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A recent symposium on the legal and social implications of genetic
engineering held at Virginia Tech underscores the need for more public
debate about transgenic animal research and bio-pharming, December 2004 by
Benjamin K. Sovacool .
A common misconception is that most genetic engineering in the world
involves large Western corporations and their use of genetically modified
organisms, or GMO, in the production of big agriculture. Such a belief
obscures two important trends in the biotechnology industry concerning the
genetic manipulation of organisms.
First, a majority of the GMO in development are being designed for
industrial, rather than agricultural, purposes. Most biotechnology research
focuses on the creation of enzymes for industrial processes. Many companies
have started to genetically enhance trees to produce better paper, modify
oilseed rape to construct better detergents and lubricants, and use maize
and sugar to make bio-fuel and bio-plastics.
Second, a significant number of biotechnology firms are not traditionally
"Western." China already produces 7.2 million hectares of genetically
modified cotton, and almost a quarter of manufacturing in India involves the
use of GMO.
Moreover, the Australian government has begun using genetically modified
grass to make better golf courses, and New Zealand, Chile and Japan recently
used carrot genes to help produce pest-resistant pine trees that can
flourish in acidic soil.
One type of industrial biotechnology frequently overlooked in discussions
about the dangers of genetic engineering is bio-pharming, or the genetic
altering of plants and animals to produce pharmaceuticals. For example,
early in 2004 regulators at the European Medicines Agency agreed to consider
a new drug, ATryn, to treat hereditary antithrombin deficiency, a condition
that causes deep-vein thrombosis.
ATryn, manufactured by inserting a human gene for protein into a goat's egg
alongside a beta-caseine promoter, uses a therapeutic protein derived from
the milk of a transgenic goat. When extracted from the milk, the transgenic
protein is indistinguishable from the antithrombin produced in healthy
humans. This is not the only transgenic pharmaceutical under development.
Biotheraptuetics, the Framingham, Mass., firm responsible for producing
ATryn, has 65 other transgenic drugs in research and development.
The act of using transgenic animals to produce human proteins, antibodies
and hormones is rapidly becoming the new trend in industrial biotechnology.
Nexia, in Montreal, breeds transgenic goats to provide vaccines against
chemical weapons. TransOva, in Iowa, uses transgenic cows to produce
proteins capable of treating anthrax, the plague and smallpox. Pharming, a
company based in the Netherlands, uses rabbits to create therapeutic
proteins to fight Alzheimer's. Minos Biosystems, in Greece, is researching
the drug-making potential of fruit flies.
Yet such projects may be extremely irresponsible and dangerous. Ethically,
the use of transgenic animal research, by attempting to create a cheap, easy
and quick production line for needed pharmaceuticals, functionally turns
animals into "biofactories." Like slaughterhouses and chicken farms that use
massive industrial complexes to produce products, bio-pharming facilities
raise serious questions about animal welfare.
Medically, many types of transgenic research are commercially untested for
safety. Combining human and nonhuman proteins is believed to be responsible
for the creation of mad cow disease, which spreads through prions. One
researcher recently admitted to the Economist, "With goat and cow milk,
especially, I worry about the risk of animal viruses and prions being
transferred in some minute way." The chance of inadvertently creating new
strains of diseases is exceptionally high.
Environmentally, both Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists are
concerned that transgenic animals could substantially alter the genetic
composition of many other species. A transgenic animal could easily escape
into the wild, mate with an indigenous animal and contaminate the gene pool,
triggering all types of unintended consequences.
In reverse, an animal from the wild could find its way into one of the pens
where transgenic animals are located, make contact and then escape to expose
other animals in the wild.
Despite these concerns, the United States Food and Drug Administration has
issued more than 40 permits this year for bio-pharming field trials
involving the use of tomatoes, potatoes, alfalfa, maize, rice, lupin, rats,
goats and flies. The list of potential products is vast and includes human
albumin and hemoglobin, interferon and vaccines for hepatitis-B, anthrax,
cholera and dysentery.
The rapid rise of transgenic animal research suggests there is a growing
need for more balanced discussions about genetic research. Because many
people believe that human cloning and GMO agriculture represent significant
threats to human health and the welfare of the environment, other pressing
issues connected to genetic engineering are frequently disregarded.
Bio-pharming should be added as one of the important concerns being raised
by the advancement of GMO research, and should not proceed without intense
scrutiny, debate and regulation.
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