Though some experts say genetic differences between mice and humans may make the latter less likely to contract cancer from RFID chips, this is bad news for proponents of human chip implantation.
RFID or Radio Frequency Identification microchips are identity chips used in a range of applications and products from tagging library books to cars to pets and now more recently, people. In animals and people they are inserted under the skin.
RFID chips usually contain two parts: an integrated circuit that stores information and a receiver-transmitter (also called a transponder). This senses when an appropriate scanning device is nearby and then it transmits a radio frequency message to the device. The scanner picks up the radio signal and reads the information on the chip.
The RFID chips were first used in animals, mainly to track lost pets. RFID chips were approved for use in humans by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004. They were hailed as a medical breakthrough, because they could be used to provide access to important medical information in situations where the patient is not able to do that for himself or herself.
One such example is the case of an Alzheimer's patient who gets lost and ends up in a hospital. Here the staff can scan the patient's arm and get an immediate readout of their essential medical information.
RFID chips designed for humans are made by VeriChip Corp. a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions, of Delray Beach, Florida. Till date, 2,000 chips have been implanted in humans worldwide. The company, who insists the devices are safe, sees its target market for medical monitoring as 45 million Americans.
In response to the recent allegations of cancer risk from the Associated Press (AP) , Scott Silverman, chairman and CEO of VeriChip Corp. said that the company did not know about any studies that 'resulted in malignant tumors in laboratory rats, mice and certainly not dogs or cats.' Silverman stressed that millions of pets had RFID chips implanted and there had been no reports of significant problems.
The articles cited by AP that were reviewed by the cancer experts were studies on lab mice and rats that sometimes developed sarcomas, or malignant tumors, after being implanted with microchips. The sarcomas sometimes encased the implants, the AP report said.
These articles were published in toxicology and veterinary journals dated between 1996 and 2006 and included:
A 1996 study by pathologist Keith Johnson at the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Michigan which concluded ' transponders were the cause of the tumors'.
A study conducted in Germany in 1997 that found 1 per cent of over 4,000 RFID chipped mice had cancer, which the authors concluded were 'clearly due to the implanted microchips'.
A study in France carried out in 2006 where it was observed that tumors were detected in 4.1 per cent of mice with microchip implants. The scientists were not looking for cancer induced by microchips when they started the study.
In response to this, VeriChip Corp. points out several shortcomings to these studies reviewed by the cancer experts. For instance not one of them had a control group that had not been implanted with RFID chips to compare the rate of tumor development in non-chipped with chipped animals. And the other obvious shortcoming is that animal studies do not necessarily translate to humans.
Yet, those who oppose the technology are not relenting. Says Dr Robert Benezra, head of the Cancer Biology Genetics Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York: 'There's no way in the world, having read this information, that I would have one of those chips implanted in my skin, or in one of my family members.
'These are bad diseases. They are life-threatening. And given the preliminary animal data, it looks to me that there's definitely cause for concern', he added.
Others said the studies raised 'red flags' and that further studies using dogs and non-human primates were needed.
Incidentally, when VeriChip was looking for FDA approval of its device, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. Shortly after Thompson left HHS, he joined VeriChip's board and he became so forceful an advocate of human chip implantation that he promised to get chipped himself. Yet, he never has, till now.