Genetic engineering and biotechnology
(Ivanhoe Newswire) — The discovery of DNA in 1947 by James Watson and Francis Crick sparked a worldwide scientific revolution. In just 43 years there has been an explosion of knowledge and expertise in the fields of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Advocates believe that anything is within the realm of possibility, including new species, transgenic animals, customized babies and cloning human beings. Critics of this new technology say it is unethical, dangerous, and has the potential to disrupt the delicate ecological balance that supports life on earth.
WHAT ARE WE EATING?
Europeans call it GM food (genetically modified). In the US, it’s called genfood, and some radical critics call it “frankenfoods.” They are referring to genetically engineered or transgenic plants and animals. In this technology, a piece of a genetic material is removed from one organism and pasted into the DNA of another.
One of the first genetically engineered (GE) crops to be developed was insect-resistant corn; created by inserting the gene for Bt toxin, a natural insecticidal protein made by bacteria. As a result, fewer pesticides are needed because the Bt toxin kills many of the insects that prey on the corn plant. When this GE corn was safety tested in the laboratory, scientists found pollen from the modified plant could kill monarch butterflies.
Genetic engineering has been used to make plants more resistant to enemies such as insects, drought conditions and certain herbicides used to kill weeds in the field. About 60 percent of the corn grown in the United States has been genetically altered. (Pollack) Soybeans, tomatoes and cotton are some of the GE foods that are grown in the United States.
Scientists are also applying GE technology to create animals that grow faster, bigger, leaner and more productive. A Canadian biotechnology firm called A/F Protein has created genetically altered salmon and requested permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start marketing this product in the United States. Referred to as “frankenfish” by some critics, these fast growing salmon mature about twice as rapidly as conventional fish.
Most experts agree that the dangers of genetically engineered foods are largely unknown, primarily because there has been very little long-term testing. The FDA allows biotech foods to be sold in markets after just 2-3 weeks of analysis. Proponents acknowledge that GE foods may pose some health risk but believe science can control for any errors. Nevertheless, critics warn consumers about four known health dangers of genetically engineered foods:
Increased Toxins — Michael Hansen says, “Genetic engineering can increase the level of toxins already present in plants or could produce new toxins not previously known to be in the plant.”
Allergens — The toxins produced in genetically altered plants can be allergenic. For example, in 1996 Pioneer Hi-Bred infused soybeans with genes from Brazil nuts to create a more nutritious product. People allergic to these nuts had an adverse reaction when they ate the altered soybeans, proving that allergens can be transferred along with genes.
Antibiotic Resistance — In the process of moving genes from one plant to another, scientists attach markers to help them identify which cells have taken up the added DNA. These markers are antibiotic resistant, so they will survive when antibiotic is added to the cell’s environment. Experts are concerned that antibiotic resistance can be transferred to animals and humans who eat these genetically altered plants. Although the risk appears to be very small, The British Medical Association has announced that they are officially against the use of these antibiotic resistant markers.
Change in Nutrients — Since the process of genetic engineering is not precise, there is a possibility of changing the nutrient levels in plants.
CAN WE DECREASE WORLD HUNGER?
Safe and cost-effective methods for developing GE foods could help to feed more of the 800 million people in the world who are malnourished. However, most experts on both sides of the issue agree that the problem of hunger, especially in developing countries, is not exclusively a food supply issue. Instead, it is a problem of poverty, inequality, and food distribution. Michael Hansen, from the Consumer Policy Institute, says there actually is enough food to feed many of the people who go hungry each day. The problem is they do not have money to buy the food, and in some cases, do not have access to a market. “Genetically engineered foods are not going to solve the problems of poverty and inequality in developing nations,” says Charles Margulis from Greenpeace.
On the other hand, advocates believe biotechnology will put more food on tables in developing countries. Dr. CS Prakash, from Agbioworld, says GE could help with food productivity and improve nutritional status in the third world. For example, AstraZeneca PLC, a pharmaceutical company, has developed “golden rice” — rice that is enriched with Vitamin A. Manufacturers hope the fortified rice will be distributed to needy farmers in Asia and that it will help to prevent cases of blindness caused by a diet deficient in Vitamin A.
In the past decade the FDA was forced to examine its policy on regulating GE foods. The FDA unveiled new regulations in 1992, saying that GE is an extension of conventional breeding and therefore does not require pre-market safety testing. By 1998, this became an issue of trade, as well as an economics, because the European Union would not accept genetically altered crops from the United States.
In the fall of 1999, the FDA held a series of public meetings to discuss the policy. A public comment period followed. About 35,000 comments were reviewed before the proposal was announced on May 3, 2000. This proposed rule requires the manufacturers of GE foods to notify the FDA 120 days prior to placing a modified product on the market. (8) Officials plan to unveil a federal register notice in the late fall of 2000, followed by a 90-day public comment period. After the comments are reviewed, the new FDA rules will be finalized.
Despite great encouragement to do so, the FDA will not require GE foods to be labeled. According to an FDA public affairs specialist, the organization does not have scientific or legal basis to mandate labeling for GE products. Instead, they agreed to provide guidance for those manufacturers who want to voluntarily label their products.
CS Prakash supports this ruling and says “The FDA took a sensible, science-based approach to genetic engineering. There is no indication that GE foods have harmed Americans. The FDA is involved only when the nutritional value of foods is changed.” Charles Margulis disagrees and says, “FDA is on the side of the biotech industry and makes it as easy as possible for them to get untested products onto the market.”
Charles Margulis, from Greenpeace, believes the FDA announcement is bad for consumers and that it lets manufacturers off the hook. Foods labeled “no GE ingredients” will be scrutinized and subjected to rigorous government testing. He says, “The FDA is making it as difficult as possible for companies to tell consumers that their products are no different than before. It’s an Alice in Wonderland type of situation.”
FUTURE OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS
Consumer pressure on the biotech industry continues to build as Americans become more knowledgeable about GE foods. Michael Hansen believes the future of GE will depend on the public response. He points out that several large U.S. companies have either stopped or refused to use GE crops. For Example, McCains and Frito Lay have stopped using GE corn and potatoes, Gerber and Heinz have stopped using GE produce in baby foods, and McDonalds will not use GE potatoes for french fries. Hansen hopes to see mandatory safety testing, regulations and labeling of GE foods.
Proponents say biotech foods have the potential to make a tremendous impact on food quality and supply. Experts agree we will likely see more foods that have medicinal properties, providing consumers with vaccines and drugs. For example, researchers at Boyce Thompson Plant Research Center at Cornell University have developed a banana that contains the hepatitis B vaccine.
Supporters fear the FDA will place too many roadblocks in front of the technology, thereby impeding progress. However, critics worry that GE could cause serious ecological damage due to uncontrolled reproduction between traditional and genetically engineered species. Plants that are modified to produce vaccines, drugs or chemicals are not regulated. Many experts are asking the question of what to do with the plant after it has served its purpose.
A NEW SPECIES
In 1980, the Supreme Court determined that life forms could be patented. Seven years after that decision, the first genetically engineered mouse was patented. Since then 79 other animal patents have been awarded. Life patenting and new techniques of genetic engineering promise to make biotechnology a $20 to $30 billion industry within this decade.
Nature protects the integrity of species by making reproduction among different animals impossible. Scientists have found a way to defy these laws of nature and create new species combinations. In 1984, an English scientist announced the creation of an animal called a Geep. This creature was produced when cells from sheep and goat embryos were combined and placed in a surrogate animal. The resulting chimera shared physical characteristics of both the sheep and goat.
In 1998, Stuart Newman, Ph.D., a scientist at the New York Medical Center, and Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation for Economic Trends, applied for a patent on a human-animal creature not because they had created one but because they hoped to keep other scientists from creating what they call “the inevitable.”
While the human-animal chimera does not exist yet, scientists have been putting human genes into animals for the sake of medical research for years. Dr. Newman says that the benefit of this technology is that medical research can be done without human experimentation. For example, Philip Leder, Chairman of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School received a patent on a newly developed life form called the oncomouse, a mouse genetically altered with human DNA to make it susceptible to cancer. Using this mouse, Dr Leder believes that he can create animal models to study different types of cancer.
Opponents of this technology caution that animal welfare is at risk, causing damage to the animal’s biology and unnecessary suffering. In the early 1980’s Dr. Vernon Pursel from the USDA put human growth hormone into pigs to create a leaner, faster growing, more efficient animal. The genetically modified pigs were actually lethargic, arthritic, cross-eyed, and infertile. The USDA maintained that these pigs were very lean, and thus the meat was lower in cholesterol.
While the human-animal chimera does not yet exist, scientists have been putting human genes into animals for the sake of medical research for years. Newman says the benefit of this technology is that medical research can be done without human experimentation. For example, Philip Leder, Chairman of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, received a patent on a newly developed life form called the oncomouse, a mouse genetically altered with human DNA to make it susceptible to cancer. Using this mouse, Dr. Leder believes he can create animal models to study different types of cancer.
Opponents of this technology caution that animal welfare is at risk, causing damage to the animal’s biology and unnecessary suffering. In the early 1980s, Dr. Vernon Pursel, from the USDA, put human growth hormone into pigs to create a leaner, faster-growing, more efficient animal. The genetically modified pigs were actually lethargic, arthritic, cross-eyed and infertile. The USDA maintained these pigs were very lean, and thus the meat was lower in cholesterol.
Andrew Kimbrell, a lawyer and policy director for the Foundation on Economic Trends, is highly critical of transgenic animals engineered to contain the genetic material of humans or other animals. Newman has additional concerns about the potential for environmental disruption caused by introducing a new species of animal into the world. He says, “Every organism in nature has co-evolved with one another. When a new species is introduced, it can only reproduce with its own kind.”
CREATING THE SUPERHUMAN
One day, scientists may be able to make a customized baby, but they are a long way from offering this option to parents. According to Roger Gosden, M.D., author of “Designing Babies: The Brave New World of Reproductive Technology,” “Gender selection is a possibility, and prenatal diagnosis already provides parents with choices, but we don’t yet know which genes carry the DNA that codes for characteristics of IQ, beauty, etc. ”
According to experts at the Human Genome Project, all human DNA will be mapped out by the year 2003. Alan E. Guttmacher, senior clinical advisor to the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, says within a few years it will be possible to collect patient’s DNA from cells taken from inside the cheek and put that sample on a microchip where it will be analyzed for the 50 most common genetic variations that predispose people to numerous diseases.
The potential uses of this technology are vast, but experts believe it will be kept in check by ethical and moral opposition. (18) Critics call eugenics, the science of changing the hereditary makeup of the human race through selective breeding, “playing God.” Andrew Kimbrell, of the Foundation for Economic Trends, vehemently opposes the use of eugenics in humans, especially using this technology to change physical appearance. The notion of eugenics is particularly horrifying to Europeans who witnessed Hitler and the Nazi’s attempt to achieve ethnic cleansing during World War II.
One positive outcome of eugenics would be the ability to screen embryos for fatal genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis and use gene transfer technology (also called gene therapy) to cure the disease. Gene therapy is the treatment of diseases by repairing the defective genetic material. It does not change the genetic makeup of an organism. Dr. Charles Link, director of the Human Gene Therapy Research Institute, says, “My expectation is that gene therapy is going to have an enormous impact on how medicine is done in the future, not only to find new cures, but also to find safer treatments than we currently have.”
Results of the first successful treatment using this technology were published in the April 28, 2000, issue of Science. Doctors at the Cell and Gene Therapy Laboratory in Paris used gene therapy to treat severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare X-linked genetic disorder also known as “boy in the bubble” disease. Children with SCID must live in a completely sterile environment (a plastic bubble) because their weakened immune system makes them susceptible to all germs. Researchers gave two infants a normal copy of the defective gene responsible for the disease. After a year of follow-up, both boys’ immune systems are fully functioning, and doctors believe that they are cured.
Critics of gene therapy warn about the risks of inserting genes into the wrong place on the genome, killing the cells outright, or triggering cancer. Some experts also fear that by eliminating the genes that cause disease, protective genetic material may also be removed. For example, scientists discovered that along with the genes for sickle cell anemia comes a trait that protects against the deadly disease malaria. Thomas Murray, Ph.D., a member of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, cautions: “We are moving too rapidly from basic concepts toward human trials. Scientists must spend more time on basic research and not rush to try the technology on people, or there could be tragic results.”
Tragic results are what Dr. Jeffrey M. Eisner, a cardiologist and researcher at Tufts University in Boston, is dealing with. Dr. Eisner has been testing the use of gene therapy in heart disease. His experiments involved injecting the gene that makes vascular endothelial growth factor into patients’ hearts in an attempt to grow new blood vessels around blocked heart and leg arteries. Two of Dr. Eisner’s patients died following treatment, and he is accused of failing to follow key patient safeguards and of improperly reporting the death of a patient. In February 2000, Dr. Eisner’s research was halted, and the FDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are reviewing his work. Further complicating the situation is Eisner’s partial ownership of Vascular Genetics, the company funding his research.
In July 1996, Dr Ian Wilmut from Scotland successfully cloned a sheep named Dolly. But success was achieved only after 276 failures. Since then, mice and cows have been cloned. The next obvious question being asked by both scientists and ethicists is when will we have the ability to clone humans?
According to Jeffrey Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H., from the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, “It is feasible that the use of this technology will happen in my lifetime, but it is hard for me to find a good reason to create an identical copy of a human being.” One person who does see a good reason is Dr. Richard Seed, a physicist from Chicago. He is the first scientist in the United States to announce his intention to clone humans. Dr. Seed wants to open a chain of for-profit fertility clinics in which he will clone babies for infertile couples.
The moral and ethical objection to cloning humans is that scientists are playing God. Many believe that cloning (also called germ line gene therapy) should be prohibited because it endangers future generations, and the risk/benefit ratio is too heavily weighted on the side of risk. For this reason, 23 countries have signed a Council of Europe convention on human rights and biomedicine that bans eugenics. Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration promise not to give the go ahead without much public deliberation.
Those in favor of human cloning say it can relieve suffering and prevent death from cancer, cardiovascular disease and many other deadly illnesses. Additionally, cloning could allow infertile couples to have children. Dr. Kahn believes that the potential benefits of cloning lie in the ability to clone and grow a genetically identical human organ for transplant.
ANIMALS HELPING HUMANS
It is possible to breed genetically similar animals, clone their organs, and transplant them into humans (called xenotransplantation). In 1996 the FDA issued a set of xenotransplant guidelines that allow animal-to-human transplants. Dr. Kahn explains that a pig’s organs are similar in size to humans, so their livers could be used to replace a person’s diseased liver. Nextran, a biotech company, is in phase I clinical trials to test the efficacy of using a transgenic pig liver outside the body to help treat patients with liver failure while they wait for a human donor. This raises both animal rights issues and public health issues. According to Dr. Thomas Murray, transplanted organs from animals could bring retroviruses into the immuno-suppresed human body, creating a new deadly disease.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The debate over genetic engineering continues to intensify as scientists use this technology to improve agriculture, medicine and zoology. Future generations will both reap the benefits and suffer the ecological consequences of biotechnology. Global warming, for example, teaches us that technology can endanger the natural balance of life on earth. Therefore, scientists must figure out a way to make progress while protecting the earth’s integrity.
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