Growing against the grain
A controversial rice has been field-tested by Ventria Bioscience has been genetically modified to produce synthetic human proteins, lactoferrin and lysozome.
Greenpeace calls it cannibal rice–a genetically engineered grain containing human proteins that poses health and environmental hazards–but the company developing this product calls it a lifesaving treatment; their company website refers to it as a Holy Grail.
Critics see it as an unholy alliance between plant and human DNA.
The controversial rice now being field-tested by Ventria Bioscience has been genetically modified to produce synthetic human proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme, found in human milk, tears, and saliva.
Ventria hopes to market the rice-extracted proteins in oral-rehydration solutions to treat diarrhea, which the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates is responsible for the deaths of two million children worldwide each year, most of whom are from developing countries. The company recently tested their product on a group of Peruvian children and is now petitioning the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the proteins as food additives under Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) regulations.
Ventria is also exploring the addition of their recombinant rice-human proteins to food bars, yogourts, and performance beverages, giving new meaning to the phrase, “You are what you eat.” You did know there are no regulations in Canada stipulating that food labels indicate the inclusion of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, right?
Human-protein GE rice is a type of plant-made pharmaceutical (PMP), or transgenic plant. In 2005 an estimated 500 PMPs were in clinical trials around the world.
Medicago, a Canadian firm, is growing synthetic hemoglobin using alfalfa; in Missouri, Chlorogen, Inc. is using tobacco to pharm a cholera vaccine; and in France, Meristem is pharming corn to produce gastric lipase (used in the treatment of cystic fibrosis).Vaccines, growth hormones, insulin, and blood substitutes are now being biopharmed using common food crops such as corn, soy, rice, potatoes, and canola. By 2004 there were 84 PMPs already on the market, with a value of approximately US$20 billion.
The market for biopharmaceuticals continues to grow as the pharmaceutical industry sees their vast economic potential; production costs are estimated to be four to five times lower than for drugs made by the animal cell-culture method. (There are also transgenic animals: sheep and rabbits grown for lipase (an enzyme), goats producing human growth hormone, and cattle being pharmed for factor VIII, a blood clotting agent).
All of this is above and beyond the crop of GMOs now produced to be pesticide-resistant, Roundup-ready, or terminator-seed generating.
Corn Popping Up–in Unexpected Places
More than 325 field trials for transgenic plants were approved in the US between 1991 and 2004. The biopharmaceutical industry tells us that these trials are perfectly safe and impeccably managed. This may be well and true, but it hasn’t prevented a series of containment lapses, in which the genie (or rather, the genes) got out of the box. For example:
Risks to the environment and to human health include the potential for contamination from transgenic plant pollen of food crops, including wild or organic strains. The effect on pollinators (bees), other insects, soil micro-organisms, and grazing wildlife (gophers, birds, moles, shrews, deer, etc.) is unknown. Critics have also raised concerns about human exposure to plants containing potent drugs or viruses.
A Solution in Search of a Problem
But what about those two million children whose deaths from diarrhea could be prevented, Ventria claims, by their GE oral-rehydration solution?
Funding for improving sanitation, drinking water, hygienic practices, and other preventive measures–known to be the most effective ways to reduce diarrhea-related mortality–should, says WHO, come first. Second, effective and inexpensive methods to treat diarrhea, using simple rehydration salts, already exist.
So, a GE alternative may be more lucrative for Big Pharma...but it’s no Holy Grail.