Cambridge News, Saturday 12th April 2008
Was Cambridge scientist’s death murder?
The tragic death last month of brilliant young researcher Charlotte Stowell raises serious questions about safety in Cambridge’s new multimillion pound research institute.
Ms Stowell, 28, worked on the infectivity of flu viruses in Professor Thomas Slater’s laboratory at The Wolfhaven Institute, locally known as the ‘Nobel Factory’. She died after contracting Chikungunya fever, a disease normally carried by mosquitoes.
The virus that killed Ms Stowell normal does not affect healthy people, but it can be dangerous in pregnancy. Dr Michel de Kooij, a virologist in Professor Slater’s lab, said he didn’t know if Ms Stowell was pregnant. He said, “We were as surprised as anyone that Charlotte caught it.”
Dr de Kooij said that despite extensive safety procedures, “poor working conditions” and long hours make it is easy to forget how dangerous working with viruses can be. But Ms Stowell left the Wolfhaven four months previously to work for the leading scientific magazine Nature.
Paul McIntyre, a technician at the Wolfhaven said that Ms Stowell, “a really lovely woman” used to receive packages from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It always feels a little scary,” Mr McIntyre, 57, said, “because you don’t know what’s in there.”
Scientists at the Wolfhaven Institute routinely take viruses like Chikungunya apart to see how they work, and put them back together to test their theories in the wild. It is possible that a toxic gene from another lab accidentally got joined to the Chikungunya sequence, but Dr de Kooij thought this was unlikely. “It could never happen by chance,” he said. “It is more likely it was done deliberately.”
Dr de Kooij said he did not know who might have wanted Ms Stowell dead. He said that he plans to use viruses in gene therapy, but added that terrorist groups and government agencies could use exactly the same technology to make a deadly weapon, adding that it would not be difficult for somebody with the right technology.
Whatever the real story behind Ms Stowell’s death, it is clear that many searching questions remain to be answered at this jewel in Britain’s research crown.
The woman slammed the paper down.
“Who the fuck is this journalist? Why don’t we know about her?”
The man shrugged. “It’s unimportant.”
“No Peter, it’s not unimportant. It’s of the utmost fucking importance. Somebody, somewhere, somehow, has tipped them off. Who knows? Peter, who the fuck knows?”
The man reached into a pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, offering one to the woman.
“No? Well then.” He tapped one out of the packet, flicked his Zippo. “Does it matter?”
She snatched the lighter from his hand.
“Yes it fucking matters. If Slater has squealed it could get us shut down. And we can’t afford that. If he’s squealed…”
“Yah. Whitehall won’t be happy.”
She grimaced. “I think we need to get heavy on Slater. I’ve just about had enough. We’re so fucking close, I can smell it. I know he’s been stringing us along, but I haven’t wanted to get heavy in case it spooks him too much. But now, now… we’re nearly there, Peter. I think we should pay him a visit. In person.”
He reached across the table and plucked the Zippo from her unresisting hand. He flicked it, drew on his cigarette, blew a smoke ring at the ceiling.
“I have a better idea, Susan. Let’s give Captain Plod something to do.”