community appear to be worried about the process.

Invitrogen Corp., a Carlsbad-based biotechnology firm that ships research materials to companies and academic institutions worldwide, could be an exception.

Paul Goodson, a spokesman for Invitrogen, said the issue moved to the forefront when company officials recently learned that the Scottish government is considering sanitizing mail. Invitrogen distributes products in Europe through its Scottish subsidiary, Inchinnen.

“We have placed an inquiry with the carriers in Scotland to find out what their plans are,” Goodson said. “If they are thinking about (sanitizing mail), we’d have to assess how to protect our packages and get an exemption.”

At UCSD, sanitizing mail is not a big issue.

Scientists say they have long relied on other shipping agencies to deliver living organisms, from animals to proteins and DNA to laboratories around the globe.

Sandra Holley, a UCSD scientist who regularly ships materials via FedEx Corp., said she’s not worried, at least not yet.

“If FedEx started to routinely sterilize all packages, they would have to make a special category for things that can’t be irradiated,” Holley said.

Goodson, whose company sends hundreds, sometimes thousands of packages a day, to Invitrogen clients using FedEx and Airborne Express, says it’s unlikely these companies would start sanitizing packages any time soon.

Both carriers have stringent labeling requirements. Each package has an identification number and can be tracked from its place of origin all the way to the final destination.

Kristen Petrella, a United Parcel Service spokeswoman, refused to answer any questions on package handling, citing security reasons.

“We aren’t going to say here is what we are doing for these packages and here is what we are doing with other packages,” Petrella said, adding “The safety of our people and the security of the service UPS provides is a top priority.”

Goodson said recent events have shown that terrorists are willing to use unprecedented methods to reach their goal and may continue to do so.

“If someone wanted to use their employer’s identification (number) and didn’t care if the authority found the source, it may pose a problem,” he said.


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