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Modifying genetic research

GM food has provoked much protest but GM medicine has more public approval: the difference lies in approaches to research.

By | November 15, 2000

LONDON. Recent tests on mice have indicated that genetically engineered potatoes could be developed as an oral vaccine for protecting humans against the hepatitis B virus. This research, published in the November 2000 issue of Nature Biotechnology, bodes well for the future of inexpensive, easy to administer vaccines but muddies the already merky waters of the GM foods debate.

Over the last 12 months the national press has voiced public fears over GM foods. Now with the promise of GM medicines and the implications for giving affordable vaccines to Third World countries, the tide of public opinion could be changing. Adrian Bebb, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, expressed his concern that "the government tends to put GM foods and GM medicines together, trying to blur the two to get more popularity."

Indeed, Britain is a leader in the GM market and Tony Blair is keen to promote this new technology. Modifying potatoes to produce hepatitis B antibodies in consumers' bloodstream is just the latest in a long line of GM's potential uses; the problem is separating the good from the bad because in the GM drama, the protagonist is both hero and villain.

In early November, Friends of the Earth uncovered a study by Aventis, the giant biotech company, showing a death rate in chickens eating GM maize to be higher than that of those eating normal maize. Ten out of 140 male broiler birds died (7.14%) and a source from the British poultry industry was quoted as saying: "Four per cent is the average: anything over 5% and you have got a problem."

Friends of the Earth handed the evidence over to scientists from the University of Bristol who found that Aventis's nutrition tests on the maize "were not of a standard that would be acceptable for publication in a scientific journal."

And here lies the crux of the GM matter. While medicines are thoroughly researched and tested in laboratories, food testing is far less rigorous. Until the advent of large-scale genetic modification this has hardly been an issue. But now, according to Friends of the Earth's Adrian Bebb, "complacent testing of GM foods is not enough." He adds "whenever we insert a gene, we should follow the same rigorous testing scheme that a medicine or a vaccine has to go through."

Hugh Mason, one of the scientists who submitted the research paper on the hepatitis B vaccine in potatoes, makes a very clear distinction between GM foods and GM vaccines. "We are not developing GM foods, but plant-based pharmaceuticals." He continues, "plant vaccines will not be used as food, but will be administered by qualified health professionals in the appropriate circumstances."

One of the major issues, prevalent in the national news and high up in Friends of the Earth's list of concerns, is the possibility of GM crops contaminating other crops and maybe even leading to the extinction of natural species. While Adrian Bebb condemns the government's approach to GM foods, he is happy to concede that GM medicines hold a lot of potential, as long as they are grown "indoors and completely sealed off."

He should feel encouraged by Hugh Mason's opinion: "Tight regulation of production and processing must be enforced in order to ensure that there is no contamination of food supplies with pharmaceuticals," says Mason.

Safe in the knowledge that plant vaccines are being carefully modified, surely GM medicines are spelling out big business for pharmaceutical companies? Unfortunately that is not the case. Julian K-C. Ma - senior lecturer and consultant in Immunology and Oral Immunotherapy at Guy's Hospital, London - commented in the November issue of Nature Biotechnology that "industry has been slow to invest in this field for a variety of reasons."

He notes that the need for "an unusual and imaginative collaboration between the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries" could be a stumbling block in creating plant vaccines, but suggests that the main obstacle is funding. According to Ma, it is unlikely that the income from the regular hepatitis B vaccine could be matched by a plant-derived alternative. The present hepatitis B vaccine - available since 1986 - earns more than US $1 billion per year.

Hugh Mason admits that "no big pharmaceutical companies" have shown interest in their research. They had a "transient contract" from the small biotech company Axis Genetics which subsequently went bankrupt owing to fundraising troubles and are presently allied with Dow AgroSciences.

Another financial disincentive for investors in UK genetic research is the amount of protest activity. Mason and his colleagues have not been directly targeted by anti-GM protestors, probably because they have distanced themselves from the GM foods debate by working solely on plant-based pharmaceuticals. Meanwhile, drug companies have not got off so lightly.

According to the Financial Times of 14 November 2000, "British drugs companies have been deterred from investing at home because of the growing protest movements against GM research and animal testing." In a front page article the Financial Times announced Nycomed-Amersham's intention of moving its genetic research to China and Brazil. Reasons given for the move are that the costs will be significantly less outside Europe and that GM protests can also be sidestepped.

Friends of the Earth believes that all GM initiatives must undergo thorough research in order to avoid contamination of the human food chain. In October 2000, the government Advisory Committee on Animal Feeding Stuffs revealed that alien genes may already be surviving the manufacturing process which turns GM crops into animal food. "The effect of GM foods on human safety is a big unknown," Adrian Bebb. He accuses MAFF of complacency and compares the situation to what happened with BSE. "It is appalling how GM foods have spread so far without sufficient research," he concludes.

If the GM protestors are fighting against the very principal of genetic engineering then their enemies are both GM medicines and GM foods. But if their concern is for human safety then plant-based vaccine research — such as that undertaken by Hugh Mason and his colleagues — could be presented as the model for GM food producers to follow.

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