Splicing Drugs Into Plants-Dangers of GE Pharming

Splicing Drugs Into Plants-Dangers
of GE Pharming

Inter Press Service

By Katherine Stapp


Edible vaccines and spermicide made from plants that contain human genes
could someday save lives and help prevent overpopulation, but watchdog
groups are worried about the repercussions if genetic material from these
crops gets loose in the food chain.

Animals like mice and gerbils typically have been used to produce human
antibodies -- proteins that fight disease -- but the refining process in
vats called "bioreactors" is still expensive and inefficient, and is
vulnerable to viral and bacterial contamination.

Some scientists see greater promise in plants, which are not affected by
human diseases and could produce antibodies at costs up to 100 times less
than traditional cell fermentation.

Several companies are growing crops that have been engineered to produce
human antibodies to diseases like Hepatitis B and malaria -- or even to
sperm, in what the press has dubbed "contraceptive corn." The San
Diego-based company Epicyte hopes to begin clinical trials of a topical
spermicide made from genetically modified (GMO) corn this year. It currently
has one crop growing in a greenhouse in Indiana and a second stage is
planned in Hawaii, said Sandy Strauss, Epicyte's spokesperson.

"We're following all the (federal) guidelines," Strauss said. "The chance is
almost nil (that there would be inadvertent cross- pollination), but I can't
say 100 percent, because one never knows."

This is exactly what makes environmental groups like Greenpeace nervous.
"There has been reportage of widespread contamination (by GMO crops) in
Mexico and that was something that was predicted could never happen -- and
it's happened to a rather extreme degree," said Craig Culp, the GMO media
coordinator for Greenpeace.

The contraceptive corn is not yet in open field trials, which is usually the
point at which Greenpeace actively opposes such experimental research. Last
September, the group staged a protest in California, where a company was
growing rice outdoors that had been spliced with human genes. Greenpeace
says some 20 companies worldwide are engaged in this kind of "pharming."
"We are very much aware of this," Culp said of the contraceptive corn. "It's
a pretty terrifying scenario that this could get into regular corn and end
up in someone's cornflakes."

"Open field trials are inherently a danger to the natural environment.
Buffer zones (a barrier of regular crops surrounding the GM crops) are
absolutely insufficient," he added. "Even if they're miles wide, there's
simply no way to contain it; genetic material can be carried by the wind,
pollen, insects, seed matter, animal faeces and birds. There are lots of
ways this genetic material can escape contained zones."
The technology, termed "plantibodies" by Epicyte, has a long way to go
before hitting the market. Some experts caution it is too early to judge its
usefulness or the hazards it may present.

"Biotech has changed the way we think about plants," said Michael Rodemeyer,
executive director of the Washington-based Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology, an independent research group that takes a neutral position
on biotechnology.

"Corn is a wonderful protein factory that could be of value for
pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and industrial applications," Rodemeyer said.
"Plants are a renewable resource, with environmental and energy advantages.
This technology may offer a way to do things that couldn't be done

Still, he said, "as we've seen with the Starlink case, there are concerns
that genetic traits could drift to other organisms."

In 2000, a brand of GMO corn known as Starlink that had only been approved
for animal feed somehow found its way into numerous food products in the
United States, including taco shells and tortilla chips. Allegations that
Starlink caused allergic reactions in some people prompted more than 300
product recalls and raised questions about the efficacy of government
regulation of GMO products.

"The question is how do we make sure that the (GMO) versions - -
particularly for non-food uses -- do not get into the food crops, and that's
something the regulatory agencies here are looking at," Rodemeyer said.
Gene Laos, the chief executive of a Texas-based company called Prodigene
that is experimenting with plant-based vaccines, said its cost-effectiveness
could be a boon for poorer countries.

"It will definitely benefit the underdeveloped countries, since the carrier
for the antigen would be a seed," he said. "Although edible vaccines have to
be administered by a doctor, other factors -- transportation, refrigeration
-- are negated for poor countries, as well as the cost of needles and
other supplies."

"We've had a vaccine stored in a corn seed for five years without
degradation," he added.

Prodigene has two products about to go into clinical trials -- a hepatitis B
vaccine and one that fights the bacteria known as e. coli.

Ultimately, Rodemeyer said, "it's hard to make predictions (about how
beneficial this technology could be for the developing world). What's
important is do it in a safe, effective and affordable way."

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