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US Scientists Warn of Dangers
of GE Animals

Panel Identifies Gene-Altered Animals' Risk
Report Notes Benefits, Oversight Needs

By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 21, 2002; Page A07


Genetic manipulation of animals poses serious risks to the environment
and potentially to human health, and federal efforts to manage those
risks are disorganized and probably inadequate, a panel of the National
Academy of Sciences said yesterday.

In a long-awaited report, the nation's premier scientific body identified
a slew of concerns relating to the biotechnology industry's efforts to clone
animals and to manipulate their genes. The escape of such animals into
the wild could alter species or even wipe them out, the report said, adding
that the introduction of gene-altered meat, milk or eggs into the food supply
could harm people unless managed carefully.

Despite those concerns, though, the report did not call for a wholesale rejection
of cloning or genetic manipulation. To the contrary, committee members noted
many potential benefits of animal biotechnology, including cheaper, more healthful
food and new drugs and medical treatments that could save human lives.

The report, which identified many of the theoretical risks and pointed toward
ways of minimizing them, is an effort by the nation's scientific establishment to
help regulators and the public catch up with a fast-moving technology.

A handful of cloned animals have already been transferred to American
farmsteads, and products derived from them or their offspring have been held
out of the food supply only because companies and farmers are complying
with informal government requests.

Companies have created animals that make human drugs in their milk, and
they are working on pigs whose hearts or livers could be transplanted into
human patients to replace failing organs. Thousands of other research projects
along these lines are underway.

Although the committee identified various risks to people from animal biotechnology,
those were generally perceived as mild to moderate, the report said. It called
for renewed efforts to be sure gene-altered foods don't create allergic reactions
that could sicken or kill people, for instance. And the committee said assiduous
efforts must be undertaken to be sure milk or eggs containing human drugs don't
wind up in the food supply.

On one of the most-discussed issues of the day -- whether meat or milk from
cloned animals and their offspring should be allowed into the food supply -- the
committee found almost no cause for alarm and said such food was highly likely
to be safe. It did call for studies to be sure such meat and milk don't differ
markedly from unaltered food.

The committee's most serious concerns were environmental, and they focused
particularly on genetically altered fish and insects, which can escape easily, are
highly mobile and can set up breeding populations in the wild. Fast-growing gene-
altered fish that escaped might easily outcompete wild cousins and drive them to
extinction, the committee said.

The committee cited insects as another example. Researchers are trying to create
a mosquito that can't transmit malaria to people, for instance. But the malaria parasite
helps hold mosquito populations in check, and replacing wild mosquitoes with malaria-
resistant strains might actually lead to more mosquitoes and greater transmission of
mosquito-borne ailments other than malaria, the committee noted.

This kind of research has provoked fear, controversy and, at times, wild investor
enthusiasm. Both sides in the debate over animal biotechnology welcomed the report
yesterday.

Skeptics of the technology said it confirmed some fears. "It certainly brings into
question the use of this technology in our food," said Matt Rand, campaign manager
for biotechnology at the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

Biotech advocates said the report showed that the potential problems, though real,
are not sufficient grounds to halt their research, and advocates predicted the report
would become the basis for new federal policies.

"There are stories floating around on the Web that we've got 500-pound fish that
are going to grow to the size of sharks and threaten children on the beach," said
Joseph McGonigle, vice president of Aqua Bounty Farms Inc., a Waltham, Mass.,
company that has drawn worldwide protests for its efforts to create fast-growing
salmon through genetic manipulation. "This is nice, for a change."

McGonigle acknowledged the salmon pose a theoretical risk, and said his company
hopes to deal with it by growing only gene-altered salmon that are sterile -- and thus
can't threaten wild Atlantic salmon populations, which are already endangered.

The National Academy of Sciences commissioned the report, from a panel of academic
experts, at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, one of the agencies on the
front lines of regulating the technology.

The report was originally scheduled for release today, but leaked a day early after
summaries were distributed on Capitol Hill.

John G. Vandenbergh, a professor of zoology at North Carolina State University in
Raleigh, noted that the committee, of which he was chairman, was asked only to identify
risks of animal biotechnology, not benefits. The view was widespread among committee
members that, in many cases, the risks are manageable and the benefits considerable, he
said.

"I think the whole committee feels that all the flowers that are blooming in the biotechnology
garden don't necessarily have to be picked," he said. "We have to be careful about which
ones we do pick."

The panel said federal agencies such as FDA and the Department of Agriculture are
stretching a patchwork of laws, written for other purposes, to try to stay on top of
biotechnology, and the panel expressed concern that these efforts, while well-intentioned,
remain fragmentary and inadequate.

"There is some validity to that," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for
Veterinary Medicine. "At least, the laws that we're operating under are not as explicit
as they could be in giving us the authority to regulate in this area."

 

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