GENEWATCH
 
WISHING FOR WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE
By Robin Nixon
 

This spring, 450 acres of Kansas will be planted with rice that has been modified to contain human genes. It will look much like any normal field of rice, but the biotechnological innovation within each stalk is being sold as if it were magic from the Land of Oz.

Essentially, the Kansas field will be a factory. The machinery is the rice plant itself. The inputs are human genes. The outputs are human proteins - lactoferrin and lysozyme - normally found in breast milk and other secretions, such as tears. These proteins have antibiotic properties. Lactoferrin, with its ability to suppress inflammation and boost immune system activity, is being touted for its possible ability to treat everything from multiple sclerosis and arthritis to septic shock. Lysozyme is an adept and discriminating bacteria killer; it kills bad bacteria while leaving helpful strains, like acidophilus, alone.1

While both these proteins are found in foods already in many adults' diets (lactoferrin in cow's milk, lysozyme in egg white), the concentrations are not as high as in breast milk, and thus are not as potent for human consumers or drug developers.2 Therefore, if these proteins could be manufactured cheaply and ethically, they would be highly desirable as medicinal and nutritional supplements.

Advances in biotechnology have made the manufacture of these proteins possible, and Ventria Bioscience is ready to start production. The California-based biotech firm has received FDA approval to begin "pharming" its genetically engineered rice - this type of mass production is more commercially viable than standard production methods, which harness the abilities of bacteria, yeast and cultured mammalian cells. Unlike most other genetically engineered crops, this rice is not for direct consumption by humans or livestock. It has not been modified to simply be heartier or more resistant to pests. Rather, it is the means to produce and store proteins for use in other product --- products in which the administration and dosage often need to be watched and controlled.3,4

For this and other reasons (primarily, the lack of knowledge about what the unintended consequences of introducing these transgenes may be), there is concern about this rice being planted in open fields. Ventria claims that its use of a self-pollinating plant, instead of a cross-pollinator like corn, creates a safe, "closed" system. However, self-pollinators actually cross-pollinate about 5% of the time. Rice does so via wind.5,6 And, according to the National Weather Service, there were 92 tornadoes in Kansas in 2006; in 2005, there were 135.

Even if cross-pollination does not occur (currently no edible rice crops are grown in Kansas, although pollen could possibly reach surrounding states), the threat or fear of cross-pollination could do incredible damage to any economy in which pharmaceutical-producing plants are grown, due to global distrust of genetically modified organisms. This April, in comments submitted to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the USA Rice Federation said that if foreign markets became spooked, "the financial devastation to the U.S. rice industry would likely be absolute."7

To prevent such a "spooking", the public would need to be adequately informed on the true risks and benefits of Ventria's pharma products. Unfortunately, nobody knows what these will be. Long-term studies and clinical trials were not necessary for Ventria's pharma rice to be granted FDA's Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status.8 This lack of knowledge needs to be addressed.

In the meantime, fields of pharma crops should be regulated like any factory producing drugs. Why not use greenhouses and other means, such as a color marker coupled to gene expression, to further lessen risks of possible cross-pollination and safeguard against human error?

DRUGS FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD

Even if these precautions were put into place, a larger problem would remain in the current marketing of these supplements.

Ventria plans to use the extracted proteins to fortify granola, yogurt and oral rehydration salts. The latter is, at this time, their primary medicinal purpose. Fortified rehydration salts are being advertised as a way to decrease the nearly 2 million yearly childhood deaths caused by diarrhea.9 On March 6, BBC television showed images of African children in a hospital to showcase potential beneficiaries of Ventria's new product.

Ventria's own study, conducted in Peru, showed that Ventria's fortified rehydration salts shortened the duration of childhood bouts of diarrhea by an average of one and a half days, with the implication that this would allow children to return to school a full day earlier than if they had taken a standard electrolyte solution.10 Of course, that is only if they are affluent enough to be attending school in the first place. (In 2005, only 55% of Peruvian boys would make it through both primary and secondary school.11)

Another study, conducted in Pakistan was able to divide the total number of sick days a child experienced, potentially over his or her entire lifetime, in half. The solution was not lysozyme or lactoferrin; it was being taught to wash one's hands with soap.12

Nnimmo Bassey, speaking for Friends of the Earth Africa, describes the Ventria pharma product as "unproven, unnecessary and a distraction" from other programs aimed at solving childhood diseases. "[We] do not need genetically modified solutions to diarrhea and condemn the use of African children as a tool to promote the new GM rice," she said.13

Diarrhea is not a mysterious illness. The causes have been long known and there are proven ways to prevent it. The World Health Organization lists effective solutions that have worked for many decades in scores of countries: access to clean water; sanitary living conditions; adequate and diverse nutritional sources; good hygiene habits.

While recurring illnesses like diarrhea exacerbate poverty, they are often a result of poverty as well. In affluent countries, a child rarely needs medical treatment to recover from a case of diarrhea. In the developing world, however, an attack of childhood diarrhea can easily prove fatal.

Should a family, with already limited resources, be encouraged to buy lysozyme supplements or to buy a hen? The hen's eggs contain lysozyme, protein, Vitamin A and can also be used to augment a family's income. Both battle diarrhea. The former has farreaching positive side effects; the side effects of the latter are unknown.

Mis-educating parents, politicians and the general public about the true benefits of this product is dangerous. Will these touted solutions distract from the treatments of underlying causes? Will they divert funding from organizations trying to battle these conditions with more effective and sustainable initiatives, like education and water sanitation? Similar to advertising that once implied baby formula was better than breast milk, although it left babies malnourished and mothers in greater poverty, the ill effects of over-praising genetically engineered supplements can lead to future ill effects.14

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, the titular wizard shows those seeking magical solutions that their true desires have already been met by more conventional means. The Lion is courageous, the Scarecrow is smart and Dorothy is already home. And indeed, the Tin-men of the developed world do have hearts and care about those suffering from poverty and poverty-related illnesses. The ability to reduce this suffering, especially in regards to diarrhea, has exist ed for a long time. It does not require ruby slippers or new supplements flown to Africa, in a hot air balloon or otherwise. It requires raising public understanding of the situation by means of a vigorous application of the tools and knowledge already available.

Robin Nixon was a doctoral candidate in Neuroscience at New York University and earned a degree in Neurobiology from Columbia University. After years in the developing world, she is now involved in a journalism program at Harvard University.

 

REFERENCES

1. J. J. Rehmeyer, "Milk Therapy; Breast-milk compounds could be a tonic for adult ills," Science News Online, December 9, 2006.

2. Ibid.

3. EMBO Viewpoint, "Molecular farming for new drugs and vaccines; Current perspectives on the production of pharmaceuticals in transgenic plant," The European Union Framework 6 Pharma-Planta Consortium, European Molecular Biology Organization, Vol 6, No 7, 2005.

4. J. K. Ma et al., "Plant-derived pharmaceuticals-the road forward," Trends Plant Science, Vol. 10, Number 12, December 2005.

5. Z. Song, B.R. Lu, J. Chen, "Pollen flow of cultivated rice measured under experimental conditions," Biodiversity and Conservation, 2004.

6. B. Lu, Z. Song, J. Chen, "Can transgenic rice cause ecological risks through transgene escape?" Progress in Natural Science, 2003

7. S. Hananel, "Rice industry rejects bioscience plan," Associated Press, March 31, 2007.

8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), December 2004.

9. D. Bethell, "Lactiva and Lysomin: Helping to Save Lives By Improving Oral Rehydration Solution - Making Innovative Diarrhea Management Accessible," International Academy of Life Sciences, 2007.

10. N. Zavaleta, D. Figueroa, J. Rivera, J. Sanchez , S. Alfaro, B. Lonnerdal, "Efficacy of rice-based oral rehydration solution containing recombinant human lactoferrin and lysozyme in Peruvian children with acute diarrhea," J. Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 44(2): 258-64, Feb 2007.

11. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), including the Education for All 2000 Assessment, 2005.

12. Stephen P. Luby, MD; Mubina Agboatwalla, MBBS; John Painter, DVM; Arshad Altaf, MBBS, MPH; Ward L. Billhimer, MS; Robert M. Hoekstra, PhD, "Effect of Intensive Handwashing Promotion on Childhood Diarrhea in High-Risk Communities in Pakistan; A Randomized Controlled Trial," JAMA, 291:2547-2554, 2004.

13. N. Bassey, "Africa: Does Africa Need a Genetically Modified Solution to Diarrhea?" Fahamu (Oxford), March 15, 2007.

14. Joint W.H.O./UNICEF Meeting on Infant and Young Child Feeding: Statement, Recommendations, and List of Participants, art. 8,1979.

 
 
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