Genetically modified leaven

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Advances in technology can bring significant medical or agricultural benefits but they are also exploited for commercial gain sometimes with a disregard to any negative impact they may have. In general the introduction of new drugs has benefited human health. The early 1900s witnessed many great advances in chemical therapy. Ehrlich developed a treatment for syphilis in 1907; Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin in 1920; Domagk found that sulphanilamide could cure septicaemia in 1932. Life expectancy has improved as a consequence of these drugs, in 1935 there were 3,690 deaths in Britain from scarlet fever and diptheria compared to just one death in 1970. Thalidomide was introduced hot on the heels of these discoveries when huge profits could be made from a new drug. Especially in Britain were there was very little regulation of pharmaceuticals.

Ironically, because of extensive screening and restrictions now in place to prevent a reoccurrence of an episode like the thalidomide tragedy, it has become increasingly difficult to bring new drugs on to the market. Therefore, re-evaluating harmful or ineffective drugs for other uses has become an ever increasing trend with pharmaceutical companies. The mechanism behind the teratogenicity of thalidomide has still not been established yet this drug is currently being researched as a possible therapeutic agent for other diseases, such as cancer. Celegene are currently remarketing thalidomide to treat the symptoms of leprosy. It is also effective in the treatment of some myeloma. In the documentation they produce to promote the drug, ‘Thalomid (thalidomide): Balancing the benefits and the risks’, they admit that birth defects still occur in countries where controls and monitoring plans have been inadequate. This brings about another form of controversy, where there is tension between the victim of a disease and a social goal to obliterate thalidomide. The Sunday Times article that the High Court tried to ban ended with this emotional statement:

Many of the main characters who figured in this narrative are now in other employment, thalidomide is only a painful memory. Of the original cast of the tragedy only the victims still occupy the stage.

Thalidomide still retains the ability to promote controversy and to raise issues by the public concerned with the morality of scientists under the influence of commercial gain.

So metaphorically speaking, whose leaven should modern society now be aware of? There are a number of candidates that can permeate a corruptive influence in science, including the media, researchers, commercial companies (pharmaceutical, agricultural), academics, and politicians. The majority of science is fairly mundane and straightforward occurring without grabbing news headlines but occasionally something attracts media attention and becomes headline news. On several occasions in the past, trust in science has been challenged by controversy.

The introduction of genetically manipulated or modified (GM) products into the environment before all research has been effectively collated and publicly distributed, can manifest into controversy. The public may be justifiably cautious of GM food, if there is no benefit in eating it why take a risk? An experiment that is restricted to a laboratory can be controlled and environmental conditions can be manipulated. Once the experiment leaves this controlled confinement of a laboratory it is at the mercy of a number of influencing and unpredictable factors, including commercial profit. It was exactly these factors, combined with the lack of governmental policy, that contributed to thalidomide entering the marketplace.

Following the impact of the BSE crisis, Britain is very cautious about the introduction of GM crops. In the United States GM crops are fairly prevalent, accounting for over 90% of all soybean and rapeseed production. Mostly GM crops are resistant to glyphosate herbicides but there are also GM pest resistant crops. In the US 90% of cotton production is GM for pest resistance. In 2010, 10% of the worlds crop production was GM most of which is grown in the US. Invariably, most of us are unwittingly eating some form of GM food.

Peanut plant containing a bacterial pesticide gene. Lesser cornstalk borer larvae damage the leaves of the unmodified peanut plant (top) but die on the GM plant (bottom). Image: Herb Pilcher

In food production, GM yeasts are available for wine production and in baking. In the UK two products have been approved for commercial use. One in baking to reduce leavening time and the other in  brewing to produce low calorie beer. No GM yeast are currently in use in EU countries. In the US and Canada a GM yeast called ML01 is used to improve taste and colour of wine and to reduce the production of histamines. Additionally, a GM yeast that has been produced to reduce the production of ethylcarbamate, a compound that has carcinogenic properties, has been labelled generally recognised as safe for use in the US. Mostly GM yeasts have non-food usage,they are grown in controlled environments to produce pharmaceticals, chemical compounds and enzymes. They are also increasingly being developed to produce biofuels.

Very little research has been carried out on the safety of consuming GM products. The consequence of eating pesticide containing GM crops, such as maize, is largely unknown. Perhaps scientists are wary about publishing research because they face being academically ostracised.  In 1998, researcher Árpád Pusztai reported changes in the intestines of rats who had eaten a GM potato containing snowdrop lectin, to confer pest resistance. Other scientists argued that there were insufficient controls to determine that the toxin and not the potatoes were detrimental to the rats. As a consequence of his research, Puszatai was suspended from his post and his contract was not renewed. This incident,  known as the Pusztai affair, highlights the extent at which scientists and their research are influenced by corruptive factors.