According to a CDC study in March 2000, approximately 60-90% of occupational sharps injuries could be eliminated by the use of safety-engineered medical devices. Fortunately, most of these injuries will never be as serious as the nightmare scenario experienced this spring by a German researcher, who was stuck by a needle potentially contaminated by a highly infectious strain of the Ebola virus, a Biosafety Level 4 organism. Nonetheless, apart from the advanced engineering containment and increased personal protective equipment requirements necessary to safely handle this highly infectious material, many of the same safety practices are also required for manipulation of “routine” Biosafety Level 1 and 2 organisms, including viral vectors and any human cell line. Since infection by these commonly used organisms occurs as a result of direct contact between the organism and non-intact skin or mucous membranes, measures that reduce the risk of percutaneous injuries are important for reducing the overall risk of such exposures.
The best way to reduce the potential for needlesticks and other sharps injuries is to remove, through substitution, those tools capable of causing them. For example, using plastic transfer pipettes in place of glass Pasteur pipettes, or plastic screw-topped test tubes instead of breakable glass.
The NIH recently broadened the scope of their Guidelines for the Use of Recombinant DNA Molecules to specifically include synthesized nucleic acids. Previously, the Guidelines covered only those molecules derived from living cells. The amendment stems from the recognition that evolving technologies enable the manipulation of genetic materials in ways not envisioned when the NIH Guidelines were first written. Thus, it is not surprising that the language in the existing Guidelines does not provide clear direction as to the applicability of these newer techniques. This revision (Federal Register, 3/4/09, p. 9411-9421) clearly places these activities within the Guidelines’ scope because the work merits the same type of oversight as more traditional rDNA research.
All activities using rDNA must be described in a submittal to the University’s Institutional Biosafety Committee. The NIH defines protocols which are ‘exempt’ from submission requirements, but this category is narrower than most people assume and investigators must, at a minimum, submit an initial application for the IBC to make this determination.
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