Archive for the ‘biotechnology’ Category

20 years on, and here we are with Ebola, again

25 August, 2014

Browsing through my own web pages in an effort to clean up dead-end links, and cull tired material, I discovered that my link to an essay I wrote 19 years ago was still live – and as it referred to something written in and put up on our nascent Web server in 1994, means it has a 20-year anniversary round about now.

My essay is

The Student, the Web and the Ebola Connection

or:

Dr Jacobson, are you going to Kikwit?”

…and it is a record of events that resulted in 1994 from (a) an Honours student essay being written on “Emerging Viruses”, and (b) me playing around with the then-very-new WWW server that UCT has enabled – but didn’t tell anyone about, because they didn’t want anyone to use it until they had sorted out policies.  Oh, and (c) – the Kikwit Ebola outbreak in 1995.

I wrote in 1995:

“The whole phenomenon has been an object exercise in the power of the Web as a tool for the wide dissemination of information: we reached not only professional virologists, but also health-care professionals, and – most importantly – the lay public on a large scale”

And of course, this is even more true now – which is why, following the benign guidance of The Guru Cann, I maintain ViroBlogy and Virology News, and heartily recommend a Web presence to anyone who feels they need to disseminate information on topics of specialist and generalist interest to the world at large.

Of course, nearly all the links out of that essay are now dead – including to the original essay, that for a while there in 1995 was the ONLY detailed information on Ebola available on the Web.  So here is Alison Jacobson’s original essay, in full, revealed by going to my teaching material and checking out essays from 1997 and thereabouts:

EMERGING AND RE-EMERGING VIRUSES: AN ESSAY

Of course, I also maintained a daily update on the Kikwit outbreak, and then a couple of the next ones, before the Web caught up with me and it became easier to just trawl it for news via Google and its predecessors.  It still makes interesting reading, though, to go through some of what was posted from the disease frontlines back in the 1990s – and to remember that I had the TIME to do that kind of thing!

Where we are now

Well, here we are with what is the worst outbreak of Ebola in history, and here am I – again – trying to keep up with it.  This time, by the very excellent medium of the Web news aggregator Scoop.it, where I have established Virology News as a means of quickly and easily getting news out to the public.  Again, following the very excellent example of TGC, but also Chris Upton, who babied me along by letting me co-curate his Virology and Bioinformatics site.

Of course, there is a new angle to this outbreak – and that has been the compassionate use of a plant-made monoclonal antibody cocktail (ZMapp), hitherto only tested preclinically in a primate model.  Fortuitously, this all happened while I was finishing off a review on plant-made viral vaccines, so I reported on it – with references – here on ViroBlogy.

I was also able to report on it in my Plant Molecular Farming news site, with some authoritative statements from pioneers of the technology: Charles Arntzen from the Arizona Biodesign Institute sent through a link for an interview he did, and CNN covered it quite well too.  Charlie also sent through a set of links in an email that he was happy to share:

“The original story

There is a lot of interest from the press in “why tobacco” and “how does it work”?

The other focus is on the politics of scale up of the drug — it seems that criticism of the US is mounting in some sectors of Africa, and elsewhere.   I talked to a Spanish Language radio news station this morning, and the main questions related to “why is this a Secret Drug; are you trying to hide the secret from the world?”    “Is Reynolds tobacco trying to stop the supply of this drug to Africans?”    One guy asked if it was true that the Ebola Virus had been created in a test tube.

It seems that the press is largely to blame for using terms like Secret Drug.   It appears that they are also trying to mount political pressure to make a lot more of the drug to help Africans.   [This was] a nice job answering some of this….”

And at time of writing, the outbreak was still raging, had spread to Nigeria, and airlines were banning travel to half of West Africa – and alarmist tourist firms were advising people not to come to South and East Africa, as well.  The WHO has also said the impact is probably much greater than reported.

And Alison Jacobson is alive and well, and NOT working in virology any more.  Sadly!

Ill prepared for an influenza pandemic

18 August, 2014

Over the last 500 years, there have been, on average, three severe influenza pandemics in each century. The most recent pandemic was declared in 2009. Yet despite much investment in public health and many improvements in vaccine production techniques and know-how, the availability of influenza vaccines during this event was far from adequate. Six months into the pandemic, 534 million doses were available, and after one year that number had risen to 1.3 billion — enough for only 8%and 25%, respectively, of the world population. We were lucky that the pandemic declared in 2009 turned out later to be mild and that just one shot of vaccine was sufficient to protect most people. This is not usually the case during a severe influenza pandemic.

 

Source: www.nature.com

"As countries continue to pre-book pandemic supply, it is more and more likely that the limited vaccines available during the first months of any pandemic during the next few years will be sold out almost completely"

And what does everyone think happened in South Africa during most of 2009 and 2010?

Well, they probably don’t – because not that many of them got sick.  But THERE WAS NO VACCINE for the general population until LATE 2010 – when the chances of another round of H1N1pdm 2009 had dissipated due to summer coming on.

And the vaccine that HAD come into the the country in 2010 got used for medical personnel, and – for the 2010 World Cup staff.

Seriously, we need to do better than this – and responding QUICKLY to news of a pandemic would be the ticket.

Using plants B-)

See on Scoop.itVirology News

Plant-made antibodies used as therapy for Ebola in humans: post-exposure prophylaxis goes green!

5 August, 2014
Ebola virus budding from an infected cell.  Courtesy of Russell Kightley Media

Ebola virus budding from an infected cell.
Courtesy of Russell Kightley Media

Yes, I know you fans of ViroBlogy like Ebola – and just coincidentally, I was desperately trying to finish a review* on “Plant-based vaccines against viruses” against a backdrop of an out-of-control Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when three different people emailed me different links to news of use of a plant-made monoclonal antibody cocktail.  I immediately included it in my review – and I am publishing an excerpt here, for informations’ sake.  Enjoy!

Plantibodies against Ebola

The production of anti-Ebola virus antibodies has recently been explored in plants: this could yet become an important part of the arsenal to prevent disease in healthcare workers, given that at the time of writing an uncontrolled Ebola haemorrhagic fever outbreak was still raging in West Africa, and the use of experimental solutions was being suggested (Senthilingam, 2014). For example, use of a high-yielding geminivirus-based transient expression system in N benthamiana that is particularly suited to simultaneous expression of several proteins allowed expression of a MAb (6DB) known to protect animals from Ebola virus infection, at levels of 0.5 g/kg biomass (Chen et al., 2011). The same group also used the same vector system (described in detail here (Rybicki and Martin, 2014)) in lettuce to produce potentially therapeutic MAbs against both Ebola and West Nile viruses (Lai et al., 2012).

A more comprehensive investigation was reported recently, of both plant production of Mabs and post-exposure prophylaxis of Ebola virus infection in rhesus macaques (Olinger et al., 2012). Three Ebola-specific mouse-human chimaeric MAbs (h-13F6, c13C6, and c6D8; the latter two both neutralising) were produced in whole N benthamiana plants via agroinfilration of magnICON TMV-derived viral vectors. A mixture of the three MAbs – called MB-003 – given as a single dose of 16.7 mg/kg per Mab 1 hour post-infection followed by doses on days 4 and 8, protected 3 of 3 macaques from lethal challenge with 1 000 pfu of Ebola virus. The researchers subsequently showed significant protection with MB-003 treatment given 24 or 48 hours post-infection, with four of six monkeys testing surviving, compared to none in two controls. All surviving animals treated with MB-003 experienced insignificant if any viraemia, and negligible clinical symptoms compared to the control animals. A significant finding was that the plant-produced MAbs were three times as potent as the CHO cell-produced equivalents – a clear case of plant production leading to “biobetters”. A follow-up of this work investigated efficacy of treatment with MB-003 after confirmation of infection in rhesus macaques, “according to a diagnostic protocol for U.S. Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization” (Pettitt et al., 2013). In this experiment 43% of treated animals survived, whereas all controls tested here and previously with the same challenge protocol died from the infection.

In news from just prior to submission of this article, a report quoted as coming from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases states that two US healthcare workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia were treated with a cocktail of anti-Ebola Mabs called ZMapp – described as a successor to MB-003 – developed by Mapp Pharmaceutical of San Diego, and manufactured by Kentucky BioProcessing (Langreth et al., 2014). Despite being given up to nine days post-infection in one case, it appears to have been effective (Wilson and Dellorto, 2014).

A novel application of the same technology was also used to produce an Ebola immune complex (EIC) in N benthamiana, consisting of the Ebola envelope glycoprotein GP1 fused to the C-terminus of the heavy chain of the humanised 6D8 MAb, which binds a linear epitope on GP1. Geminivirus vector-mediated co-expression of the GP1-HC fusion and the 6D8 light chain produced assembled immunoglobulin, which was purified by protein G affinity chromatography. The resultant molecules bound the complement factor C1q, indicating immune complex formation. Subcutaneous immunisation of mice with purified EIC elicited high level anti-GP1 antibody production, comparable to use of GP1 VLPs (Phoolcharoen et al., 2011). This is the first published account of an Ebola virus candidate vaccine to be produced in plants.

References

Chen, Q., He, J., Phoolcharoen, W., Mason, H.S., 2011. Geminiviral vectors based on bean yellow dwarf virus for production of vaccine antigens and monoclonal antibodies in plants. Human vaccines 7, 331-338.

Lai, H., He, J., Engle, M., Diamond, M.S., Chen, Q., 2012. Robust production of virus-like particles and monoclonal antibodies with geminiviral replicon vectors in lettuce. Plant biotechnology journal 10, 95-104.

Langreth, R., Chen, C., Nash, J., Lauerman, J., 2014. Ebola Drug Made From Tobacco Plant Saves U.S. Aid Workers. Bloomberg.com.

Olinger, G.G., Jr., Pettitt, J., Kim, D., Working, C., Bohorov, O., Bratcher, B., Hiatt, E., Hume, S.D., Johnson, A.K., Morton, J., Pauly, M., Whaley, K.J., Lear, C.M., Biggins, J.E., Scully, C., Hensley, L., Zeitlin, L., 2012. Delayed treatment of Ebola virus infection with plant-derived monoclonal antibodies provides protection in rhesus macaques. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, 18030-18035.

Pettitt, J., Zeitlin, L., Kim do, H., Working, C., Johnson, J.C., Bohorov, O., Bratcher, B., Hiatt, E., Hume, S.D., Johnson, A.K., Morton, J., Pauly, M.H., Whaley, K.J., Ingram, M.F., Zovanyi, A., Heinrich, M., Piper, A., Zelko, J., Olinger, G.G., 2013. Therapeutic intervention of Ebola virus infection in rhesus macaques with the MB-003 monoclonal antibody cocktail. Science translational medicine 5, 199ra113.

Phoolcharoen, W., Bhoo, S.H., Lai, H., Ma, J., Arntzen, C.J., Chen, Q., Mason, H.S., 2011. Expression of an immunogenic Ebola immune complex in Nicotiana benthamiana. Plant biotechnology journal 9, 807-816.

Rybicki, E.P., Martin, D.P., 2014. Virus-Derived ssDNA Vectors for the Expression of Foreign Proteins in Plants. Current topics in microbiology and immunology 375, 19-45.

Senthilingam, M., 2014. Ebola outbreak: Is it time to test experimental vaccines? CNN.

Wilson, J., Dellorto, D., 2014. 9 questions about this new Ebola drug. CNN.

* = which, despite their having commissioned from me, the good folk at “Viruses” an unnamed journal decided “…may not have substantial differences with the reviews you published recently” – and rejected.  I shall have revenge.  Oh, yes…B-)

“Controversial scientist recreates H1N1 flu that killed 500K people” – NOT

2 July, 2014

Dr Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of virology at University of Wisconsin at Madison, has tweaked the 2009 strain of pandemic influenza to make it resistant the human immune system’s antibodies.

Source: www.dailymail.co.uk

Trust the Dimwitted Mail to misstate what happened – which is that Yoshihiro Kawaoka selected the H1N1pdm 2009 flu virus in culture till he came up with antibody-binding escape mutants.

What he said:

‘Through selection of immune escape viruses in the laboratory under appropriate containment conditions, we were able to identify the key regions [that] would enable 2009 H1N1 viruses to escape immunity,’

Now recall that the H1N1pdm 2009 virus is NOT a particularly nasty variant; that it has NOT been proved the escape mutants will infect vaccinated people at all – and that all the work was done "a state-of-the-art laboratory at the Institute for Influenza Virus Research in Madison", so the odds that it will get out are VERY low.

But papers have been sold, and the scare is in.

HPV type 16 E7 protein bodies cause tumour regression in mice

26 May, 2014

See on Scoop.itIIDMM News

Background

Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are the causative agents of cervical cancer in women, which results in over 250 000 deaths per year. Presently there are two prophylactic vaccines on the market, protecting against the two most common high-risk HPV types 16 and 18. These vaccines remain very expensive and are not generally affordable in developing countries where they are needed most. Additionally, there remains a need to treat women that are already infected with HPV, and who have high-grade lesions or cervical cancer.

Methods

In this paper, we characterize the immunogenicity of a therapeutic vaccine that targets the E7 protein of the most prevalent high-risk HPV – type 16 – the gene which has previously been shown to be effective in DNA vaccine trials in mice. The synthetic shuffled HPV-16 E7 (16E7SH) has lost its transforming properties but retains all naturally-occurring CTL epitopes. This was genetically fused to Zera(R), a self-assembly domain of the maize gamma-zein able to induce the accumulation of recombinant proteins into protein bodies (PBs), within the endoplasmic reticulum in a number of expression systems.

Results

High-level expression of the HPV 16E7SH protein fused to Zera(R) in plants was achieved, and the protein bodies could be easily and cost-effectively purified. Immune responses comparable to the 16E7SH DNA vaccine were demonstrated in the murine model, with the protein vaccine successfully inducing a specific humoral as well as cell mediated immune response, and mediating tumour regression.

Conclusions

The fusion of 16E7SH to the Zera(R) peptide was found to enhance the immune responses, presumably by means of a more efficient antigen presentation via the protein bodies. Interestingly, simply mixing the free PBs and 16E7SH also enhanced immune responses, indicating an adjuvant activity for the Zera(R) PBs.

 

I thank Russell Kightley Media for use of the HPV/cervical cancer graphic

Ed Rybicki‘s insight:

I keep saying – you gotta go green…B-) And here we are, suiting action to words.  

Modestly, of course.  

Well done to Mark Whitehead and Thomas Oelschlager; thanks to Inga for sticking with a difficult ms – and thanks Era Biotech for the technology!

See on www.biomedcentral.com

Recombinant Bluetongue virus vaccines – or some, anyway

1 May, 2014
VIRUS-rota-200

General model of reo-like viruses. Copyright Russell Kightley Media

I picked up yesterday – via @MicrobeTweets’ Twitter feed – on a very useful list of papers in a “Virtual Special Issue” of Elsevier’s recent coverage of vaccines – for “World Immunization Week”. Great stuff, I thought to myself, as I browsed the list – and downloaded at least those that were Open Access, or which I can get via our Libraries’ IP range.

“Even better!”, I thought, as I saw a review entitled “Recombinant vaccines against bluetongue virus?”  A meaty, well-sourced review, I thought; good reading for me and my students / coworkers, and good meat for upcoming Introductions for papers yet to be written.  Indeed, it promised the following:

“The multiple outbreaks of BTV in Mediterranean Europe in the last two decades and the incursion of BTV-8 in Northern Europe in 2008 has re-stimulated the interest to develop improved vaccination strategies against BTV. In particular, safer, cross-reactive, more efficacious vaccines with differential diagnostic capability have been pursued by multiple BTV research groups and vaccine manufacturers. A wide variety of recombinant BTV vaccine prototypes have been investigated, ranging from baculovirus-expressed sub-unit vaccines to the use of live viral vectors. This article gives a brief overview of all these modern approaches to develop vaccines against BTV including some recent unpublished data.”

So, I parked the conveniently Open Access-ible window away on the side of my desktop, to be got back to with every expectation of delight.

Until I read it, that is: well-sourced it may be; excellent in its coverage, it is NOT.  In fact, apart from a brief discursion on subunit vaccines – concentrating almost exclusively on baculovirus / insect cell-produced proteins – it is almost exclusively concerned with live viral vectors for bluetongue proteins, and of poxviruses in particular.  Now, this is all very well, if that is what they work on – but to dismiss one of the potentially most exciting developments in recent Bluetongue vaccinology like this:

“VLPs of BTV have been also produced in plants recently using the cowpea mosaic virus and their use in a vaccination study produced no clinical manifestations in sheep after homologous challenge, although viremia was no [sic] evaluated (Thuenemann et al., 2013).”

- boggles the mind somewhat.  Really?  That’s all they have, compared to the screed immediately before it on baculovirus-produced antigens?  They get the expression system wrong – it is an Agrobacterium tumefaciens-mediated transient expression system in Nicotiana benthamiana involving a Cowpea mosaic virus-derived enhanced translation vector – and neglect to mention that the VLPs produced are as good as anything produced in insect cells; will be FAR cheaper to produce, and WORKED AS WELL AS THE CONVENTIONAL ATTENUATED LIVE VIRUS VACCINE IN A CHALLENGE EXPERIMENT IN SHEEP.  True!

This is a big deal, folks, really: successful production of significant amounts of VLPs requiring simultaneous expression of 4 structural proteins of BTV-8 in plants AND their subsequent assembly, AND performing as well as the standard vaccine in an animal trial.  But no – not good enough for our review’s authors….

I must declare vested interests up front here: first, we work on plant-made recombinant Bluetongue vaccines; second, I and others in my group are co-authors of the paper whose lack of coverage I am aggrieved about.

But that’s not the point: what IS the point is that this review is a slipshod piece of work that damns our collective endeavour with faint praise, in community that might otherwise have been alerted to an alternative to the far-too-expensive-for-animal-use baculovirus expression technology.

Ah, well.  I suppose that’s what blogs are for B-)

Eat your vaccines

7 February, 2014

See on Scoop.itVirology and Bioinformatics from Virology.ca

Vaccines have been revolutionary in medicine, but why are they not used in some parts of the world and how can they be improved? …

Ouch! Wouldn’t it be great if instead of a jab with a needle, you could just eat a vaccine instead? Luckily, researchers at the University of California agree, and their attempts to use algae to produce an edible malaria vaccine is just one example of the many strides forward scientists are taking in vaccine research.

Ed Rybicki‘s insight:

I love these idealistic but naive statements about how plant-production-of-vaccines-will-let us-get-away-from-needles: very 1990s; a little out of touch with modern realities – unfortunately!

The facts are that any edible (read: oral) vaccine will have to be regulated as tightly as an injectable, in terms of dose and administration.

Really: giving too little OR too much; giving it too often or not often enough; giving a product that has not been QCed or checked for potency  after storage…is suicide, in the vaccine world.

Even if it IS safe enough to eat.

See on www.isciencemag.co.uk

Legends of Virology

31 January, 2014

I have been fortunate enough this week to be in Pretoria, at the first Animal and Human Vaccine Development in South Africa Conference (Twitter #AHVDSA): partly because it is a very timeous and necessary meeting to help to establish strategies for this purpose, and partly because there is a significant presence of some legendary figures of international and South African virology.

Marc van Regenmortel – who we count as local even if he lives in Strasbourg – helped Bob Millar and others at the University of Pretoria to organise this meeting. He also used the opportunity of having a bunch of old virological friends visiting him at the University of Stellenbosch’s STIAS to bolster the conference presentations.

So it was that we have Errling Norrby of Sweden with us; we have Fred Murphy of Ebola fame; Marian Horzinek of veterinary virology repute; Marc himself, our iconoclastic viral immunologist; Jose Esparza of the BMG and an eminent poxvirologist – and Jean-Marie Andrieu, an oncologist with an interest in tolerogenic HIV vaccines.

Local legends are present too: we have Daan Verwoerd, legendary orbivirologist and former Director of the venerable and distinguished Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute; Henk Huismans, who did the first molecular work on orbiviruses in the 1970s, and is still active; Bob Swanepoel, doyen of the African haemorrhagic fever viruses.

Good people.

Oh, and of course, me and Anna-Lise Williamson; Dion du Plessis of OVI; Lynn Morris of the NICD; Albie van Dijk of UNW; Glenda Gray of the MRC, among 150 delegates

A great meeting, all in all, and very timely, given the contents of the SA Governmental Bioeconomy Strategy document released recently.

20140131-120134.jpg

Legends alive: from left, Fred Murphy; Daan Verwoerd; Bob Millar; Henk Huismans; Errling Norrby; Marc van Regenmortel
20140131-120151.jpg

Jean-Marie Andrieu; Marc van Regenmortel – at a VERY good unofficial dinner

20140131-120211.jpg

Legends and friends at supper: Marc, Fred, Eric Etter (CIRAD); Jose Esparza; Marian Horzinek; Errling, Anna-Lise Williamson

Emergency response vaccines for H5N1 influenza in South Africa

1 November, 2013

Our group has been working for some time now – since 2006, in fact – on investigating the feasibility of providing South (and southern) Africa with emergency response pandemic influenza vaccines.  The research was initiated after the Virology Africa 2005 conference that Anna-Lise Williamson and I organised in the Cape Town Waterfront in November of that year – when a senior WHO official warned us in his talk that “…if a pandemic hits, you are on your own: no-one will give you any vaccine”.

A group of us sat down afterwards, and discussed the feasibility of looking at emergency response vaccine(s), given that we had no capability in the whole of Africa to make flu vaccines.  Anna-Lise and I put together a proposal, with the highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza A as a target, which was funded on a once-off one-year basis by the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation (PRF) here in SA for 2006 – and then again by the PRF as a three-year Major Impact Project  (MIP) from 2008-2010, and subsequently to a lower level by both the PRF and the Medical Research Council of SA.  What made it all the more impressive for a South African project was that we had proposed expressing a protein-based vaccine in plants – quite a revolutionary prospect at the time, but something that followed on from the highly successful production of Human papillomavirus virus-like particles by transient expression in Nicotiana benthamiana by  James Maclean, working as a postdoc in our lab at the time.

However, some of the most important work was done early: James was very quick to get the haemagglutinin (HA) gene for the A/Vietnam/1194/2004 strain of H5N1 synthesised by GeneArt in Germany, and cloned into the same Agrobacterium tumefaciens plant expression vectors from Professor Rainer Fischer’s lab in Aachen, Germany, that had been used for HPV.  His initial work showed that large amounts of HA protein could be produced, both as soluble protein which lacked a membrane localisation domain, and as the membrane-bound form.  This work formed the basis for a patent application on the transient expression of H5 HA that has now been granted.

Subsequently, when the PRF MIP started, we employed Dr Elizabeth (Liezl) Mortimer and Ms Sandiswa Mbewana to further the work: with collaborators from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg and State Veterinary Services in Stellenbosch, this investigated transient and transgenic expression of soluble and membrane-bound forms and their immunogenicity, as well as a DNA vaccine consisting of the HA genes cloned into Tomas Hanke’s pTH vector.

The protein expression work was published in 2012, as well as being featured here in ViroBlogy at the time.

Image

What we had managed to show was that we could get excellent production of the H5 HA in both soluble and bound forms, and that especially the membrane-associated form of the protein was highly immunogenic, and elicited antibodies in experimental animals that were appropriately neutralising, indicating its suitability as a vaccine candidate.

Now this all happened despite our running out of money AND Liezl leaving to have a baby…and then we managed to get another paper out of the work, this time on the DNA vaccine side of things.

Image

We pitched this at the South African Journal of Science as a vindication of the faith in us by exclusively South African funding agencies – and managed to get the cover of the issue in which it appears, thanks to the truly excellent artwork of Russell Kightley from Canberra, Australia.  Front AND back covers, as it happens…!

Image

Image

And this all made Sandiswa Mbewana, who is now a PhD student on another project, very happy:

Image

This all came in excellent time to mark the establishment in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town, of a new URC Research Unit: namely, the Biopharming Research Unit (BRU).

BRU

Watch this space…B-)

GMOs: poisons that will kill our children, or harmless foods?

29 October, 2013

I think I hung my colours out long ago in this “controversy”, but let us just be clear:

I DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THE GMOs CURRENTLY BEING FARMED WORLDWIDE POSE ANY THREAT TO HUMANS OR STOCK ANIMALS AT ALL.  NONE!  NOR DO MOST BIOLOGICAL SCIENTISTS WHO ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT GENETIC MANIPULATION OF PLANTS ENTAILS.

Is that clear enough?  No ambiguity there?  Good!  Because the people who have taken poor Fair Lady magazine to task recently, mainly on their Facebook page, for daring to publish an article saying the same thing, would have you believe otherwise.  By relentless recycling of discredited animal feeding studies, reiteration of untruths, canards and plain lies, and by personal attacks on anyone expressing an alternate view.

Title page of the article

Title page of the article

I don’t think that Fair Lady will complain if I reproduce the title page, because I think their article is a reasoned, well written and factual exploration of the topic – which is a LOT more than I can say for most of the comments about the article.  Which includes gems like this:

“Oh dear Fairlady Magazine has made a BIG mistake!!!! Writing an article like this could put them out of business. I will never buy a Fairlady Magazine again and neither will any of my family. Stick to fashion Fairlady. Let Farmers Weekly publish an articles on GMO’s!!!! GMO’s are killing people. It’s not an exaggeration. It is proven, published, peer-reviewed fact. How many people do you know with cancer? Can you count on one hand or two. Ask yourself why. Maybe you could ask well-Informed People who are Fully Aware of the Irreversible Damage unleashed by Toxic GMOs on Earth.”

Now the problems that I have with the kinds of attacks on GMOs that are exemplified by these responses, are the following: these are the assertions that

  1. EVERYTHING is Monsanto’s fault
  2. ALL GMOs are toxic / poisonous
  3. There is ample evidence of harm to both animals and humans

All three of these straw men are, of course, rich in taurine excreta.  In the first place, while Monsanto may well have started the ball rolling on a big scale, and owns patents and seed rights on much of the early and simple one-trait GMOs, they do NOT own everything, and are NOT responsible for many of the recent developments still coming down the developmental pipeline – which are considerably more sophisticated than the ubiquitous herbicide-resistant or Bt-producing maize or cotton.  These would include plants resistant to various viruses, bacteria and fungi, plants engineered for higher nutrient / vitamin content (eg: Golden Rice and golden bananas), and drought- and salt-tolerant plants.

As for toxicity, NO GMO can be released if there is convincing evidence of toxicity in animal feeding trials, which HAVE to be conducted for each new “event”, or novel GMO.  I have sat on panels in SA which have assessed applications by seed companies to grow / produce GM crops, and I can tell you that this is a major feature of any application.  Where non-expert people often get confused is the fact that certain crop plants have been engineered to make insect-specific toxins normally produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.  These are collectively known as “Bt toxins”, and the ones used as insecticides are specific for narrow ranges of related insects, and most often for lepidopterans – which include moths and butterflies.  Now the larvae of particularly certain species of moths are major agricultural pests, and include agents such as maize stalk borer and the cotton bollworm – and from Wikipedia:

“Spores and crystalline insecticidal proteins produced by B. thuringiensis have been used to control insect pests since the 1920s and are often applied as liquid sprays”.

That’s right: crystalline protein masses extracted from live bacteria and live spores of bacteria used to be sprayed around as pest-control agents.  Everywhere!  Moreover, from Wikipedia again,

“Because of their specificity, these pesticides are regarded as environmentally friendly, with little or no effect on humanswildlifepollinators, and most other beneficial insects and are used in Organic farming“.

Yes, really: actual Bt toxin, and actual spores that can develop into live bacteria, can be used in organic farming.  Now why would anyone have a problem with a technology that LIMITS exposure of the environment to a bacterial toxin, and most especially, to live bacteria, by containing the protein within the plant tissues?  Moreover, the amount of Bt in the edible seeds of maize is minimal, and people don’t eat cotton – so we are left with possible effects on wildlife, and cattle which eat the green parts of the plants.  And no-one has ever  shown any deleterious effects of Bt in GM plants on non-target organisms.  Oh, there was the Pusztai report, which claimed to have shown that snowdrop lectin-containing transgenic potatoes were toxic to mice – but this elicited the following comment:

“The [British] government’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes(ACNFP) has dismissed Dr Pusztai’s findings as inconclusive and irrelevant due to serious doubts concerning the design of the study. The particular type of potatoes on which Dr Pusztai conducted his experiments would never have been approved for food use. Indeed, the ACNFP stated that had an application been submitted on the basis of the data collated from this flawed study, it would have undoubtedly been rejected”

A nice exploration of the pervasive effects of bad publicity following publication of bad science was published recently: this was “When bad science makes good headlines: Bt maize and regulatory bans“, in Nature Biotechnology.  These authors state that

“Numerous laboratory toxicity studies and field experiments, as well as years of field observations in countries where Bt maize is cultivated, have provided evidence that the Cry1Ab protein expressed in Bt maize does not cause adverse effects on arthropods outside the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), the group that contains the target pests. Supporting data have been analyzed in reviews and meta-analyses”

Another point of contention is herbicide-resistant plants, which again, have not convincingly been shown to be toxic.  I say convincingly, because anti-GMO activist will immediately quote “the Seralini study” which purportedly showed deleterious effects on lab rats fed transgenic maize producing a protein which detoxifies the herbicide glyphosate as well as the herbicide itself – to which I reply by inviting you to read this rather damning report by the European Food Safety Authority, which opens with the following statement:

“Serious defects in the design and methodology of a paper by Séralini et al. mean it does not meet acceptable scientific standards and there is no need to re-examine previous safety evaluations of genetically modified maize NK603″

Now I will remind everyone that this is an agency which is NOT in Monsanto’s pocket – or anyone else’s – and which upholds high standards in safeguarding the general public.  As do the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food & Drug Administration of the USA, which also have no problems with GMOs (FDA statement; USDA information).  Here is a another comprehensive refutation of the “evidence of toxicity” of glyphosate-resistant soybeans, an unpublished study that is widely quoted by anti-GM lobby.

As for “ample evidence of harm” – I can only refer you to what we biotechnologists would regard as an authoritative source, which is the journal Nature Biotechnology.  In a recent article on GMOs entitled “How safe does transgenic food need to be?” by Laura DeFrancesco, the author asks the question:

“Why, after transgenic products have been in the human food chain for more than a decade without overt ill effects, do these doubts persist? And will it ever be possible to gather sufficient evidence to ameliorate the concerns of skeptics and the public at large that these products are as safe as any other foodstuff?”

Further on, she says:

“Critics and proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) alike agree that genetically modified foods have failed to produce any untoward health effects, and that the risk to human health from foods contaminated with pathogens is far greater than from GMOs” [my emphasis]

I don’t think I need to belabour the point further: I am hopelessly compromised, in the eyes of some of the more rabid activists, by being a biotechnologist at all, and especially – Gasp!! – BECAUSE MY LAB MAKES GMOs!!!  However, if that makes me more amenable to believe actual evidence-based findings, rather than unsubstantiated media hype, then so be it.


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