Delaying technology can be deadly Activist opposition to bio-pharmaceuticals perpetuates disease risks
Countless people can thank previous generations of researchers and test groups for vaccines, antibiotics and medical treatments that have saved many of us and our children from polio, infections and once-fatal diseases. Today’s researchers are developing new generations of miracle drugs to prevent or cure acute diarrhea, cancer, heart and liver disease, and a host of other maladies – often by employing biotechnology to produce new drugs in plants.
In sub-Saharan Africa and poor areas of Asia and Latin America, diarrhea isn’t just a source of mild discomfort and juvenile bathroom humor. Because of unsanitary conditions, contaminated water and food infected by bacteria in feces used for fertilizer, people in those regions endure 4 billion episodes of severe diarrhea a year. Up to 2 million die annually.
Among children in the United States, acute diarrhea accounts for more than1.5 million outpatient visits, 200,000 hospitalizations, and 300 deaths a year. It imposes a multi-billion dollar burden on the US healthcare system.
But miracles of modern medical and agricultural science offer hope.
For years, glucose-based rehydration solutions (similar to Pedialyte) were used to treat diarrhea. They saved countless lives, by replacing lost salts, sugars and bodily fluids. However, even with the successful health outcomes, these solutions did not reduce the incidence or severity of childhood diarrhea.
Now Ventria Bioscience has developed an advanced solution that augments standard rehydration solutions, by adding protective human proteins (lactoferrin and lysozyme) found in all human saliva and breast milk.
A recent child health study demonstrated that the proteins cut the average duration of children’s diarrhea by 30 percent (1.5 days), and patients were half as likely to get diarrhea again during the next twelve months. Equally important, Ventria produces the proteins in a special variety of rice, which makes its rehydration solution affordable, even for people in poor countries.
Ventria achieved its remarkable breakthrough by altering rice DNA and using rice plants as factories that utilize the sun, soil and water as raw materials to produce the proteins. The company extracts the proteins and adds them to rehydration solutions. Its success could convert one of the world’s most essential foods into a valuable life saver.
In another achievement, SemBioSys Genetics created genetically engineered safflowers that produce insulin at commercial levels: an acre of safflower can produce a kilogram of insulin, enough for 2,500 patients. Fewer than 16,000 acres – about 0.2% of what Iowa farmers devote to corn (maize) – would cover projected 2010 world demand for insulin. With diabetes on the rise in India and elsewhere, this advance could be vital.
Syngenta is working on plant-based antibodies that fight infections and skin disease. Other scientists are enhancing plants to produce vaccines, hormones and enzymes that can treat HIV, cancer, heart and kidney disease, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, hepatitis, anthrax, West Nile virus and arthritis.
It costs around $1,000 to produce 1 gram (0.035 ounce) of protein from animal cells, making many such vaccines prohibitively costly for even the wealthiest countries, and completely out of reach for destitute countries. Producing the same amount from gene-altered plants would cost less than $20 – and that means pharmaceutical companies will be able to put a higher priority on finding cures for rare and “orphan” diseases across the globe.
But amazingly, instead of applauding these life-saving innovations, critics are attacking them. Luddite radicals like the Center for Food Safety, Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace assert that this “Frankenstein” technology tampers with nature and could “contaminate” other crops. These groups are well funded by organic food interests and others who profit by attempting to scare the public. The European Union and organic food industries demand stringent, costly, unnecessary regulations that impose unconscionable delays and result in death for some of the world’s most needy children.
Breeders have been improving plants for millennia, using a variety of genetic technologies. Plant biotechnology is simply a refinement of the earlier, cruder techniques. Today’s researchers employ genetic technologies that are far more careful and precise – and management practices that maintain closed production systems and virtually eliminate any risks of accidental cross-pollination and gene migration.
But none of these facts are persuasive to “anti-humanists who put unfounded fear-mongering ahead of the world’s children,” says Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. Healthy, well-fed, safe from diseases that kill millions in other countries, with access to abundant clean water and electricity – they obsess about purely speculative risks from technologies that could improve and save countless lives.
In so doing, they prolong disease risks for countless human beings. They throw roadblocks in the path of scientific and technological progress that so far has eluded the world’s poor, even as it improved our own health, nutrition, living standards and life spans.
My personal experience with polio (luckily after receiving two Salk inoculations) made me eternally grateful that these “ethicists” weren’t around 50 years ago to stymie research and field trials of that vaccine. My generation can also count its blessings for treatments, antibiotics and other vaccines that have saved many of us and our children.
It is now the responsibility of our generation to protect children, the poor and future generations from mean-spirited Luddite groups that are paid to undermine our technological progress and humanity. It is time for legislators, regulators, judges and people of conscience to say “enough.”
The world needs these miraculous technologies – today. And those who support radical anti-biotech organizations need to understand that, by blocking healthcare innovations, they are perpetuating misery, disease and premature death in countries the world over. That is simply immoral.