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Framework VI & Bioengineering

by ISIS Friday, Jun. 29, 2001 at 2:39 PM

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho was invited to give evidence to the Public Hearing on Framework 6, 26 June, 2001. Framework 6 is EU's funding programme for scientific research, which is being carved up by industry to support failed and failing corporate science and technologies, and locking us into more of the same. Please alert your MEPs. Below is the complete text of her talk.

ISIS Report - 28 June 2001

Public subsidy of failed corporate science

Is Framework VI socially accountable?

This important question is not even asked. But if it were, the short answer must be no. It is best at subsidising failed and failing corporate science and technologies not in the public interest, and include some of the most hazardous, such as nuclear and GM technologies. Our tax money is being used to commit us to even more of the same.

The public has had little say in deciding the structure of Framework VI.

Framework VI makes no provision for promoting critical public understanding of science, which would enable the public to participate in deciding on research areas that should, or should not be supported. The new 'instruments ', such as 'network of excellence' linking top research institutes and 'integrated projects' involving public/private partnerships, are designed to benefit big corporate science, giving them licence to do as they please and freezing out dissenting minorities doing innovative research for non-commercial as well as commercial ends. All this, at a time when we are in dire need of independent science and scientists simply to protect us from all the failures, and to anticipate and repair the damages that have been done. I have submitted a more detailed critique of Framework VI in general [1], and the area 'genomics and biotechnology for health' in particular [2], and I ask this Parliament to please take account of them as part of my evidence, as I can only touch on them very briefly here.

'Genomics and biotechnology for health' reduces practically every human disease to genes, when everyone knows that the overwhelming causes of ill health are social and environmental. Poverty is a big killer, especially with infectious diseases, so too is environmental pollution from the hundreds, if not thousands of industrial chemicals that damage every organ system of our body including our genes. Yet, neither environmental medicine nor the etiology of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance is being addressed in Framework VI.

Genomics is the culmination of reductionist biology, more specifically, reductionist medicine, which has already gone way beyond its usefulness and becoming a liability. Drug and antibiotic resistant infectious diseases have come back with a vengeance over the past 25 years. At the same time, there is a rising epidemic of iatrogenic diseases caused by approved drugs and treatments. Doctors are now the third cause of death in the United States, and the situation is similar in other industrialised countries dominated by the same reductionist model.

The world desperately needs a holistic model of health to support safe, effective and affordable healthcare. The problem of antibiotic resistance, for example, could be solved by restoring ecological balance that turns pathogens non-virulent, and also by the many herbal medicines used in traditional healthcare systems that are now found to have anti-microbial activities [3].

Genomics is squandering scarce resources that should go to support research that really addresses existing health problems and improves healthcare. It also acts against those most in need of care and treatment in our society by fuelling the rise of genetic discrimination and eugenics.

The area 'Food safety and health risks' I am asked to comment on, appears to be addressing public concerns. Its aims to improve traceability of chemical, microbiological and GM contaminants of food as well as research their human health impacts. But most of these are routine tests that should be required for regulatory approval, and no real science is involved. So long as the regulatory approval system is not improved, the threats to health and biodiversity remain. Creating a scientific research programme is to use that as an excuse for business as usual and wasting taxpayers money. It also allows proponents of GM to continue to ignore all the evidence of hazards that already exists, which I shall come to in a moment.

Also included in 'Food safety and health risks' is the production of 'healthy' foods through biotechnology as well as organic farming. GM has already been strongly rejected by civil society, and widely acknowledged to have failed, even by the corporations. One by one they have announced they are giving up GM crops and concentrating on genomics and marker-assisted selective breeding. Unfortunately, researchers in our public institutions are persisting in developing not only GM crops, but GM fish, GM insects and GM bioreactors and meat. On no account should we subsidise this failed, unwanted and hazardous technology. The scientists involved are going against the wishes of the people, and wilfully ignoring and dismissing evidence of hazards. I have written a whole book on the evidence [4] and since its publication in 1998, 1999, a lot more have come to light. Let me briefly review some of the latest evidence.

Genetic engineering superviruses and superbugs

Researchers in Canberra Australia made headlines this January when they accidentally created a deadly virus while trying to genetic engineer a contraceptive vaccine for mice [5]. It killed all the mice belonging to a strain genetically resistant to mouse-pox virus, and also 50% of the genetically resistant mice that had been immunized against mouse-pox virus. This incident raised the spectre of biological warfare. But the far greater danger lies in the unintentional creation of deadly pathogens in the course of apparently innocent genetic engineering experiments. Some scientists are creating viruses deliberately in their laboratories, just to show it could be done, or in the course of cloning existing viruses [6]. And dangerous recombinant viruses and bacteria may also be inadvertently created in making vaccines against AIDS, as Yugoslav virologist Veljkovic has been warning since 1990 [7].

The New Scientist editorial [8] accompanying their report remarked that five years ago, when biomedical researchers were asked if genetic engineering could create "a virus or bacteria more virulent than nature's worst", they replied it would be "difficult if not impossible".

Some of us have been warning of 'accidents' like this for at least the past six years. It does not take a great feat of imagination to see why genetic engineering will accelerate the generation of new viruses and bacteria. The basic tools of genetic engineering are bacteria, viruses and other genetic parasites that cause diseases and spread drug and antibiotic resistance. Genes from these dangerous agents, including antibiotic resistance genes, are profusely mixed and matched, or recombined. As every geneticist should know, recombination of genetic material is one of the main routes to creating new strains of bacteria and viruses, some of which may be pathogens. The more you recombine, the more chances you get. It is like buying more and more lottery tickets.

The main focus of genetic engineering so far has been to design artificial constructs and vectors that cross species barriers and invade genomes, both of which will enhance horizontal gene transfer.

Horizontal gene transfer increases the opportunity for genetic recombination, especially because the GM constructs are already of mixed origins, with base sequences similar to the genetic material of many pathogenic bacteria and viruses. That, again, as every geneticist should know, will greatly increase the probability for genetic recombination, and with a wide assortment of bacteria and viruses.

GM constructs are more likely to recombine because they are well known to be structurally unstable, as are the GM lines obtained. Structural instability compromises agronomic performance, and raises serious safety concerns, especially with regard to horizontal gene transfer and recombination. Some GM constructs are extra unstable, and existing evidence points to those with the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter, which is in practically all GM crops already commercially grown or undergoing field trials. These GM constructs are extra unstable because the CaMV 35S promoter has a 'recombination hotspot' ie, a weak spot that it is prone to break and recombine with other genetic material, and it does not require similarity in base sequence.

The CaMV 35S promoter is also known to function all across the living world: in plants, bacteria, fungi, and, as we discovered in the literature more than 10 years old, also in frog eggs and human cells. It is able to substitute, in part or in whole, for the promoter of many other viruses. Viruses are not only everywhere in the environment, they also lie dormant in the genomes of all organisms, bacteria, plants and animals without exception. And there is evidence that dormant viruses can be reactivated as a result of genetic recombination. One of the major problems with so-called gene therapy is that viral vectors often give rise to replicating viruses in cell lines used to package the vectors for efficient delivery into patients [9].

When we pointed out the dangers of the CaMV 35S promoter in the scientific journals [10-13], we were reviled and attacked. Our fiercest critic was leader of a research group in the John Innes Center. Two years later, the same group admits the need to avoid recombination hotspots such as that in the CaMV 35S promoter as well as the 'origin of replication' in the plasmid serving as vector for the GM construct, which is also often integrated 'accidentally' into GM crops [14].

I have repeatedly challenged the biotech companies and other scientists to produce molecular data documenting the genetic stability of transgenic lines, and no one has come up with any. Now, scientists in the Belgian government have analysed Monsanto's GM Roundup Ready soya [15]. They found the foreign genes scrambled up, the plant genome at the site of insertion also scrambled up, and a large fragment of unknown origin has got in as well. All very different from the original data submitted by Monsanto. The researchers suggested, without evidence, that the scrambling took place when the contruct was inserted, which would mean that Monsanto had submitted erroneous if not false data. It is clear, however, that rearrangements could also have occurred in successive generations, as has been found in many other investigations [16].

And it is no better with GM animals and fish. GM insects are the worst. Dangerous transposon-vectors are being used that have every possibility of jumping into a wide variety of genomes including our own. The US Department of Agriculture is considering the release of GM pink bollworms made with a mobile genetic element, piggyBac, already known to jump many species. The element was first discovered in cell cultures of the cabbage looper, where it caused high mutation rates of the baculovirus infecting the cells, by jumping into the viral genome. In experiments in silkworms, researchers already found evidence that the GM inserts were unstable, and had a tendency to move again from one generation to the next [17]. Baculovirus is being developed as a gene therapy vector for human beings because it is so good at getting into animal cells.

I have presented only a small fraction of the scientific findings indicating problems and dangers specific to genetic engineering, which both the practitioners and regulators are ignoring or dismissing. You can find many more on our Institute of Science in Society website ( Framework VI is being used as an excuse to delay a ban on a technology that is uncontrollable, unpredictable and dangerous, and to block the paradigm change that we need to get out of the reductionist mess in both agriculture and health.

The organic revolution is long overdue Europe is fed up with the intensive corporate agriculture that has brought BSE and the food and mouth epidemic, among other things, and is going organic in earnest. The average annual growth rate in organic agriculture in Europe from 1989 to 1999 was 25%, which, extrapolated forward, would lead to 10% of Western European agriculture being organic by 2005, and 30% by 2010 [18]. The same is happening in the rest of the world. As scientists, we must take all evidence seriously.

Organic and sustainable agricultural practices and technologies are succeeding, despite the appalling lack of research funding compared to the hundreds millions that have gone into biotech. At least 3% of the arable land, some 28.9m hectares in Africa, Asia and Latin America are already farmed sustainably, with impressive gains in crop yield as well as social, economic and health benefits [19]. Organic farming is also working well in the United States and Europe, with yields matching and even surpassing agrochemical agriculture. Organic farms are good for wild-life [20]. We need organic, sustainable farming for the world to feed itself and for the planet to regenerate and thrive.

Sustainable agriculture is also important for alleviating, if not reversing global warming. A new report shows that sustainable agriculture can contribute significantly, not only to reducing consumption of fossil fuel, but increasing sequestration of carbon in the soil [21].

The challenge for scientists in the west is to develop a holistic science to help revitalise all kinds of non-corporate sustainable agriculture and holistic medicine that can truly bring food security and health to the world. Framework VI has to respond to that challenge.

For detailed references see ISIS website.

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