Working Group on Genetics and Biotechnology

This has been an active year in the area of this group and I will attempt only to summarize important developments. For those with a desire for more information I recommend two websites:

1) The Institute of Science in Society** (ISIS) managed by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, who, with her colleagues Professor Joe Cummins of UWO and Dr Angela Ryan, provides regular and incisive analysis of a wide range of issues including: genetic modification and its hazards, genetically modified plants and their problems, cloning, stem cells and gene therapy. Their website is found at http://www.i-sis.org/

2) The Center for Genetics and Society is a nonprofit information and public affairs organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies. It works with a growing network of scientists, health professionals, civil society leaders and others. The Center supports benign and beneficent medical applications of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies and opposes those applications that objectify and commodify human life and threaten to divide human society. The Center works in a context of support for the equitable provision of health technologies domestically and internationally, for women’s health and reproductive rights, for the protection of our children, for the rights of the disabled and for precaution in the use of technologies that could alter the fundamental processes of the natural world. Its website is found at http://www.genetics-and-society.org/

Good News About GM plants

In Europe it appears that GM-plants will not be allowed because of new rules which require a full environmental assessment, consultation with all interested parties, compulsory monitoring during all stages of their testing and event specific molecular data [ analysis to show the exact molecular changes] for unique identification of the GM line. The last requirement also includes required proof that the GM plant line is genetically uniform and stable. Such data do not exist for any GM line, with the few analyses carried out showing that they are not stable. Since compulsory labelling is apparently going to be required with the threshold of less than or equal to1% GM material in food to avoid labelling, this will preclude most food derived from N. America. One consequence of this is that likely the export of GM food from N. America will be excluded and the problems of GM growers will be compounded.

In related news, Africa is still battling to keep out GM seeds and foods. The situation in Asia is varied, with some countries embracing and some rejecting GM seeds and food. However, most wheat buyers in Asia are refusing to buy GM wheat. A great deal will depend upon the decisions made in China and India, both of which have invested heavily in biotech research and startups, with India also importing capital from AstraZeneca.. However, Indian sources have reported massive failures of GM (with Bt toxins) cotton crops, often owing to attacks by the bollworm which is supposed to be controlled by the Bt toxins in the plants. China appears to be developing GM plants such as rice. The extent to which they are already in production is not known to me.

Bad News About GM plants

In N. America, including Canada as well as in Australia, the proponents of GM plants still have the political clout to prevent mandatory labelling. If the FTAA goes ahead, all of the Western Hemisphere is likely to be exposed to GM plants and seeds. However, the recent elections of a social democratic government in Brazil strongly opposed to free marketism may prevent any further progress on the FTAA. Canadians need to keep pressuring the Canadian government to adopt the precautionary principle with regard to these foods and to require compulsory labelling.

The aggressive campaign of Monsanto to sue Canadian and US farmers, whose fields become contaminated by their GM crops such as canola, needs to be fought politically as well as legally. Organic farmers are now suing Monsanto for contamination of their fields with GM seeds. In November 2001, evidence was reported that maize landraces growing in remote regions of Mexico (where maize originated and containing the plant precursors of modern maize) were already contaminated with transgenic material.

Other important issues include the growing evidence that horizontal gene transfers (such as for herbicide resistance in weeds that the herbicide is intended to kill and for antibiotic resistance in the gastrointestinal bacteria of animals that eat the GM plants with genes for antibiotic resistance) do occur. Multi-herbicide tolerant plants such as GM canola in Canada, and Round-up Ready® resistant superweeds have begun to plague GM soya and cotton fields in the US. It appears possible that within a decade or less, GM plants will be recognized as a scientific as well as an economic failure. It is finally gradually being accepted that animals which acquire intestinal bacteria with antibiotic resistance by eating feed with low levels of antibiotics [used in large less sanitary commercial operations to enhance growth by preventing diarrhea and other diseases, but providing selection pressure for the development of antibiotic resistance] make a significant contribution to antibiotic resistance of bacteria which affect humans, this problem needs attention. Of course, the usual responses from politicians and their corporate partners will be: “phasing out antibiotics from animal feeds and eliminating antibiotic resistance genes inserted to identify GM plants will increase costs and prices and will cause damage o the economy”. Proof that their will be overall benefit to human health will not be considered sufficient. (See ISIS, Nov.13, 2002 & links on horizontal gene transfer)

A related issue is the patenting of genes and genomic components and the upholding of these patents applied broadly by the US and Canadian courts. I will leave this major and complex issue for a later commentary. However, See ISIS-TWN Report Feb. 2001, “Why Biotech Patents are Patently Absurd-Scientific Briefing on TRIPS and Related Issues.”

Gene Therapy

Those genetic determinists and reductionists who have touted the ability of gene insertions and replacements to solve human health problems have had no success to date in attempts to use their therapies. Indeed their “therapeutic” trials have resulted in illness and death. In 1999, a healthy teenager dies in a gene transfer trial at the University of Pennsylvania, in which subsequent public enquiry revealed multiple, unreported adverse events as well as conflicts of interest on the part of those conducting the trials. The viral vector used in this trial was one, adenovirus related ones, have been shown repeatedly to induce immunological deficiencies in humans and in the case of the fatality to be integrated at multiple sites rather than just in the liver. (See ISIS Report, Sept. 20, 2001)

The only reported success was by a French team at Necker Hospital in Paris, who treated children with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a genetic disease thought to be caused by a mutated gene in the X chromosome. These children were given their own bone marrow cells which had been removed and given a vector with a copy of the normal gene before returning them to the donor. Since the vector with the normal gene was given outside the body, the risks of aberrant integration in the genome of other cells were minimized. However, recently one of the children developed leukemia, subsequently shown to be caused by an aberrant location of the inserted gene in chromosome 11. Thus, there are no gene transfer trials to date in which the biotechnology can be shown to be safe. The general problem is that there is no way in which to guarantee that the insertion vector will put the needed gene in the right location in the genome. (See Science, News of the Week, Oct. 4, 2002).

Cloning of Humans and Animals

Cloning can occur naturally as in the case of twins or by somatic cell nuclear transfer, when a nucleus from a somatic (non-germ) cell is removed and transferred to an unfertilized egg which has its nucleus removed. The latter process has been the one used to produce cloned animals with great difficulty and variable results in terms of animal health and survival. Human embryos, usually after in vitro fertilization could be the sources of clone-like humans (as occurs frequently during in vitro fertilization if multiple embryos are implanted) are also sought as sources of stem cells. These are cells that are undifferentiated (totipotent) and can give rise after differentiation to any cell type. For a few cell divisions after fertilization, the cells of human embryos remain totipotent (the basis of identical twins and quadruplets). Later cell differentiate and are no longer totipotent. However, a few cells on many organs are multipotent and some may be totipotent. These are adult stem cells and some organs have them throughout life; e.g., bone marrow, intestinal epithelium and skin.

A goal of genetic engineers is to take stem cells from a human and make them develop into various cells types as desired. For example, to replace a failed or lost organ (like the pancreas or heart). Moreover, when failure involves a genetic mutation, they aim to replace the mutant gene in the abnormal cell and replace the diseased organ with a normal one. This is what was attempted in SCID infants as described above. This is called therapeutic cloning and is in contrast to cloning for eugenic or cosmetic purposes.

Cloning for eugenic or cosmetic purposes (“designer cloning”) is almost universally condemned and illegal in many countries. There is widespread, but not complete, acceptance that “therapeutic cloning” may be allowable. (Remember the problem of random insertion of genes by the vectors used to insert normal genes into a diseased genome; i.e., is it safe?) One other major question is whether human embryos should be produced simply for the purpose of producing totipotent stem cells or whether adult multipotent, perhaps totipotent, stem cells should or can be used. Human reproductive cloning is “the creation of a human fetus that is substantially genetically identical to a previously born human being.” It would be achieved presumably by somatic cell transfer. It is opposed by nearly all legislative bodies.

These are a complex issues and I refer you to the ISIS Feature Article, “Why clone humans?” and to the website for the Center for Genetics and Society. I hope that Phyllis Creighton will comment on these issues.

Genetic Determinism

Much of the hype about cloning is based on the philosophical and pseudoscientific concept that everything about humans and animals from appearance to intellect to behaviour is determined directly by genes. No real scientific basis for this exists. While it is clear that genes play an important role in determining the characteristics of humans and animals, there is also abundant evidence that events during development in utero, environmental and intellectual events during growth and maturation also play major roles. Moreover, genes in the mitochondria, inherited only from the mother, will affect the outcome of “somatic nuclear transfer” as a means to create a clone. It will be obvious to those concerned about a just society that arguments for genetic determinism play into the hands of those who do not wish to pay attention to social welfare.

Conclusion

I hope that this long and wordy (and incomplete) report makes clear that events in the area of this working group are unfolding rapidly and I strongly feel the need to expand its work. This is beyond my capacity and I hope that the Board of Science for Peace can take some action to achieve this goal.